Women and girls are on the frontline when it comes to the impact of small arms. Here an older woman show scars of bullet wounds on her head . The 12 year old girl with her was kept as a sex slave /’bush wife’ by a rebel commander. Liberia.
Credit: Brent Stirton/OCHA

Many agencies and studies have concluded that small arms have a disproportionate impact on women and children compared with men. Both gender and age alter the experience of small-arms violence, and it is often vulnerable groups that bear the greatest burden.

Men and guns

While small-arms misuse may disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups – women, children, the displaced – men are almost always the buyers, owners and users of guns. In conflict, they constitute the majority of armed forces, and thus the majority of combat deaths. The 2004 Small Arms Survey Yearbook observed that armed violence in peacetime is “an overwhelmingly male phenomenon”. In many cultures, masculine identities are grounded upon the possession of guns. In Acholi communities in Uganda, for example, a boy becomes a man when he receives his first gun. When violent notions of manhood coincide with cultures marked by violence and in which small arms are easily available, violent solutions are sought above peaceful ones. Yet increased levels of violence, made all the more lethal through arms proliferation, often have the most devastating impact on a society’s most vulnerable groups.

Bearing the burden

Vulnerable groups often share characteristics that mean they are disproportionately affected by armed violence. In industrialised countries, the economically marginalised are less able to absorb the costs of injury to themselves or family members, as they are often without insurance and have limited access to healthcare. Worldwide, but particularly in developing countries, where many may rely on the income of few, the loss or injury of a breadwinner is significant. With armed violence promoting human insecurity, it is no coincidence either that the majority of people who have been forcibly displaced are women and children, that is, those who are less able to defend themselves.

In many communities, not only will the burden of care of injured family members fall on women and children, but their suffering will be compounded by limited access to the labour market. Equally, in societies where women are perceived as having a lower status, infrastructure collapse may mean that women and girls are sidelined in the provision of healthcare and education. Desperation stemming from impoverishment and forced flight can result in women and children turning to prostitution, commercial labour and domestic servitude. Future community exclusion is but one tragic outcome.

Sexual violence at gunpoint

Small arms allow men to develop a ‘grab’ culture where they take what they want by force. In eastern DRC tens of thousands of girls and women have been raped at gun points in recent years.
Credit: IRIN
For women, armed violence is often combined with sexual violence, and countless examples have demonstrated how the proliferation of guns is often associated with an increase in incidents of rape. With men almost always the bearers of guns, power imbalances between men and women are further distorted. Firearms are not only used to facilitate rape and sexual assault, but armed violence and conflict also remove society’s normal restraints on men. In addition, the absence of rule of law allows security forces to perpetrate sexual abuses with impunity. Stress in post-conflict environments, combined with the diffusion of small arms into communities, engenders a rise in intimate-partner violence. Even in nonconflict settings, women are more likely to be attacked by a partner if a gun is available; in 2003 ‘The American Journal of Public Health’ found that access to a gun increased the likelihood of a woman being killed by her husband fivefold.

As combatants, or in other roles within armed groups, women and children often suffer disproportionately. The 2004 report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers recorded that between 2001 and 2004, armed fighting in 21 states around the world had involved children under the age of 18, while at any one time it is believed that 300,000 children are actively fighting as soldiers. Both governments and nonstate actors have been complicit in the recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. Children, in particular, may be recruited through forced abduction, while women may be enticed with promises of greater gender equality, which often may remain unfulfilled. Female combatants are often exploited as sex slaves under the threat of armed violence.

Children in thrall

For children, armed violence can mean a lost childhood. Particularly in countries afflicted by conflict, generations of children may never see the inside of a classroom, subject instead to a “Kalashnikov culture”. They may not have adequate access to healthcare or food. These consequences, combined with the disabling effects of small-arms injuries and the psychological trauma of witnessing, experiencing or perpetrating violence, will have knock-on effects for the rest of their lives. The loss of opportunities in turn will make children more vulnerable to exploitation and forced migration. Indeed, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers also estimated in their 2004 report that children accounted for nearly half of the world’s refugees and displaced people.

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