In the debate towards nuclear disarmament, where are all the women?

This year marks seven decades since the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Commemorating this devastating event raises critical questions about efforts to eliminate and curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Among the many debates, there is, however, one pertinent question that is often overlooked: where are all the women?

On the face of it, contexts where nuclear weapons and efforts at disarmament are typically discussed appear to be gender neutral – that is, allowing for the equal participation of women and men.

Organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) have come a long way in creating a gender-equitable space in the peace and security arena. The AU, for instance, has dedicated this year to African women’s empowerment and development. Yet, are women and men equally involved in initiatives and forums for eliminating and curbing the spread of nuclear weapons?

An analysis of the level of participation of women and men in two particular forums revealed some compelling findings. The analyses were based on data collected from the lists of participants available online from the Review Conferences of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); and the United Nations Programme of Fellowships on Disarmament.

The NPT is the only binding multilateral treaty whereby nuclear-weapon states commit towards the goal of disarmament. The participants at the NPT review conferences represent the various states parties who meet to assess the implementation of the three pillars of the treaty – disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – and make recommendations on how this could be improved. Although these review conferences are not the only platforms where matters related to nuclear weapons are discussed, they are symbolically strong arenas.

The results of the analyses point to a slight and gradual increase in the participation of women in the review conferences. In 2005, 17.8% of total representatives were women. This percentage increased to 25.6% in 2010 and 27.2% in 2015.

Country-level analyses show varying degrees of representation of women and men (see map below). Of the 181 countries that have sent representatives to the NPT review conferences, 25 have never sent a woman. Only 24 countries have sent at least 50% women. This means that women are underrepresented in 87% of countries that have sent representatives to the review conferences.

The interactive map below shows women represented at the NPT review conferences as a percentage of total representatives in 2005, 2010 and 2015.

While a step in the right direction, the increased representation of women is not an indication that women and men are equally vocal in voicing their perspectives at the conference table; or that they have an equal influence on decision-making processes.

Decisions taken at the review conferences are based on a draft text that is prepared in advance, and which incorporates inputs from states parties. These inputs are shaped by the national interests or strategic objectives of the respective states. Before a final decision is made, delegates discuss and negotiate the draft text. The negotiating team that attends the conference, whether gender-neutral or not, may or may not have been involved in the input phase.

The draft final document of the 2015 Review Conference of the NPT, which took place from April to May, highlighted ‘the importance of promoting the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men in the process of nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy’. It is hoped that in future, women and men will not only be equally represented, but will also have an equal influence on negotiations and decisions made. What might such a future look like?

An analysis of the UN Programme of Fellowships on Disarmament, which provides training for young government officials from UN member states, could provide insight. It provides a foundation for young diplomats to ‘participate more effectively in international disarmament deliberating and negotiating fora’. The programme was selected for the analysis since it has global reach and in 2000, for the first time, the report of the Secretary-General explicitly encouraged member states to consider gender equality when they nominate candidates to the programme.

The graph below shows women and men represented in the UN Programme of Fellowships on Disarmament between 1994 and 2014.

Overall, women have been better represented in the fellowship programme than in the NPT conferences. Of the 158 countries that have nominated candidates, 106 have sent at least one woman. Of these countries, 46 have had at least equal participation between men and women. The participation of women and men among African countries varied, as with other regions. Fellows consisted of women only; men only; more women than men and vice versa; or equal representation.

Though better represented in this platform, women are still underrepresented in 71% of countries that have sent participants to the fellowship. Efforts towards gender equality in the programme are commendable, however, and raise hope for greater gender equality in multilateral platforms such as the NPT Review Conferences.

These analyses make it clear that women and men are differently involved in initiatives, discussions and negotiations in arenas for curbing and eliminating nuclear weapons. There are other factors that might explain the underrepresentation of women, intended or unintended, in nuclear weapons platforms that merit further investigation. Which factors, for example, might dissuade women from considering a career in a field related to disarmament and arms control? Is there a marked shortfall of women with the relevant expertise, and if so, why?

Discussions on creating gender-equitable spaces might remain just that unless institutions and structures effectively implement policies to this end.

This calls for greater investment in resources to empower women through institutions and structures at the international, regional and national levels. It also requires policies that contribute to women’s education in peace and security; building women’s capacities in technical and male-dominated positions; and developing women as arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation experts.

There is a different kind of ‘WMD’ on the rise, namely women missing in disarmament. While this is not a weapon, it is destructive and it causes a dearth of gender equality. Evidence of the use of nuclear weapons – in Japan and from nuclear weapons testing, for example – shows that the humanitarian impact of such weapons affect women and men differently. The biological, psychological and social effects of the use of nuclear weapons, for example, affect women more than they do men. If a world free of nuclear weapons is to be achieved with any kind of legitimacy, this must happen in a way where the voices of women and men are heard equally.

Mothepa Shadung, Junior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria