Make Peace or Perish

Humanitarian Initiative, Military utility, Vienna

A gender perspective on weapons, violence and security continues to be an essential component of efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

By Mia Gandenberger and Ray Acheson

This week in The Hague we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which seeks an end to war and promoted nonviolent solutions to conflict. For 100 years, we have worked to prevent the development and deployment of violent technologies and called instead for the development of norms, principles, practices, and institutions of peace and justice. We have opposed militarism and the structures of power that sustain it, including patriarchy—a system and culture of gender inequality.

In nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation debates a gender perspective is particularly pertinent. The standard representation of nuclear weapons is a pure distillation of masculine strength. Proponents for nuclear disarmament and their ultimate elimination are frequently put down as ‘unrealistic’—the implied meaning of ‘realism’ often being the desirability of a situation founded upon masculine-associated dominant material power. The result is a web of assumptions and implied associations concerning masculinity and its relationship to power that serves to prop up the continued retention of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are loaded with symbolism—of potency, protection, and the power to ‘deter’ through material ‘strength’. For many, such symbolism obscures the real point of the existence of these arms—to destroy—and their horrendous effects.

70 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are still more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The purported military utility and deterrent value of these weapons are increasingly contested, and the facts showing the catastrophic humanitarian impact of a nuclear explosion are there for all to see. Today, with the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombings fast approaching, the international community needs to recognize that the existing tools for nuclear disarmament are insufficient.

The result is a web of assumptions and implied associations concerning masculinity and its relationship to power that serves to prop up the continued retention of nuclear weapons.

Taking a human-focused approach to disarmament, and thereby challenging a state-centered approach to international peace and security, is a good first step. The recent focus of three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has produced a sense of renewed urgency for nuclear disarmament. In December 2014, at the conclusion of the third of these conferences, Austria, the host, made a national pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination nuclear weapons.”

An understanding of the gendered meanings and characterizations embedded in the discourse and politics of nuclear weapons will support that process. Just as the humanitarian discourse undermines the perceived legitimacy of nuclear weapons, a gender discourse undermines their perceived power and currency. It also helps illuminate possible solutions. By challenging the discursive equation of nuclear weapons with masculine strength and power, we confront approaches to nuclear governance that work in favour of the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons by handful of states.

The dominant arms control and non-proliferation paradigm asserts security through possession of all-destructive arsenals and seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, particular to ‘irrational’ actors. A gender analysis that highlights the patriarchy and social constructions inherent in this valuation of nuclear weapons helps to multiply, amplify, and deepen arguments for nuclear disarmament and question the role of a certain kind of masculinity of the dominant paradigm.

Disarmament, which is sometimes accused by its detractors as weak or passive, can instead be shown for what it is—as rational, just, moral, and necessary for security.

Mia Gandenberger and Ray Acheson work for Reaching Critical Will, WILPF’s Disarmament Programme. Follow WILPF’s centennial conference and celebration at and on Twitter at @WILPF, @RCW_ , and @PeaceWomen