The proliferation of weapons and ammunition used in armed conflict presents significant and specific risks for women, and studies show that these risks continue even when the conflict is over. In Iraq, an increase in gender-based violence involving weapons was linked to the years of arms transfers from other nations; failure to manage the flow or use of arms; and inadequate control over military stockpiles. In the Western Balkans, a 2007 study found linkages between the availability of small arms and light weapons—a legacy of the war in the former Yugoslavia—and the prevalence of domestic violence, where women were the primary victims. In 2020, a report by Médecins Sans Frontières showed that 60 percent of sexual violence survivors treated by the organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were aggressed by weapons bearers.
The diversion of weapons has also been linked to the abrogation of women’s rights. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s swift overthrow of the government just last year was largely due to the huge amounts of weapons, ammunition, and military technology that they were able to seize. These weapons helped the Taliban assert their authority to the great detriment of women’s rights. The use or even the threat of use of these weapons have at times of conflict and peace restricted women’s freedom of movement, their free speech, and access to education or economic opportunities, which has had a lasting impact on gender equality.
It is still early days in the war in Ukraine, but the increased flows of all kinds of conventional weapons and ammunition in the country will have different impacts on different segments of Ukrainian society.
Arms control and the WPS agenda
Weapons and ammunition proliferation clearly presents a major obstacle in the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, yet there has been little focus on arms control and disarmament in the WPS agenda, both in multilateral discussions and at the implementation level. This is a missed opportunity, as measures such as Weapons and Ammunition Management (WAM) can be an important tool that can contribute to the implementation of the agenda by preventing diversion, including the loss of weapons allocated to military forces, which can go on to fuel conflict-related sexual violence and gender-based violence.
WAM can be described as the oversight, accountability, and governance of arms and ammunition throughout their life cycle, from the point of manufacture to disposal including destruction. It refers to frameworks governing the acquisition, stockpiling, transfer controls including end user controls, tracing, and disposal of arms and ammunition. WAM is also an important measure to support security transitions. It is increasingly recognized as a key pillar in supporting peace and reducing violence. Going beyond that, WAM and other arms control and disarmament measures should also be considered a tool in preventing sexual violence and gender-based violence in times of conflict and peace. This is why greater efforts should be made to integrate WAM and other arms control measures in operationalizing the WPS agenda.
The connections and overlaps of the WPS Agenda with WAM and arms control can be made more explicit in related policies and programs. Weapons governance issues, for example, could be more frequently addressed in WPS discussions. WPS National Action Plans could include more language and indictors related to arms control and disarmament, and national strategies on small arms and light weapons could apply gender-disaggregated data collection.
Conversely, WAM and arms control measures more broadly could benefit from further integration of a gender perspective when assessing existing legal and policy frameworks. This could include, for example, assessing civilian firearm-licensing legislation or regulations on how firearms and their ammunition are secured and stored. It could also review processes around weapons transfers to private security companies as well as regulations and procedures in place to determine when and if members of the security forces are allowed to take service weapons home.
It goes without saying that even when weapons and ammunition are adequately managed, they can still be used to commit gender-based violence. However, by preventing diversion and ensuring that legislation around ownership and use integrates gender perspectives, WAM could play a role in the implementation of the WPS Agenda’s prevention and protection pillars in both conflict and non-conflict situations.
Women’s Participation in Arms Control and Disarmament
Improving women’s participation in the field of peace and security is one of the main goals of the WPS agenda, and that is certainly relevant for arms control and disarmament as well. Though participation in disarmament and arms-control decision-making forums has increased in recent years, this is still an area where women’s participation significantly lags behind when compared to other areas of diplomacy.
Our report Women Managing Weapons on women’s participation in WAM technical roles—such as ammunition technical officers (ATOs), storekeepers and stockpile managers, and explosive ordinance disposal specialists (EODs)—found that women are grossly underrepresented in these roles. Given the lack of gender-disaggregated data in this area, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) collected data on WAM training from seven institutes. This data showed that for technical training women represented less than 12 percent of participants. In some ways, this comes as no surprise, as WAM has evolved in a largely military environment, where men have long dominated the institutions responsible for weapons and ammunition management.
UNIDIR’s study identifies several challenges and opportunities for women to become technical arms-control specialists. In addition to being a male-dominated and militarized field, the report highlights several obstacles for women’s participation in WAM technical roles, such as gender-biased policies in security sector institutions, discrimination based on deeply rooted gender stereotypes about women’s roles in society, and lack of proper infrastructure or support for women when working in field locations.
However, the report also identifies important ways to address these challenges. Many of these relate to better implementation of the WPS participation pillar, particularly recommendations on how to increase women’s participation in security sector institutions, for example, abolishing discriminatory practices, as well as establishing and supporting professional associations of women working in national institutions involved in WAM. That these roles are increasingly performed by civilians who receive technical training from outside security sector institutions also constitutes a key opportunity for women’s participation in this field.
Improving women’s participation and aiming for gender-balanced participation in WAM should be a goal in itself. Women’s participation should not have to be justified with arguments favoring their inclusion, as this tends to reproduce the idea of women in WAM as a deviation from the “norm.” However, UNIDIR’s study indicates that more diverse representation and increased women’s participation in WAM could benefit the field by ensuring the presence of a more diverse range of perspectives. Increasing women’s participation in this important sub-field of security also supports the empowerment of women by creating new employment opportunities and by challenging stereotypes.
With so much progress on women’s rights already being undone globally, members of the international community urgently need to demonstrate that they are serious about women’s equal participation in peace and security, their protection, and the prevention of armed conflict by implementing the WPS agenda. Multilateral organizations, international assistance actors, and donor countries would do well to realize that arms control plays a crucial role in this process, as they can prevent the proliferation of illicit weapons and contribute to an effective means to protect women, safeguard their rights, and prevent armed conflict altogether.
Hana Salama is a researcher in the Gender and Disarmament program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Emma Bjertén Günther is a consultant on Gender and Disarmament. Previously, she worked as a non-resident researcher at UNIDIR.