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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Doing Away with Nuclear Weapons: A Call to Action from Feminist Foreign Policy

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., joins Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson in a march on the United Nations Plaza. New York City, Nov. 1, 1963. Bettmann/Getty Images

The conversation around disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a pressing issue since the Cold War. Despite widespread agreement amongst scholars, activists and some policymakers that nuclear weapons are the most lethal instruments of war known to people, the international security discourse overlooks the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the associated gender angle. This article will, therefore, take a look at the discourse and policy around nuclear weapons with a feminist lens.

Feminism and Nuclear Weapons

According to Cynthia Enloe (2004), states with nuclear weapons have been associated with masculine traits of strength and power – traits that are privileged in the traditional realist understanding of international relations. In line with realist theories, countries continue to acquire nuclear weapons and build up their arsenal because of the defence dilemma and the power-security dilemma (Buzan, 2007). As long as a state possesses nuclear weapons, other states will also seek to possess them, creating an outcome in which all states are less secure. The possession of nuclear weapons manufactures consent and legitimises violence in the name of protecting the state. Owing to this heavily state-centric conception of international security, feminists have found it difficult to discuss nuclear disarmament issues so long as the masculine traits are valued over ‘feminine’/’emasculating’ traits of peace and non-aggression.

Feminists criticise the mainstream nuclear weapons discourse for its heavily masculine-centric approach that prioritises hard security values over soft, wholesome, human-centric conceptions of security. The language within treaties and discussions surrounding these weapons of mass destruction heavily disregards the victims, such as the intergenerational trauma and harm caused by the weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Feminists like Carol Cohn (1987) believe that such exclusionary language has relegated diplomatic discussions as inferior to acquiring nuclear weapons to assure deterrence. Feminists also call to attention the gendered consequences of the detonation of such weapons, including the fact that women are disproportionately affected by displacement due to the damage, psychological consequences and social stigma. Biologically as well, women are worse off. For example, women exposed to ionized radiation risked getting breast cancer and pregnant women risked spontaneous abortions and stillbirth. [1]

In a nutshell, feminists believe that “there is nothing to be proud of a country’s security being based on the threat of instant vaporization of large numbers of civilians and on enormous numbers subjected to an excruciatingly painful death caused by fires, blasts and overwhelming prompt nuclear radiation.” [2] As a result, anti-war feminists have been calling for complete nuclear disarmament and have even been at the helm of several international efforts including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) which even secured Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the cause.

The Nuke Ban Treaty

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a milestone in the denuclearisation regime as it is the first one with legally binding provisions to prohibit nuclear weapons and work towards the eventual goal of total elimination. Also known as the Nuke Ban Treaty, it is set to enter into force on January 22, 2021 after reaching the required 50 ratifications, with Honduras sealing the deal in October. The Treaty was adopted at the United Nations on July 7, 2017 with a thumping 122 votes in favour and only one vote against (Netherlands) and one vote in abstention (Singapore). The TPNW prohibits signatories from any activities pertaining to the development, possession, stockpile, use, sale or testing of nuclear weapons.

The TPNW also has the distinction of being the first and only gender-sensitive nuclear weapons agreement to date. The preamble acknowledges the gendered dimension of nuclear weapons by calling attention to the “disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionising radiation” and by stressing the importance of women’s participation in nuclear disarmament, deeming their participation is indispensable to sustainable peace. [3] Ireland was a strong advocate for gender mainstreaming in disarmament policies, emphasising on the need to take seriously the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. [4] Persistent advocacy sustained over years of campaigning and building awareness led to these outcomes but this is only the first step in moving past rigid dichotomies of hard versus soft security, national versus human security and masculine versus feminine conceptions of defence. The momentum gained with the ratification of this treaty must not remain lip-service or stop here with tokenistic homages. Rather, it must build into actionable goals, including gender-sensitive assistance to those affected by nuclear weapon testing and detonation.

P5 Powers

While the adoption of the TNPW is another formal addition to the regime, after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it remains appalling that the nine nuclear-armed states do not support the Treaty, with the USA going so far as to urge signatories to back out of their commitments. [5] To date, the rights to own nuclear weapons are seen as the preserve of the elite club of a few powerful states, the Permanent Five of the Security Council (P5), USA, UK, Russia, China and France as per the NPT. Seen as a representation of political power, these nuclear weapons are used as tools of dominance and control by the P5, reflecting ‘patriarchal, gendered and colonial ideas about who and what makes “good” policy’. [6] When a select group of privileged countries dictate the rules about who can and cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, they create an enormous imbalance of power in terms of decision-making on an international security issue that affects the entire world. Moreover, with France, UK and USA engaging with feminist foreign policies to varying degrees, it makes it not only hypocritical but incompatible for them to support militaristic policies while also proclaiming to be feminist. [6]

Nuclear Weapons and Feminist Foreign Policy

As one of the states with the most influence in terms of global peace and security, France’s position in international politics as both a nuclear power yet one with a feminist foreign policy mandate calls into question the legitimacy of the latter. France has accrued nuclear weapons since the Cold War days and has conducted testing in its former colonies, such as Algeria and French Polynesia in the 1960s. Although successful administrations have decreased the size of their nuclear weapon arsenals and have signed the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, France has never committed to abolishing them. [6] Postcolonial feminists have called out France for reinforcing masculinised global power hierarchies, due to its stockpiling of weapons and testing them outside its own sovereign borders. Macron’s justification for the maintenance of nuclear weapons is also construed in gendered terms, wherein he claims its realistic to own such weapons as a form of conflict deterrence. “This assumes a hegemonic authoritative masculinity while abolitionists are feminised and dismissed as emotional and unrealistic.” [6] Furthermore, the opportunity cost of using financial and capital resources used to maintain its arsenal is investing it in peace, poverty reduction, sustainable development and even its own feminist international assistance plan to support gender equality.

In Canada, though Justin Trudeau’s government has committed to a feminist foreign policy, its paltry and contradictory stance on nuclear weapons has led to widespread ire with anti-war feminists. Canada was another party against the TPNW, even though its logic of disarmament, gender mainstreaming and reframing of security as a question of humans instead of states, fits perfectly well with the rationale of feminist foreign policy. As a member of NATO too, Canada was united with other members in defending the strategy of nuclear deterrence and in 2017, it boycotted the talks that launched the TPNW in the first place. [7] Activist Elana Wright also questioned the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s administration for increasing the defence budget by 70% while feminist international development assistance is only given approximately 0.3% of the country’s Gross National Income. [8] Further, the government’s National Action Plan on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda failed to even mention nuclear weapons or human security. Ultimately, Trudeau’s disinterest in listening to the voices calling for nuclear disarmament, neglects the human costs of the potential use of nuclear weapons – a stance that is completely antithetical to his feminist foreign policy. [7]


Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, perfectly sums up the feminist stance on nuclear weapons, saying they are “the ultimate symbol of injustice. They bring death and destruction, but also inequity and manipulation. They are the ultimate patriarchal tool: the ultimate way for the privileged to maintain their power.’’ [9] The reification of militarism, nuclear weapons only serve to sustain patriarchal international relations by reinforcing masculinist, state-centric conceptions of security and blocking alternative ways of thinking about disarmament. A truly transformative feminist foreign policy agenda has the potential to recognise that banning them in their entirety is the only way forward for peace built on empathy and trust, rather than the optimisation of military power.


1. C.T. Butale, (2019, January), A Feminist Perspective on the Nuclear Weapon Discourse and its Gendered Consequences, PHD Thesis at Cyprus International University, accessed at:

2. WILPF International, (2019, August 6), What Do Feminists Think of Nuclear Weapons, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom,

3. A. Pytlak, (2018, March), The nuclear weapons ban treaty: a resource guide for WILPF, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom,


5. R.P. Rajagopalan, (2020, November 5), Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Set to Enter Into Force, The Diplomat,

6. T. Haastrup et al, (2020, October), Feminism, Power, & Nuclear Weapons: An Eye on the P5, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, accessed at:

7. L-E. Broadhead and S. Howard, (2019, October 14), The Nuclear Ban Treaty and the cloud over Trudeau’s ‘feminist’ foreign policy, Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis, accessed at:


9. R. Acheson, (2018, October 12), A feminist critique of the atomic bomb, Heinrich Boll Stiftung (The Green Political Foundation),,opposition%20of%20banning%20nuclear%20weapons.&text=It%20offers%20a%20concept%20of,rather%20than%20weapons%20and%20war.

Further Reading


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