Selling Arms is a Feminist Issue

Laura Le Ray is a second-year student in International Relations, particularly interested in women in wartime and political psychology. Her hobbies include boxing, writing and learning languages.

Because “women’s rights have been hijacked for the purposes of liberal interventionists,”[1]
Because selling arms is not a trade action like another,
Because selling arms should not be justified as an economic matter, a growth driver, a promotion for defence industries, a diplomatic necessity, or a source of employment,
Because selling arms values business over human rights, because selling arms is ultimately a political gesture, and because gender matters in politics, then selling arms is a feminist issue which needs to be acknowledged.

At first sight, the link between arms trade and feminism may not be obvious. But thanks to recent legal developments there is a growing awareness of the gendered impact of arms trade.

Indeed, arms transfer can be directly implicated in gender-based violence. For example when arms can be used to impose rape as a weapon of war or to commit domestic violence or femicide. Arms trade can also have an indirect negative impact on women’s equality and bargaining power within the household, and on their participation in public and political life by hindering their mobility, their access to resources and to employment opportunities.

However, as denounced in 2012 by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, Western powers continue to prioritise investment, trapped in an “inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time.”[2] This indecisive behaviour fuels a counterproductive process, moving one step forward and two steps back, and this needs to change.

In 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty came into force, ratified by 94 countries. Under the action of organisations such as the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a gender dimension was included. Article 7(4) of the treaty makes it mandatory for arms exporting countries to assess the risk that their weapons will be used in the commission of gender-based violence and deny authorization of any sales that present an overriding risk.

However, there are no clear guidelines on the mechanism to assess whether any transferred arms will contribute to gender-based violence. Consequently, many signatories of the treaty like Germany are still selling arms to countries like India where violence against women is rooted in gendered social structures, to Iraq where ISIS specifically targets women for sexual slavery and forced prostitution, or to Mexico which ranked 10th in cases of femicide perpetrated with firearms in 2015.

Another example is the British government which allowed £4.6bn arms sales with Saudi Arabia since 2015 while Saudi Arabia plays a leading role in the coalition intervention in Yemen where women suffer disproportionately due to forced displacement, trafficking, lack of access to health and destruction of houses, markets, etc.[3]

Furthermore, in September 2017, the US government signed a $593m arms deal with the Nigerian military, including the supply of A-29 Super Tucano warplanes manufactured by Pratt and Whitney in Canada, which will be part of the Nigerian Air Force, used in the past to bomb refugee camps. Thus, Canada’s Trudeau-led ‘feminist’ government is arming one of the world’s most repressive and anti-feminist governments. This inconsistency reveals a “compartmentalised version of feminism,”[4] conveniently empowering local women but without any true concern for the world’s women.

Hence, in conflicts, crimes against women are overlooked and ignored by Western leaders who stress the importance of human rights and women’s rights but fall silent on these issues as soon as economic and political interests are at stake. As observed by the IANSA’s women network, “the massive international exports of guns sustain gender-based violence as a pillar of international and national patriarchy.”[5]

Yet, women’s security is directly related to both national and international security. According to Valerie M. Hudson, “the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.”[6]

Thus, in 2014, Sweden launched its feminist foreign policy. Margot Wallström, the Swedish Foreign Minister, promoted the idea that all of Sweden’s decision-making would be informed by its vision for women’s empowerment, and that striving towards gender equality should be a precondition to achieve wider security-policy objectives. Indeed, as mentioned by Ann Bernes, Sweden’s Ambassador for Gender Equality at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, “you can’t be successful unless you apply a perspective where you look at whole populations and whole societies. If you don’t do that, you’re partially blind.”[7]

In 2015, Margot Wallström refused the cooperation on arms deal with Saudi Arabia and denounced the Saudi authorities’ attitude to human rights ast incompatible with a feminist foreign policy. However, this decision led to a diplomatic crisis. Wallström’s decision was condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Saudi Arabia cut ties with Sweden.

This type of backlash against progress is intolerable, governments should not have to choose between feminism and their foreign policy. A feminist perspective is not an idealistic agenda interfering in the realpolitik power struggles between nations. It is rather a method of analysis challenging the “Western dominant, realism-focused approach to foreign policy” as explained by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.[8] It is time to focus on what can be done to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and practice on the issue of arms trade and more broadly in the field of foreign policy.

First of all, to improve transparency around arms transfer and ensure the application of the ATT, specific criteria need to be developed to assess whether arms transfers will contribute to gender based violence. Furthermore, the political narrative legitimizing arms trade must be deconstructed. Indeed, as observed by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the “most pervasive” justification is that of jobs. However, research shows that a move towards offshore wind and marine energy could produce more employment than the arms industry.[9] Then a key element to achieve feminist foreign policy is to promote women’s political participation and leadership.

Only feminist foreign policy will allow us to fully understand the consequences of states’ decisions on human experience, such as arms trade, and to create better and viable policies in theory and in practice.



[1] The Huffington Post, September 14, 2012, The Arms Trade is a Feminist Issue, available at

[2] UK Parliament, October 26, 2012, available at

[3] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, January 2017, The Impact of Germany’s Arms Transfers on Women, available at

[4] Al-Jazeera, 3 Nov. 2017, Canada’s hypocritical ‘feminist’ foreign policy, available at

[5] Enloe, C. (2014), Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, University of California Press, p.25.

[6] Hudson, V.M. April 24, 2012, What Sex Means for World Peace, Foreign Policy, available at

[7] Apolitical, July 27, 2017, Sweden and Canada fly the flag for feminist foreign policy, available at

[8] Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, available at

[9] Campaign Against Arms Trade, updated April 13, 2017, available at

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