Despite the possibility of nuclear war, nuclear (non)proliferation remains an underrepresented field in the discussion on gender and conflict. On first sight, gender seems irrelevant in nuclear policy-making, given the indiscriminate suffering they cause. However, women are more heavily affected by nukes, and the power play surrounding them remains guarded by a glass ceiling. Ahead of the 2020 – now 2021 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the nuclear policy-making sphere has started to acknowledge the need for a gendered discussion. Especially in the current security environment – a new Cold War, several non-NPT member nuclear weapons states, and continuous threats by a range of political leaders, a gender-sensitive disarmament policy ought to take place.
Nuclear weapons and gender-specific implications
Women are affected more heavily by nuclear radiation than men. Hibakusha, survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as survivors at nuclear testing sites on Pacific Islands such as Mururoa and the Marshall Islands and in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan testify to this: After detonation, females have been found to experience higher rates of cancer, including thypriod and lung cancer. Child-bearing women in the affected areas continue to bear the biological burden of radiation, due to miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects and disabilities in the generations after nuclear missiles have been detonated. Simultaneously, women engage in care work which only increases through the collective suffering after indiscriminate attacks. Nuclear weapons testing can thus perpetuate social and economic discrimination of the women affected. Additionally, through displacement and evacuation women are rendered more vulnerable to violence and often experience discrimination intersectionally.
The glass ceiling in the disarmament world
Whilst nuclear testing perpetuates stereotypes regarding the division of labor and reproduction, stereotypes on political leadership prevent women from entering power positions. 33 women have been head of delegations in the NPT review conferences, whilst 660 men have. Whilst the General Assembly’s Third Committee (on social, humanitarian and cultural issues) almost has gender parity, only a third of delegates to the First Committee (disarmament and international security) are women. The lacking access to political power of many women exacerbates their vulnerability and creates obstacles for adequate compensation for their suffering.
Despite political underrepresentation in what is often assumed to be a ‘masculine field of work’, women have always been interested in nuclear disarmament. Starting in the 1960s, anti-nuclear civil society engagement had a strong female lead. The 1980s women’s Peace Movement successfully campaigned against nuclear testing and have been successful at closing test sites, such as Greenham Common in the UK. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, too, assembles many women engaged in nuclear disarmament. The reason for the few women high-ranking positions in nuclear disarmament is not a more or less deterrence-supporting nature of women or a lack of masculinity, necessary to go to war, it is a lack of access to diplomatic positions and (nuclear) decision-making.
The need for a masculinity debate in nuclear proliferation
Beyond, efforts such as at Greenham Common recognize that nuclear weapons are weapons for which no government and no health care system can be prepared. The environmental and human destruction a nuclear war would bring about seems beyond our imagination. Ultimately, the question of nuclear weapons is thus about power and masculinity. No woman has ever made a decision to go to nuclear war and women have been shown to continue to oppose equaling national and military security. In short, women are needed in nuclear diplomacy, now, more than ever.
The call for gender-sensitive nuclear disarmament has become louder in the past years At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, 26% of delegates were women. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons not only acknowledged the gender-specific impacts of nuclear weapons tests, a third of all conference delegates were female (underrepresentation continues, compared to NPT conferences, this is, however, a success). The current High-Representative Izumi Nakamitsu has headed the UN’s disarmament affairs since 2017 and she continues to be outspoken about the role and the need of women in nuclear disarmament.
Looking ahead: Gender and the 2021 NPT Review Conference
Importantly the 2018 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 (now 2021) NPT acknowledged that nuclear radiation had a much heavier impact on women, as well as their underrepresentation in power positions. Interestingly, it provides concrete measures, e.g. calling for “an obligation for State Parties to provide age- and gender-sensitive victim assistance”. The NPT remains one of the most successful treaties made in the UN theatre, and particularly within the disarmament world. It is thus pivotal for the next review conference, postponed to 2021 to be wary of gendered dimensions, both, in content of the conference, and regarding females in political positions represented.
- As UNSCR 1325 outlines, equal participation of women and men is vital to peace processes. This is a sheer necessity for nuclear diplomacy, which seeks to prevent the use of the most destructive weapons ever made.
- Vulnerability of women in post-conflict periods of nuclear weapons use remains underexplored because nuclear testing was ‘mere testing’. Women need to be able to gain access to political power, adequate care and compensation for the health, economic, and social discrimination experienced during testing. This includes accommodation, land use and economic activities.
- An intersectional debate is needed to acknowledge the multifold discrimination of women experiencing nuclear testing based on their gender, class, ethnicity, origin, and nationality.
- Gender parity ought to be ensured in all nuclear non-proliferation forums, including high level meetings such as the NPT and negotiations on New Start. The TPNW is proof that working towards parity can lead to increased disarmament efforts.
- Women’s careers in nuclear disarmament need to be supported. This also includes gender mainstreaming in STEM subjects to strive for equality in nuclear verification processes.
- A political and societal debate on masculinity and weapons of mass destruction is pivotal. This needs to take into account how nuclear weapons are portrayed in the media as these can heighten stereotypes through wordings such as “strongmen”. Much needs to be understood about how gender stereotypes affect decisions to make nuclear threats and engage in testing. This should take into consideration the resources and organizations already in existence, such as WILPF, Reaching Critical Will, or the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists.
About the author
Veronika Datzer is currently writing her thesis on hybrid warfare in Europe. She is a graduate student of international relations in Paris and Berlin. Before, she studied Liberal Arts in Freiburg and Pennsylvania. She has gained work experience in research on European foreign policy for the EU Commission, nuclear disarmament at an NGO and at the UN, research on socio-political affairs in the African context, and working in a diversity-focused political consultancy. Her focus is mainly security policy, nuclear disarmament, and hybrid issues.