Militarizing Gender or Humanizing Small Arms Control?

Women rebel soldiers practice a drill in Kamlajhora village in Jhapa district, Nepal, Tuesday, November 28, 2006, the same day that Nepal's government and communist rebels signed a UN-sponsored agreement spelling out the disarmament and disbanding of insurgents as part of a wide-reaching peace pact. (AP Photo/Tamal Roy)

As the international community prepares to mark nearly a quarter century since the passing of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, many of the civil society organizations who advocated its establishment have expressed dismay at how it has been implemented. Having conceived the WPS agenda primarily as a conflict prevention tool, advocates take issue with several initiatives under the WPS umbrella that involve measures such as growing the numbers of female security personnel, increasing military spending, or justifying the use of force in the name of defending women’s rights.

While these critiques rightly call attention to the militarization of the agenda, civil society organizations and some states have also leveraged the WPS agenda (as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, among others) to reshape how insecurity is conceptualized in domains such as small arms and light weapons. Addressing gendered dimensions of insecurity has prompted a broadening of the focus from state security threats, which entail a military response, toward the inclusion of human security threats, which require holistic responses that do not only involve national security institutions. This illustrates a shift from previously technically-focused discussions dominated by security and military actors to include human security concerns such as gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Similarly, international and national small arms control efforts have historically focused on preventing the illicit supply of firearms. While the stated goal is a reduction in firearms-related violence, in practice most efforts have sought to achieve this by mitigating threats to the state and its monopoly of force. A gendered approach, however, would explore the human security implications of small arms proliferation—both illicit and legal. Rigid gender norms result in men making up the vast majority of both victims and perpetrators of armed violence. Women disproportionately take on caregiving roles to those injured by firearms, or to the surviving family members of those who are killed. The threat of firearms can also be used to facilitate domestic violence, curtail human rights such as the freedom of expression and undermine the rule of law. Gender-responsive small arms control would thus place more emphasis on reducing the demand for illicit firearms, and the risk of misuse or armed violence, by addressing the root causes of interstate, intercommunal, and interpersonal conflict.

For a number of WPS actors, therefore, engaging with arms control processes is a compromise: they can seek to reduce the human suffering of small arms and light weapons by engaging in mechanisms that do not address what they see as a root cause of conflict and armed violence, namely the manufacture of weapons for profit. However, engaging with, and thus shaping, the discourse of arms control mechanisms has allowed WPS actors to advance their aims.

The year 2022 has seen repeated calls for greater collaboration between WPS actors[1] and those working on small arms control. There is a clear logic for this: according to the Small Arms Survey’s Global Violence Deaths Database, 24 percent of female victims of lethal violence in 2020 were killed by a firearm—20,817 women in one year alone. In May 2022, a joint communiqué from a meeting held by the WPS Focal Point Network attended by 65 countries and 7 multilateral organizations called for the need to address “the gendered impacts of trafficking in, and illicit use of, small arms and light weapons (SALW) at the local level.” It also encouraged member states to foster collaboration between experts on WPS and on small arms and light weapons, especially in national action plans (NAPs) in both thematic areas, and to strengthen firearms-related legislation in order to prevent gender-based violence.

Similarly, in July 2022, the outcome document adopted unanimously at the Eighth Biennial Meeting of States of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms committed UN member states to “promote and strengthen, where applicable, coordination between national focal points responsible for the implementation of the Programme of Action and… for implementing the Women, Peace and Security agenda.” It also has a dedicated section on gender-related considerations and for activities that contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16. This is notable progress from the original document, which only contained a passing reference that asked to consider how the illicit trade of weapons has a “negative impact on women and the elderly.”

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty contained references to gender under article 7(4), which mandates arms exporting states parties to assess the risk of arms “being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children” when considering whether to authorize their export. References to the ATT have subsequently been made in UN Security Council Resolutions (SCRs) on WPS starting with UNSCR 2122 in 2013.

While all three policy agendas seek to reduce human suffering, the views of a number of WPS actors and those of Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and UN Programme of Action (POA) stakeholders differ when it comes to the relationship between arms and security. These international arms control mechanisms contain provisions that recognize the sovereign right of states to trade in (see the preamble of the ATT), as well as manufacture, import, and retain (see paragraph 9 of the POA) small arms and light weapons in order to meet their security needs.

Many of the civil society actors and academics that called for the adoption of UNSCR 1325 in 2000 advocate disarmament and limits on military spending as the only way to effectively reign in patriarchal power and end economies of war and violence. From the perspective of feminist political economy, efforts to prevent conflict and violence in a capitalist system will remain elusive as long as a for-profit arms industry exists. This perspective argues that this is because war and violence are in the economic interests of arms manufacturing states, as well as the politically influential arms manufacturers themselves, who are also major employers.

However, it is hard to ignore that collaboration between WPS advocates and their counterparts in the field of small arms control is creating opportunities for implementing WPS priorities, though it is still in its early stages. WPS actors can influence small arms control mechanisms across two priority areas: improving national ownership by identifying linkages with other policy frameworks; and mainstreaming gender.

Improving National Ownership and Identifying Complementarities to Increase Effectiveness and Sustainability

Previous research on the benefits brought by women’s meaningful participation in peace processes suggests that peace agreements are more likely to be reached and to be more sustainable when women are involved. This is especially true when women from civil society organizations are included, as their participation expands the scope of discussions beyond zero-sum topics brought by warring parties related to territory, status, and power. As peace agreements begin to address socio-economic drivers of conflict such as development, justice, health, and education—thus responding to the needs of the population—they gain more public support.

Similarly, some small arms control initiatives lack local or national ownership. An excessive focus on the technical aspects related to identifying the types and origin of trafficked firearms and ammunition can distract from what citizens and civil society organizations tend to be more concerned about: why people are procuring these weapons and how the human impact can be mitigated. Aligning arms control efforts with national action plans on WPS can help ensure that they address the population’s security concerns and gain support from women’s civil society as well as other ministries within government working in areas such as gender equality, education, and sustainable development.

Moreover, the wide-reaching mandate of the WPS agenda means it can serve as a bridge between different policy agendas. This can overcome the sometimes siloed nature of small arms control where efforts are sometimes disconnected even from disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration and community violence reduction programs. In Bosnia and Herzegovina for example, UNDP-SEESAC’s training for gender focal points in the Ministry of Security highlighted how gender mainstreaming small arms control could help fulfill the country’s commitments under SDGs 5 and 16. Kenya has also had some success in holistic small arms policymaking by ensuring that the Ministry of Gender and the National Focal Point on Small Arms sit on each other’s coordination committees at both the national and the county level alongside civil society organizations.

Collaborations between WPS actors and state authorities working on arms control can thus overcome gaps in national ownership. Firstly, identifying complementarities with other frameworks and widening both governmental and civil society participation to include women and men working in areas such as gender equality, public health, and social welfare can lead to more effective policies. Secondly, insuring that diverse civil society actors, including women and women’s rights organizations, can meaningfully participate in the development, implementation, oversight, and review of national policies on the regulation, ownership, and use of firearms increases the prospects for sustainable policies.

Mainstreaming Gender to Reduce Human Suffering

WPS actors (and other civil society actors working on gender equality) can encourage national small arms control mechanisms to adopt measures that address the gendered impacts of small arms, which is key for a holistic approach to reducing human suffering. In addition, civil society organizations can contribute to data collection efforts on the use of firearms in cases of gender-based violence in order to feed into risk evaluations conducted by arms-exporting countries.  Partnerships between those with expertise in identifying weapons and ammunition and those recording cases of gender-based violence can lead to better policies for violence prevention. For example, Australia amended firearms regulations to deny or withdraw licenses to those with restraining orders involving members of their family and is addressing domestic violence committed by state security personnel.

When national authorities accept the support of WPS actors to gender mainstream small arms control initiatives, they can expand conversations beyond illicitly trafficked firearms and the threat of armed groups to address other everyday concerns of diverse women, men, girls, boys, and gender minorities.

A full appraisal of the extent to which the WPS agenda has achieved its objectives should not overlook how collaborations between WPS and other security-related political frameworks have succeeded in “humanizing” the discourse, challenging notions that military and security actors have a monopoly of expertise in areas such as arms control.

Not only have these collaborations assisted arms control mechanisms in achieving their own objectives through more holistic approaches that address both the supply and demand for firearms; WPS actors have also been able to demand that these mechanisms better contribute to realizing the objectives of the WPS agenda as well as other human security frameworks. These collaborations remain the exception rather than the rule, however, and much more work needs to be done with both WPS actors and national authorities working on small arms control to ensure that this kind of cooperation becomes the norm.

[1] WPS actors is a deliberately vague term to encompass all those consciously working to achieve the objectives of the women, peace and security agenda. This can include civil society organizations working on women’s rights and gender equality; government actors working on different aspects of gender equality, peace, and security; parliamentarians; staff in national institutions; academics; and activists.

Callum Watson is Gender Coordinator at Small Arms Survey.