Panel  to launch the new publication: 
Gender Perspectives on Disarmament 
14 March 2001, United Nations


Wendy Cukier, MA, MBA, DU (HC), LLD (HC) M.S.C. 
Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto, Canada




Approximately 500,000 people are killed each year with small arms - 300,000 in "conflict" and 200,000 in murders, suicides and accidents. Recently released statistics show that the number of small arms in civilian possession far outnumber those in the possession of states and police. In addition, the evidence is clear that in some contexts, for example, the Horn of Africa, the principal risk is the AK-47, in many other regions such as South Africa or Columbia, handguns - revolvers and pistols - are the weapons most often used to kill. In some countries, such as Canada and Finland, the principal risk, particularly to women and children, is the hunting rifle.

Research also clearly shows that the availability of small arms increases the lethality of conflict whether between warring factions or individuals. The proliferation of small arms also contributes to a culture of violence and a cycle that is difficult to break: Violence fuels insecurity; insecurity fuels violence. The negative consequences of the proliferation and misuse of small arms are an impediment to economic development, provision of health and education services as well as the development of effective governance and democracy.

The evidence is strong that the unrestrained availability of small arms is directly linked to levels of lethal violence in both conflict and non-conflict contexts. Research conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows that if small arms are not removed following the cessation of conflict, interpersonal violence substitutes for violence between warring factions. In one case, levels of firearm death declined only 30% following the cessation of conflict. In high-income countries, there is a very strong relationship between the levels of firearms ownership and levels of firearms-related death. There is strong evidence to suggest that where there are more small arms there are more small arms deaths, whether in conflict or peace.

A discussion of gender is relevant to understanding the effects of violence as well as its causes, in conflict and in peace, and particularly where small arms are concerned. While small arm casualties among women and children are significant both in war and in “peace”, the vast majority of victims of gun violence world-wide are men. At the same time, women are targets of certain types of violence as a result of their gender. Moreover, some forms of violence against women are unique and an understanding of these dynamics is the key to effective intervention. For a variety of reasons, small arms ownership and use are predominantly male enterprises. A disproportionate percentage of the aggressors (whether in conflict or in peace) are male, while a significant proportion of victims are women. In other words, the percentage of women victimised by the misuse of small arms is greater than the percentage of small arms misuse by women. Sociological perspectives have focused attention on militarized cultures that are both a cause and an effect of the proliferation and misuse of firearms. The political processes at the national and international level are dominated by men who bring certain perspectives to small arms. As one Canadian Senator noted during a heated debate on domestic firearm regulation: "if there were more women in Parliament, we would not even be having this debate". The way in which expertise is defined (e.g. technical knowledge of the weapons themselves rather than knowledge of violence or conflict prevention) also shapes the way in which the issue is addressed. However, women have played critical roles throughout the world in successful community-based and advocacy efforts to address the problem. Many of these efforts have involved building coalitions that bring together players from across various sectors. The problems associated with the proliferation and misuse of small arms is a women's issue, but not exclusively so. Indeed, mobilizing women is critical to devising and evaluating strategies to reduce these problems. The gender lens provides a unique perspective which crosses traditional boundaries that encourage dichotomies such as crime/conflict; licit/illicit; north/south; domestic/international. It promotes an integrated and holistic approach to the problem of small arms that includes addressing both demand and supply. The regrettable truth is that women are often as much at risk of violence from small arms in contexts described as peaceful as they are in conflicts. Women are as much at risk from licit small arms as from illicit small arms. In terms of improving the safety of women and children from small arms, measures aimed at strengthening control over civilian possession of small arms in order to reduce diversion and misuse are as critical as those aimed at strengthening controls over state to state transfers or imports and exports. Consequently, a gender analysis reinforces the need for an integrated and holistic plan of action arising from the 2001 conference.


Reducing the Supply: Licit/Illicit Links 

While landmines and conventional weapons tend to be concentrated in the hands of states and warring parties, it has been estimated that as many small arms are in the hands of civilians as those possessed by governments. The types of weapons, and their sources, vary from region to region. For example, in South Africa and Brazil, the principal small arms recovered are handguns while in Kenya and many other post-conflict regions they are AK-47s (Cukier, 2000c). Diversions of small arms from licit to illicit markets are a major contributor to the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons. It is estimated that more than 500,000 small arms are stolen each year from civilians, and therefore by definition, are falling into the hands of criminals (UN, 1997; Cook, et. al. 1995). In many countries, the majority of small arms recovered in crime appear to have been at one time legally owned by states or by civilians. States that establish strict controls on civilian possession of firearms are still vulnerable to weapons illegally imported from other states. Surplus weapons create another source for illicit trafficking. There are many documented cases of post-conflict weapons, surplus military weapons, police weapons and weapons recovered in crime re-entering the secondary market. Weapons collection programs in post-conflict areas are critical to the establishment of lasting peace - otherwise the risk of high levels of violence remains (Meddings, 1999; ICRC, 1999).

Towards an integrated strategy 

Complex problems require complex solutions and the small arms problem can only be tackled through a multi-layered strategy that addresses both supply and demand at the international, regional, national and local levels. States, NGOs and community groups have been involved in a wide range of international initiatives aimed at countering both the supply and demand for illicit weapons. Concurrently, there are a host of regional initiatives by the OAS convention, the EU, the Organisation of African Unity, the Economic Community of West Africa States, the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community, all aimed at harmonizing regional approaches to various aspects of small arms production, transfers and possession. A number of these proposals include explicit reference to the important role that must be played by NGOs. Not only are NGOs involved in many of the advocacy efforts, but they are also involved in educational initiatives (such as Peace in the City) as well as weapons collections programs.

UN Crime Commission

 The UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has recognised the need to strengthen regulations on firearms in order to address violence against women. Its resolution of 1997, sponsored by 33 countries, "requests the Secretary-General to promote, within existing resources, technical co-operation projects that recognize the relevance of firearm regulation in addressing violence against women, in promoting justice for victims of crime and in addressing the problem of children and youth as victims and perpetrators of crime and in re-establishing or strengthening the rule of law in post-conflict peace-keeping projects." While the Commission made specific recommendations regarding the need to strengthen domestic legislation, subsequent efforts have focused only on developing standards for marking and controlling the import/export/transfers of firearms as part of the recently concluded negotiations of the Firearms Protocol. The obligations of states to place a priority on safety of citizens, particularly women, is underscored in the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW).

2001 Conference 

The proposed 2001 Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms in all its Aspects is an important step in reducing small arms violence against women. International-level efforts include the firearms protocol being negotiated as part of the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and the upcoming UN 2001 Conference on Illicit Trafficking of Small Arms in All its Aspects. Non Governmental Organizations from around the world are engaged in these initiatives including members of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA has recently issued a seven-point plan of action endorsed by more than 50 organizations which reinforces the importance of a multifaceted approach addressing both the demand and supply. Among the key recommendations of the IANSA position are: 


We know that world-wide there are more guns in the hands of civilians than states. The US alone has 200,000,000 small arms of which 500,000 are stolen each year. We know that strengthening domestic regulation of firearms will reduce illicit trafficking by preventing diversion of civilian guns to illegal markets. More importantly however, strengthening domestic legislation will improve the safety of women who are equally, if not more at risk from legal guns. As the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters noted: “the distinction between ‘the criminal element’ and ‘law abiding citizens’ is meaningless in the context of violence against women.”

Yet the gender bias seen in struggles for domestic regulation at the national level pervades the 2001 conference discussions and even the negotiations among NGOs. The importance of strong domestic legislation has been seen repeatedly in regional declarations, for example in Africa and Central America. And while strong domestic firearms legislation was one of the elements identified as a way of preventing conflict, criminality and violence against women and children in the 1997 resolution of the UN Commission on Crime and Criminal Justice, many governments and even NGOs are willing to drop it out of concern that it is “too controversial”. This unfortunate position has arisen due to resistance from some states and threats from the American gun lobby. If one analyzes the discussions among states and NGOs regarding the upcoming 2001 conference one sees clear evidence of efforts to remove discussion of domestic regulation from the agenda based on arguments that "it is not attainable" or "not a priority". This speaks volumes about how little is understood about women’s experience with small arms. I hope we can count on a strong voice from women’s groups at the 2001 conference to ensure that we move forward in tackling this serious problem.

The links between licit and illicit, domestic and international, north and south are perhaps reflected in my own experience with this issue. I became involved in small arms when on December 6, 1989, a man walked into a Canadian engineering school, separated the male from the female students and shouting "You are all a bunch of feminists" shot 26 people with a military style rifle, killing 14 young women. December 6 is now a national day of mourning to women killed in violence. The Montreal Massacre was the catalyst for a range of initiatives aimed at reducing violence and particularly the misuse of small arms. It also created a vicious and virulent backlash from radical elements of the gun lobby. Despite the obvious differences, I think there is much that links the experiences with small arms of women around the world, whether they are in South Africa, Columbia or Canada.


Wendy Cukier
Associate Director, Academic (Interim) and Professor,
School of Information Technology Management and Professor Justice Studies Coordinator SAFER-Net President, Coalition for Gun Control

With over 20 years experience Professor Cukier teaches courses in strategy; information technology and emerging market trends. She has been active in a number of initiatives designed to promote the participation of women in technology professions and has undertaken a number of studies on issues related to gender and technology. Professor Cukier is cross appointed to the school of Justice Studies where she coordinates the Small Arms Firearms Education and Research Network (SAFER-Net) which is a part of the small arms yearbook project and conducts research on various aspects of firearms violence and prevention. She has published over 200 articles and has been active in the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Commission, the development of the ad hoc committee's firearms protocol and the 2001 Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms. She also the co-founder and President of the Coalition for Gun Control (Canada), which is supported by 350 public safety organizations and has been credited with the passage of two major pieces of legislation. Her work has been recognized with a Docteur d'Universite (HC) from the Faculty of Medicine, Laval University (1996) and a LLD (HC) from Concordia University (1997), the Canadian Public Health Association’s Award of Merit (1996) Jewish Women International Woman of the Year (1995), a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award and a Civilian Citation from the Ottawa Police Services (1991). She recently received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross (Civilian Division) for her volunteer work in reducing violence. She holds an MA and MBA from the University of and is currently completing a PhD in Management Science at York University.