Let's not forget: gender must be at the heart of arms policy


Picture of Izumi Nakamitsu
Izumi Nakamitsu

UN Under Secretary General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

Izumi Nakamitsu serves as Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations and is an International Gender Champion

Women are powerful agents for peace and vital contributors to disarmament objectives. Yet while they have been at the forefront of the peace movement since the founding of the United Nations, women remain chronically underrepresented at intergovernmental discussions and negotiations. Indeed, at any given multilateral meeting on disarmament, only one-quarter of the participants are likely to be women and half of all delegations are likely to include no women at all. Strengthening the role of women and promoting a diversity of voices in policymaking are crucial steps to achieving the collective goals of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control.

The increasing recognition of the value of gender considerations in disarmament discussions is an encouraging trend. At the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, for example, a growing number of states continue to call for greater efforts to improve women’s engagement and participation in multilateral disarmament fora. However, there is much more work to be done and progress to be made.

The Office for Disarmament Affairs is committed to increasing women’s participation in disarmament affairs. The Secretary-General’s agenda for disarmament, Securing Our Common Future, recognises that the continued under-representation of women in these discussions is a loss for all. Involving more women will help revitalise disarmament discussions and advance efforts to create a safer and more secure future.

The gendered nature of weapons is particularly tangible in the field of small arms

Yet, creating more inclusive, effective and sustainable outcomes means looking beyond the numbers and incorporating gender perspectives into policies and programmes. Men and women are affected differently by the proliferation and use of weapons and often have diverse roles in conflict and post-conflict environments, as well as in settings rife with pervasive crime.

The gendered nature of weapons is particularly tangible in the field of small arms. Attitudes towards guns often diverge between the sexes. Where men may perceive owning a weapon as a means of increased security, status and an expression of masculinity, women are more likely to see the presence of a gun as a threat to both their own and their families’ security.

Men dominate occupations where guns are part of the professional tool-kit such as the military, law enforcement, private security, and arms manufacturing. They also form a majority of private citizens who own small arms, of combatants in non-state armed groups and of members of violent criminal groups. Overwhelmingly, men are the perpetrators of gender-based violence, which are often facilitated by small arms. Men also account for most of the victims of gun violence, in conflict, post-conflict and peaceful societies, representing over 80% of victims.

Challenging these realities – and reducing armed conflict, crime and violence – requires gender-sensitive, targeted action.

Gun violence in both conflict settings and criminal activities has a significant detrimental impact on women. When male family members are injured or killed, women often face heavy psychological, economic and societal effects, especially in societies where men are considered the primary providers. In areas and regions of conflict, sexual violence abetted by armed intimidation is a recurring scourge. Domestically, guns and intimate-partner violence form a deadly combination for women. Over one-third of femicides are committed by a male partner and, in many countries, guns are the weapons of choice.

Challenging these realities – and reducing armed conflict, crime and violence – requires gender-sensitive, targeted action. Gun control is a prerequisite for societal stability and sustainable development, and with over 1 billion firearms in the world, almost 85% of which are in civilian hands, we can no longer ignore the problem.

Achieving gender-sensitive arms control requires collective efforts by all relevant actors. The UN therefore welcomes the EU’s leadership on this issue. Importantly, the EU’s strategies on Women, Peace and Security, and on combatting illicit firearms and their ammunition are two examples of how regional efforts complement global initiatives.

Change must also happen on the ground, which is why the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) is partnering with the EU and civil society organisations on a new project in support of gender mainstreamed policies, programmes and actions that aim to combat small arms trafficking and misuse. Over the next three years, we will collaborate with national small arms commissions and local communities to promote a systematic, gendered approach to small arms and empower women to take their seats at the decision-making table. We will provide training for staff at regional organisations who deal with small arms control policies and programmes. We will bring together officials working on small arms with those working on the Women, Peace and Security agenda to take forward issues of common interest.

These efforts will directly contribute to achieving the goal of the EU-UN Spotlight initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 16 on peace and security.

The international community has never been more focused, more determined and more united in its efforts to achieve gender parity, women’s empowerment and gender-sensitive disarmament and arms control. With this momentum driving us forward, we will make these goals a reality.

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