In the early 1980s when a group of women from across Europe came together to protest arms and nuclear weapons and seek peace, they paved the way for May 24 to be recognised as International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. Forty years since then, while the day continues to be celebrated across the globe, the role of women in promoting peace and disarmament remains marginal while that of nuclear weapons has grown in significance. Expansion and modernisation of nuclear capabilities can be seen across all nuclear armed states. Ironically, at this moment, it is also in Europe that a bloody war has been raging for nearly three months with frequent references to weapons of mass destruction. As always in case of war, women are bearing the brunt of unspeakable physical atrocities, as well as the loss of their families and lives.
Two decades ago, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1325 (2000) linking gender to international peace and security. The Resolution reaffirmed the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, and peace building. Nine additional resolutions later, women, peace and security is now one of the main thematic pillars of UNSC’s work.
Four years ago, on this day in 2018, United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres launched the Disarmament Agenda as part of Securing our Common Future. He outlined the importance of disarmament for the achievement of sustainable development, and the need for engaging all constituencies, especially women, in disarmament action. Despite these efforts, it is a global reality that issues related to national and international security, war and strategy remain male preserves. While women have breached glass ceilings across many domains, on security and strategic issues, their voices are few, often dismissed as lightweight, and not up to managing the rough and tumble of power play in inter-state relations.
The annual celebration of the historic day this year is taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Besides the usual disruption of lives and livelihoods that every war causes, this conflict has also drawn attention to nuclear weapons in a manner that had not been seen in the East-West context since the end of the Cold War. President Putin has resorted to unambiguous and explicit nuclear signalling. In fact, even before Russia started the military operation against Ukraine, Putin oversaw elaborate nuclear exercises on 19 February 2022. Then, on the fourth day of the invasion, he announced that he was raising nuclear alert levels by imposing a “special regime of combat duty.” There have been reports of deployment of nuclear submarines from the Northern Fleet. Indeed, Russia has repeatedly drawn attention to the nuclear capability and status of the country, and to the likelihood of “consequences you have never seen in history” in case of outside intervention. Irrespective of how this conflict gets resolved, it will have implications for the future of peace and disarmament. Perceptions on the value of nuclear weapons and on the acceptability threshold of nuclear risks are likely to change.
May 24 has a symbolic importance. This year, it offers a particularly unique opportunity to dwell on the twin subjects of the role of women in matters of national and international security, and why peace and disarmament remain elusive. In fact, is there a correlation between the two? Do peace and disarmament continue to remain distant goals because security issues have been deprived of women’s voices and perspectives? Could the international situation have been different if there was greater diversity in gender perspectives on security?
While it may be impossible to offer a definite yes as the answer to this question, and even naïve to generalise, there is little doubt that women as bearers and nurturers of the next generation do have a higher natural inclination towards peace and disarmament. Encouraging, mainstreaming, and popularising their voices could have an impact on how inter-state relations are managed and structured. This is a road that has not yet been taken and should be worth trying.
One way of doing this would be to facilitate an ecosystem that is encouraging of young women to enter the fold of security policy research. Mentors and ‘womentors’ will have to nurture their talents and provide them with opportunities to make a difference. Recognition of their ideas and competence will be as important as recognition of their special responsibilities in nurturing their families to achieve work-life stability. In order to balance demanding careers with family requirements, women well realise that they need discipline and time management. But even more importantly, they need supportive family structures and enabling professional and social environments.
As more women populate decision-making structures on national and international security, it would be enriched by different perspectives. Perhaps, disarmament has eluded us for so long because of the predominance of one particular kind of approach, mirror-imaged across nations. The focus has primarily been on building security through weapons and military capabilities rather than building security through peace. However, the fact of the matter is that while an environment of peace would naturally provide security, mere security may or may not bring peace. This approach needs more consideration, especially in today’s environment when heightened threat perceptions from stressed major power relations are likely to lead to increased military capabilities and expenditures. It is even more worrying that this is happening despite all nations’ recent experience with the pandemic that has exposed the abysmally low priority granted to citizen’s health and human security.
There is undoubtedly a need to promote different perspectives to augment discussions on national and international security. Women are needed as part of the agenda on building security through peace, not just because they are victims of war, but because they have the potential to bring their unique perspectives as equal stakeholders in the international system.
May 24 might be international women’s day for peace and disarmament, but the fact is that every human being has a stake in celebrating it in such a way that both women and peace and disarmament receive a fair chance to live up to their potential.
About the Author
Dr. Manpreet Sethi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, where she leads the project on nuclear security. She is an expert on a range of nuclear issues, having published over 80 papers in academic journals of repute. Over the last 18 years she has been researching and writing on subjects related to nuclear energy, strategy, non-proliferation, disarmament, arms and export controls, and BMD. Her current focus areas include nuclear security instruments (UNSCR 1540, summits, treaties and laws, PSI, CSI, etc) and nuclear governance (regimes and architecture).
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.
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