Mainstreaming gendered perspectives in disarmament discourse


For the first time ever, disarmament affairs at the United Nations are being headed by an all-women team. With Tatiana Valovaya becoming the first woman appointed as Director-General for the United Nations Office at Geneva, she joins UNIDIR Director Renata Dwan, High Representative Izumi Nakamitsu and UNODA Director Anja Kaspersen in making history. The news was shared widely amongst the UN community in August, accompanied with a photo of the four women linking arms triumphantly. But – why all the fuss?


The realm of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament has long been a field dominated by men. Unequal gender representation has remained a defining characteristic, and the pace of change? Achingly slow. As a recent UNIDIR report highlighted, gender balance in the related multilateral fora is ‘Still Behind the Curve’. Heads of delegations and important positions remain mostly male-occupied and there appears to be a law of increasing disproportion as the presence of women drops for each upward step in the professional ladder. This imbalance often extends past disarmament and well into the ‘hard’ security field, demonstrated by the Lowy Institute’s three-year study on Australia’s international relations sector.


However, the relevance of gender extends beyond mere proportional representation on the basis of fairness and equality. Though it is so often stated, it nonetheless bears repeating: gendered perspectives offer unique insights into challenges and solutions for so many facets of international relations. Disarmament is no different.


Gender permeates many aspects of security, disarmament and arms control. The regulation of small arms is closely linked with levels of gendered violence. Women face different risk levels for soft tissue cancer developing as a result of exposure to ionizing radiation from nuclear weapons. Gender has impacts on the average levels of exposure or proximity to weapons and aspects of victim assistance. These differentiations necessitate gender-sensitivity in the measures taken to regulate, reduce and respond to the risk and use of weapons. To this end, applying a ‘gendered lens’ by all practitioners is just as critical as gender-diverse participation in itself.


Such a lens can also prove enlightening on the discourse associated with weapons and more broadly, security and defence as historically male-dominated realms.

Ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ continue to code binaries in the security sphere and thus inform and limit conceptions of security and power. When competitiveness, dominance, violence and damage capacity become synonymous with strength – any alternative becomes a sign of weakness to be devalued and sidelined. If the destructive nature of weapons and military domination is foundational to national security, it’s easy to see the ways in which weapons reductions or diverting government spending to other means of improving human security, such as natural disaster preparedness, welfare or climate policies, become stymied. Though starkly evident in President Donald Trump’s tweets about ‘bigger buttons’, this dynamic often operates under the surface in subtle ways. In this framework, expressions of human vulnerability and humanitarianism in advocating for arms control and disarmament are easily muted as irrational, unrealistic and simply not strategic.


Though at times slow, progress is not to be understated. The Arms Trade Treaty’s recognition of the relationship between regulating small arms and gendered violence is evident in the specific provision on gender-based violence in Article 7. The UN’s Programme of Action on illicit trade of small arms and light weapons’ Third Rev Con acknowledged different gendered impacts and encouraged gender mainstreaming in policies and programs. The concept of ‘feminist foreign policy’ as a beneficial critical and multidimensional framework is gaining momentum, with Sweden’s launch of a feminist foreign policy in 2014 and Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy in 2017.


Appreciation for the ‘gender lens’ in disarmament fora and scholarship is expanding.

The appointment and leadership of these women contributes towards amplifying the role of women’s voices and inspiring a more diverse cohort of disarmament, arms control and security practitioners. The conversation and analysis, however, does not end with numerical representation and female trailblazers. Mainstreaming gendered perspectives and feminist-grounded analysis provides opportunities for distinctive and productive consideration of the challenges facing disarmament and arms control. At a time when arms control and international security appears particularly precarious, not only recognition – but incorporation – of diverse perspectives can only offer more.


Su-Yin Lew is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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