The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Game-changer for Female Participation?

Marla S. Zgheib

Research Team, SCRAP Weapons

“I made a vow that their deaths would not be in vain and to warn the world about the danger of nuclear weapons, to make sure that no one else suffers as we have suffered.” By these words, Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and an eminent activist for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons, celebrated the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on 22 January 2021. The milestone that has made nuclear weapons – a major threat to our human life as well as the life of all species –  illegal under international law. Yet, in making the first move to hold states accountable for acquiring, possessing or testing nuclear explosive materials, the TPNW is a symbolic shift from patriarchal structures to a more inclusive discourse. Disarmament has been associated with emotional weakness and naivety, but the Nuclear Ban aims to depart from these associations  and recognises the agency of the marginalised.

Throughout history, masculinity and the assumptions of power were deployed through language in the security discourse. In 1945, the first nuclear weapons to be used in a war, destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were named “little boy and fat man”. Since the Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents them from possessing nuclear weapons, several non-nuclear weapons states were claiming that the treaty turned them emasculated. Additionally, “We had to prove that we are not eunuchs” stated Balasaheb Thackeray, Hindu Nationalist leader, after the 1998 Indian tests of nuclear weapons. These gendered phrasing strengthened the male narrative and constructed patriarchal norms in dealing with power in politics. However, the TPNW, while acknowledging that the abolition of nuclear weapons is an inevitable part of power and security, introduces a new perspective which focuses on human security rather than national security. With this fundamental change of perspective, it encourages feminist policy engagement.

To truly understand the accomplishment of the TPNW, it is crucial to highlight the process involved leading to its adoption and subsequent entry into force. Several non-nuclear states have participated in the road to the TPNW. In October 2016, 123 nations of the UN General Assembly agreed to negotiate a legally binding agreement on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the engagement of several non-governmental organizations had a great impact on the adoption of the treaty. For instance, the tremendous efforts achieved by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) were crucial to make a treaty-based abolition of nuclear weapons, recognised through ICAN’s achievement of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Most importantly, the TPNW negotiations were strongly promoted by the voices of women activists and diplomats. Thus, the treaty was an exercise of placing women in the disarmament discourse, and an exercise to challenge the international equation fully relying on nuclear dependent states.

The new legal status provides an opportunity for nuclear women abolitionists to raise their voices and introduce new security policies with a human-centric approach. For the first time, an international legal instrument on nuclear weapons recognizes the disproportionate impact on both women and indigenous people. Deciding to listen to the testimonies of those affected by nuclear weapons use and testing, the treaty provides a voice to those who were denied one for decades. This evolution of agency in nuclear disarmament makes the treaty compatible with the ideas of intersectional feminism. Due to the acknowledgment of the problems inherently constructed by male dominant practices in the TPNW, nuclear disarmament diplomacy is now in a new era.

Since discussions around the link between militarism and masculinity started as early as 1915 during the first international congress of women at The Hague, concerns have been raised whether the TPNW will make any difference. However, the treaty challenges a patriarchal narrative on nuclear weapons. It is pushing security to be understood as a condition to maintain peace rather than to develop immoral weapons. Legitimizing it under international law and allowing for more women voices will add pressure on several security policies adopted by the nine nuclear weapons states. With the ratifications by the Philippines and Comoros of the TPNW around two weeks ago, the treaty proves that it is not just a time of jubilation, rather a time of using the treaty as powerful means for attaining peace. One of the crucial ways to achieve this aim is seeing the treaty as a change-maker for female participation, leading to feminist foreign policies able to deconstruct the impediments to disarmament imposed by the state-centric approach.

Watch our webinar below to listen to experts speak about the Ban treaty and what it means for female participation.  


Marla S. Zgheib

Marla is a member of the Research team at SCRAP weapons