Policy-makers say they are gendering nuclear policy. We have questions.

Laura Rose Brown and Laura Considine outline 3 questions on gender that policy-makers need to answer ahead of the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Hillary Clinton addresses the UN general assembly in New York.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the United Nations 2010 High-level Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at UN headquarters on the 3rd of May 2010 in New York City. Photo by Mario Tama via Getty Images.

In August this year, the much-anticipated 10th Review Conference (RevCon) of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will take place in New York. With the recent abundance of calls for ‘gender-sensitivity’ in nuclear weapons policy, the 10th RevCon marks an opportunity to think critically about who is bringing gender to the nuclear table, and how and why they do so.

Through our research on five years of NPT official discourse, we have shown that ‘gendering’ the NPT has been largely understood in terms of adding women. We find an approach to gender sensitivity in which the NPT is depicted as an ungendered space until women (signifying gender) are added. Simultaneously, state and institutional statements acknowledge that the space has been dominated by men (assumed to be non-gendered). The NPT as an institution is thus currently presented as both male-dominated and non-gendered, ignoring previous feminist work on the relationship between masculinities and nuclear weapons. Indeed, this existing framing of gender as the inclusion of women, places ‘women’ in an uninterrogated homogenous category and understands gender work as a way of increasing the efficiency of the current architecture of nuclear weapons politics.

We therefore suggest that those working in nuclear weapons policy who want to move beyond the limitations of contemporary approaches consider three questions about gender and nuclear policy during the upcoming NPT RevCon and beyond.

Gender as efficiency, to what end?

Our research has shown that including gender is understood as ‘crucial’ to improve the efficiency of the NPT as an institution. As such, ‘gendering’ is pursued as a way of strengthening the NPT, without interrogating the hierarchies and power dynamics at work within it, and within the broader nuclear order. This limited form of ‘gendering’ is often about applying new wallpaper to old walls. While this may be the goal of some advocates, it contrasts sharply with repeated language about gendering as a process of challenging the status quo and enabling change. We ask those invested in change to seriously consider the risk that ‘gendering’ could become a generic managerial process designed to efficiently maintain the status quo, and to scrutinize both their own and others’ policies and processes through this critical lens.

Additionally, NPT documents lack engagement with the underlying meaning of gendering the nuclear weapons policy space. These are weapons that can kill millions of people and whose radioactive legacy affects places and lives for generations. This has been mostly lost in debates about increased efficiency and process.

Are women outsiders?

Existing discourse places women into a group as ‘outsiders’ who then need to be included. If the process of gendering the NPT categorizes women as outsiders to the institution, this limits our understanding of the historical and ongoing contribution of women to the nuclear weapons policy space. It is also vital to consider how these women have experienced and adapted to the male and masculine space of nuclear weapons.

Approaches that understand gender-sensitivity as simply the inclusion of more women are limited in their ability to recognize the multiple ways that gender already shapes nuclear weapons politics. Those engaged in this work need to consider how these narrow understandings of gender as inclusion impact on the potential for rethinking gender dynamics already at work in the NPT. Indeed, it is vital to understand the ways in which this reductive understanding of gender-sensitive approaches might entrench rather than challenge the status quo.

Who are these women?

Ahead of proceedings in New York, we encourage policy-makers to consider the impact of categorizing women as a distinct and homogenous group, which fails to account for the varied and diverse experiences of women as individuals. We know that the effects of nuclear weapons policy are experienced by women based on their positions in hierarchies of, for example, race, class and coloniality. But as it stands, with few exceptions, the NPT documents and the wider movement to ‘gender’ the nuclear space have not yet engaged with the ways gender interacts with these overlapping systems of oppression. The assumption of sameness undermines rigorous policy responses to the differential impacts of nuclear weapons and to the stated goal of meaningfully diversifying nuclear policy-making.

Finally, gender continues to be understood as a binary in a manner that has deeply negative political and practical implications for transgender, non-binary and gender fluid people. For example, discussions of addressing the gendered impact of ionizing radiation specify the impact on the bodies of ‘women and girls’ thereby excluding trans men. As such, scholars, activists and policy-makers should explore how gender influences nuclear weapons policy-making beyond the current focus on cis men and women.

Conclusion

We suggest that the next steps in both policy and scholarship engage further with what ‘gender-sensitive’ approaches mean in relation to nuclear weapons and to the practice of nuclear deterrence. Only by asking these difficult questions can work on gender at the NPT begin to live up its transformative potential and achieve meaningful change.

Laura Rose Brown is currently studying towards an MA in Social Research (University of Leeds) as part of an ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Programme PhD collaborative studentship in partnership with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

Laura Considine is an Associate Professor in International Politics and co-Director of the Centre for Global Security Challenges at the University of Leeds.

Their article: ‘Examining “gender-sensitive” approaches to nuclear weapons policy: a study of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’ was published in the July 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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