Sexed Pistols Points Barrels At Cultures Of Violence
Over time, women’s rights advocates have named a host of contributing factors to violence against women. Perhaps none of these has been less explored than the proliferation and unregulated use of small arms and light weapons – until now. A new book, Sexed Pistols: The Gendered Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons, explores how these weapons impact women and men differently.
by Masum Momaya
The growing presence and pervasiveness of small arms, or firearms designed for use by a single person, and light weapons, including machetes, spears and knives, is wreaking havoc on communities and countries, disturbing the peace and preventing it from taking root. 60 percent of the small arms worldwide are in possession of civilians; these far outnumber those in possession by states or the police. To date, no international human rights instrument guarantees the right of unrestricted civilian access to arms. In fact, there is widespread agreement that, under international law, most states have an obligation to protect their citizens from firearm violence and to regulate firearms appropriately – but few effectively do this.
Thus far, most of the policy emphasis internationally and nationally for small arms and light weapons (SALW) has been on import and export controls and marking and tracing weapons rather regulating civilian possession or use, largely because of sustained pressure from the US gun lobby. However, because firearm violence contributes more directly to violence against women (VAW) than the arms trade per se, these policy priorities have been ineffective at addressing VAW. Moreover, while women’s rights advocates have been effective at pointing out how increased militarization and money spent on arms has come at the expense of social welfare spending – and thus made women and children more vulnerable to poverty, disease and violence - they have made fewer inroads into influencing public policies related to SALW.
Sexed Pistols, a compilation of research articles, is focused on the gendered impact of SALW in various contexts, including countries in conflict such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Israel, and Sierra Leone; countries where the state cannot guarantee protection for its citizens such as Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste and countries recovering from conflict, including Northern Ireland, South Africa and Uganda. Specifically, the book raises a number of relevant issues including the use of weapons to terrorize women, predicate sexual violence and control women in both public and private spheres. It also explores lesser-examined phenomena, such as women who are perpetrators of violence and women who conceal and smuggle weapons. And, through specific programmatic case studies, it looks at the gendered nature of disarmament processes and agreements, including weapons collections programs. For women’s rights advocates, there are a number of important themes raised.
First, one of the explicit purposes of the book is to encourage and model research that incorporates gender differentiation in data collection and infuses feminist theory and thinking into analysis. To date, most of what is understood about the impacts of SALW is rarely broken down by social categories and rarely acknowledges that some agency and some victimization exists on the part of all affected groups. Across the case studies, the book emphasizes not only that gender is salient but that people’s experiences of weapons are mitigated through their age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, too.
For example, for young men in some communities, demonstrations of aggression and violence are markers of masculinity and rites of passage into adulthood. Any curtailing of weapons’ use has to consider this cultural context and more pointedly address constructions of masculinity. Similarly, some women, such as those from the paramilitary, republican movement in Northern Ireland, were instrumental in hiding, storing and transporting weapons as it was assumed that they were not involved because of their gender – and they used this to their advantage. Also, women in Haiti, many of them heads of poor households, protect themselves and their children with machetes in absence of protection from the state, some joining bands of armed gangs.
In contrast, women who work as domestic servants in South Africa are often victims of weapons stored in the homes of their employers and serve as involuntary security buffers against intruders. Similarly, women in Israel are victimized through the increasing presence of private security personnel and guns in their homes. Meanwhile, young women in Sierra Leone and the Congo are both agents and victims with regards to weapons. Often unwillingly recruited into armies and initiated through violence, girls and young women reported a sense of empowerment at committing acts of violence against others. Researchers point to the context, in which these same girls and young women have very little power and very low social standing to begin with.
The book also stresses that while socioeconomic factors (i.e. lack of basic needs, lack of protection from threats, lack of policing and lack of access to influence) are often used to explain the demand for small arms, culture - particularly in which constructions of masculinity are tied to violence – is often overlooked and under-accounted for by researchers, by those designing intervention and disarmament programs at the local level and by those formulating policy at the international level.
Also, while some international conventions and treaties explicitly point out the gender implications of arms proliferation, Sexed Pistols shows that women are largely shut out of disarmament processes and programs. For example, in Timor-Leste, in spite of contributions by women towards peace amidst the East Timorese conflict and the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, women were mostly forgotten in the disarmament process. In Uganda, researchers found that women were not involved in weapons collections projects at all and in Albania, while women were an integral part of community meetings that informed collection processes, both men and women were shut out of subsequent development projects, which were implemented entirely by private contractors hired by the UNDP.
The book makes the case for asking women what they think and involving them in solutions, demonstrating that, in the few places where this has occurred, women were more engaged in convincing men to give up their weapons and negotiated for systemic, poverty-alleviating development projects in return. Even in places such as Somalia where women’s voices are mostly ignored in public policy making, women have drawn on the oral culture to create poetry about the impact of SALW and propose solutions – an example of an untapped resource for researchers and policymakers. Still, there is a line to walk between treating women simply as instruments of information collection and respecting their rights as agents.
Also, Sexed Pistols draws parallels between increasing militarization in society and upsurges in violence in private spaces. In many societies, guns are pervasive in homes and used not just for protection but also directly and indirectly for aggression and control over women, the young and the elderly. Overwhelmingly, research shows that “while men are often killed by strangers with guns, women are more at risk of armed violence from intimate partners or other men known to them. The presence of a gun in the home increases the likelihood that domestic violence will result in death.” The book’s editors call for revisiting and reformulation of the notion of “security” to account for this and to include development, human rights, health and humanitarianism.
Finally, a look across the case studies paints a picture of the strong role of industrialized, Northern powers in both arms proliferation and arms reduction and the strong influence of the UN in these matters. For example, in the DRC, the Mission d le’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC), which was mandated to protect civilians, implement disarmament, enforce the arms embargo and collect and dispose of arms has not done enough to protect women from sexual violence, in spite of widespread recognition of VAW in conflict situations. MONUC has been under-resourced from the beginning, with its mandate subject to the whims of its political masters – states with controlling interest in the UN. Similarly, outside intervention has been fairly ineffective in Papua New Guinea, where formal systems of governance have much less reach and impact than alternative forms of governance found at the tribal and community levels.
In the end, it’s not just about taking away the weapons but about larger cultural change that prevents the spread and use of weapons. As several of the authors put it, “decreasing the threat of small-arms violence for women requires a restructuring of systems of inequality as well as ongoing resocialization that devalorizes the power associated with weapons” (p. 322).
Farr, V., Myrtinnen, H. and A. Schnabel. (2009). Sexed Pistols: The Gendered Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Organizations Working on Small Arms and Light Weapons Issues with a Women’s Rights Perspective:
African Women’s Anti-War Coalition (Pan-African)
Association des Femmes Pour les Initiatives de Paix (Mali – in French)
Coalition for Gun Control (Canada)
Gender Action for Peace and Security – GAPS (UK)
Gun Free South Africa
NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security
Women Against Gun Violence (US)
Women’s Caucus of the International Action Network on Small Arms
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Women Waging Peace