The $100- to $120-billion international arms trade in 2012 intensified the internal conflicts in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo but also brought guns into homes in these countries, where men turned them against women.
That was the message that the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom brought to an event on the margins of the 57th session on the Commission on the Status of Women, held at the United Nations in early March. In a program called “Violence Against Women: The Lethal Consequences of Arms,” four country program leaders for the league — Joy Onyesoh of Nigeria, Annie Matundu of Congo, Adila Caravaca of Costa Rica and Nina Ferrer of Colombia – explained how cultures where guns are rampant chiefly harm women and girls.
The panel discussion on March 5 at a crowded Church Center site, located across the street from UN headquarters in New York, quickly gravitated toward questions on the best way to regulate arms transfers and prevent arms-related deaths in situations of domestic and gender-based violence.
The panelists repeatedly referred to the Arms Trade Treaty, now being negotiated at the UN, with a vote for its adoption taken on March 28. The panelists said that prioritizing the rights of women and girls in the treaty was important, given the prevalence of arms violence against women worldwide.
“In Colombia, the macho culture promotes the idea the man has to have a gun to take care of his family,” but also leads to the notion “that if a man has a gun, he can use the gun against women,” Ferrer, the Colombian panelist, said. She noted the current peace talks in Colombia and the continuing predominance of gender-based violence there, lingering effects of the country’s recently ended 50-year armed conflict.
“Most gender-based gun killings in Colombia happen at home, and happen with the arms that some men buy to protect their families and their wives,” Ferrer said.
In Congo, guns and machetes are common weapons, but guns hold greater power, enabling soldiers who have them to do just about anything, including rape women and girls systematically in conflict settings, said Annie Matundu, the women’s peace league representative from Congo.
Yet in some nonconflict countries like Nicaragua, guns are still popular in protecting against a national “security hysteria” — prompted by fears of drug-cartel activity and related risks of violence — and their strategic use against women, Caravaca from Costa Rica, said.
Costa Rica does not have a military, a status that inculcates a culture of peace among its citizens from a young age. This culture distinguishes the country from its more violent Central American neighbors, Caravaca said. But that doesn’t mean violence doesn’t occur. Although the government has taken steps in the last year to stop the flow of guns to men with a history of committing gender-based violence, women still feel the brunt of the street arms flow despite homicide rates dropping in the country, Caravaca added. For the first time in six years, the rate dropped in 2011, to 10.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
The link between gun possession and men with a record of domestic violence is not being made on a broad-enough scale, the speakers from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said during the forum. The league has been advocating for global disarmament since 1915 and it works on carrying out international treaties on women, peace and security and human rights on national levels.
“We need to link how we deal with the Arms Trade Treaty and gender relations and how do we regulate what happens to those guns in the communities,” Madeleine Rees, the secretary general for the league, said in closing remarks. “We need to make sure the governments that buy the guns have regulations in force, which are implemented, which prevent men who are violent from getting access to those guns.”
If an Arms Trade Treaty is adopted on March 28 or, failing that, voted on at a General Assembly session on April 2, it will be the first international regulation on the transfer of arms and regulation of ammunition sales. Negotiations on the draft text fell apart last year, but the resumed talks this month still circle around the same contentious points. So far, the United States remains the biggest block against adopting a truly effective treaty, advocates contend, who say that its current version falls short of providing solid impact on the ground, particularly regarding arms transfers, what weapons are covered in the treaty and regulation of ammunition imports.
Right now, the draft does not include gender-based violence in the main articles, either, but is part of a lesser provision. The provision calls for governments to conduct national risk assessments on the effects of arms transfers on gender-based violence or other “feasible” measures to prevent weapons from fostering violence against women. Iceland has taken the lead on strengthening the language on gender-based violence and arms transfer denials. As of March 25, it had 80 countries supporting the agenda, though the US was not on board, the women’s league Web site says.
“It pretty much says now if there is a risk of gender-based violence, states should do their best to prevent it, which doesn’t mean much,” Josefine Karlsson, the secretary general for the women’s league in Sweden, said in an interview after the March 5 event. “So you can give some funding to some women’s organizations and then what?”
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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to www.amydlieberman.com