Examining the gendered impacts of explosive weapons: a literature overview
By Lydia Day
Explosive weapons cause immense suffering across populations, from the immediate impact on the victim’s body, to lasting psychological damage, to the destruction of homes and communities. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have seen explosive weapons cause severe damage to their civilian populations. And such violence has distinctly gendered implications.
This violence, though, is often discussed in terms of direct and indirect impacts, but not always in terms of the varied gender impact such violence might have. Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) records explosive violence incidents across the world, and includes demographic information, such as gender, in their Explosive Violence Monitor.
It is, however, difficult to monitor the indirect impacts of explosive weapons through datasets and recorders. This is because the effects on healthcare, infrastructure, and education are much harder to quantify. Indeed, it is even more difficult to quantify the gendered nature of these long-term reverberations.
According to AOAV’s data, since the end of 2010, there have been 3,509 explosive incidents around the world (out of a total of 24,041), where gender was noted, according to English language media. Of these, women accounted for 16% of the total casualties recorded (7,187 women among 44,010 civilian casualties). This observation of women being a distinct minority of the direct victims of explosive violence is mirrored in other casualty recorders’ datasets, including the Yemen Data Project, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, and Syrian Shuhada. While there are limitations on all of these datasets – AOAV’s included – a global review of explosive violence and its direct impact on civilians suggests that civilian men are disproportionately impacted.
Literature produced by the UN, NGOs, and academics has widely attempted to interrogate both the direct and indirect impacts of explosive violence. There is, however, a notable lack of work that adopts a gendered lens to these impacts. This relative omission is important, especially given the gendered disparity in direct casualties from explosive weapons and the indirect implications for child birth, public safety, and displacement – all of which are significantly under examined areas of research. Typically, literature has identified that these indirect impacts harm women disproportionately. While gender is often mentioned in the literature on explosive weapons, it is often as a side note rather than as the main focus, and is made without much in the way of evidence.
This report outlines the main examples of critical literature that encompass both gender and explosive violence. It does not aim to diminish this vital work done by the UN, NGOs, and academics on this topic. Rather, it attempts to point towards areas for future research and academic investigation.
United Nations Agencies and Institutes
In 2010, then United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), Ban Ki-Moon, publicly denounced the use of explosive weapons in armed conflict, calling on actors to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Such a call signalled the UN’s growing focus on both the immediate and reverberating effects of explosive weapons. Reports issued by the UNSG, for reasons of limited space, do not provide a comprehensive overview of explosive weapons. In particular, they do not properly break down the effects of such weapons to account for gendered differences.
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)
UNIDIR carried out a Discourses on Explosive Violence project from 2010-2011. Headed by John Borrie, it carried out significant research into explosive weapons and coordinated conferences on this topic. The focus on much of this project was on the reverberative effects of explosive weapons. It called for a coherent, analytical frame of reference for those researching explosive violence. Even after the project ended, UNIDIR has continued to publish significant research into explosive weapons. Reports published by the UNIDIR, however, generally do not provide a gendered breakdown of the data but instead acknowledge the lack of data. Some work has been done by UNIDIR to examine the gendered difference in direct vs non-direct effects of explosive weapons. A report by John Borrie and Maya Brehm for the ICRC argued that the International Humanitarian Law is currently inadequate in critically examining explosive weapons. This is because it fails to take into account long-term, non-direct impacts on civilians in evaluations of proportionality – these effects, including the destructive of education and health infrastructures, tend to have a disproportionate impact on women.
United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA)
UNAMA has long provided research into the effects of explosive weapons. In comparison to other relevant UN missions, such as those in Iraq and Syria, UNAMA has published a significant amount on this topic. In their 2019 report, UNAMA noted that 2018 had been the worst year for explosive weapons casualties in Afghanistan’s history. They also published a special report into explosive weapons casualties in Afghanistan. UNAMA routinely provide a gendered breakdown of their data on explosive weapons. Between 1 January and 30 September 2018, UNAMA documented 3,634 civilian casualties (1,065 deaths and 2,569 injured), excluding those where gender was not recorded, from suicide and non-suicide IED attacks. Of these casualties, women made up 247 casualties (6.8%), children made up 608 casualties (16.7%), and men made up 2779 casualties (76.5%). Despite providing data that is disaggregated for gender, UNAMA have not published significant analyses as to the implications of these findings from a gendered perspective.
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)
UNICEF has done important research towards understanding the effects of explosive weapons on children. In 2015, UNICEF published a report which quantified the direct death toll of children, and also quantified the impact on children’s education, measured in terms of the number of schools that can no longer be used across Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This data is not disaggregated by gender and UNICEF reports do not provide a discussion of the gendered effects of explosive weapons on children. However, there report marks a significant step in providing a framework for measuring the long-term implications of explosive weapons which could prove useful in gendered analysis.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
OCHA, in collaboration with the Dutch NGO Pax for Peace, published two reports in 2015 which analyse the long-term impacts of explosive weapons, using Libya and Ukraine as case studies. These reports were based on extensive interviews and personal testimony. Both explored the implications of explosive weapons on displacement, both internal and inter-state, and on infrastructure within these countries. While not explicitly from a gendered perspective, if it is true that men are disproportionately affected by explosive weapons in terms of casualties, and women disproportionately affected in terms of long-term development, then these reports provide insight into the infrastructural challenges women face.
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
In 2014, Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, published a critical overview of how explosive weapons effect women. Previously, WILPF had published a report in 2007 on the effect of Cluster Munitions on women. Their 2007 report examines how women are less likely to receive education on mine risk, the stigma attached to female victims, and the medical care received by women. While this report acknowledges the gendered nature of direct harms from explosive weapons, it does not provide a full analysis. Instead, it focuses on the indirect, long term impacts on women. WILPF’s 2014 report similarly focuses on the indirect harms from explosive weapons. The report is situated within an analysis of the failure of international humanitarian law to take on a gendered perspective. While WILPF do cite figures from AOAV and the Oxford Research Group on the direct impacts of explosive weapons, the report predominantly takes an indirect perspective. It analyses the health, displacement, infrastructural, and economic damages and how this effects women.
Handicap International have published a series of reports into their work on dealing with explosive weapons in Syria. The focus of these reports has been on infrastructural damage, the extent of contamination with explosive devices, and the consequences of displacement. Their analysis is not done through a gendered lens. It does, however, have the potential to be useful for understanding the direct vs indirect effect of explosive weapons.
Save the Children
Save the Children have produced reports and policy documents on explosive weapons’ reverberating effects on education and children’s health. These reports discuss both infrastructure damage and its consequences, measured in terms of reduced access to education or health care, such as the reduction in hours spent in school. While not disaggregating for gender, these reports do provide useful frameworks to begin to analyse the long-term implications of explosive weapons.
Humanity & Inclusion
In conjunction with the UNHCR, Humanity & Inclusion have produced a reports into the effects of explosive weapons on displacement. Their focus was on Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon and respondents were disaggregated by gender. A lot of this report corresponds with analysis that men are disproportionately likely to be explosive weapons casualties, while women are disproportionately affected by developmental implications. They note that amongst respondents who had suffered a disability as a result of explosive weapons, 83% were men. However, female respondents were 10% more likely to refer to increased care duties as a result of explosive weapons and 54% of women reported a loss of livelihoods. This analysis is based around a small, although significant, case study.
Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD):
GICHD has increasingly provided reports on the gendered implications of landmines, partly through the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This analysis often takes a long-term perspective and focuses on gendered analyses of land release, women’s ownership of landmine action projects, and development.
Armed Conflict Location & Events Data Project (ACLED)
ACLED published a report titled ‘Terribly and Terrifyingly Normal’: Political Violence Targeting Women in June 2019 which does begin to disaggregate their datasets by gender. ACLED found that globally political violence targeting women was on the rise. Specifically, this does not refer to all political violence events where women are casualties; rather, the report looks at events where women were explicitly targeted because of their gender. Crucially, explosive violence, including grenades, suicide bombings, landmines and IEDS, accounted for only 0.8% of political violence targeting women. This report thus examines the direct harms of explosive weapons on women, albeit through a narrower framework of targeting.
Guha-Sapir, Debarati, et al., ‘Patterns of civilian and child deaths due to war-related violence in Syria: a comparative analysis from the Violation Documentation Center dataset, 2011–16’, Lancet Global Health (2018), 6:1, 103-110.
This study shows that the Syrian civil war saw a shift to the systematic use of air bombardments, including barrel bombs, on populated areas. At the beginning of the war, the majority of civilian casualties were a result of shooting. By December 2016, over half (52.7%) of all adult civilian violent deaths had resulted from wide-area explosive weapons. This report disaggregates by gender very thoroughly. While wide-area explosive weapons were the greatest source of women and children’s deaths, 77.5%, men still made up a larger proportion of all deaths by wide-area explosive weapons, 71.9%.
Hsiao-Rei Hicks, Madelyn, et al., ‘The Weapons That Kill Civilians — Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003–2008’, The New England Journal of Medicine (2009), 360:1, 585-588.
This analysis finds that female Iraqis and Iraqi children constituted the highest proportions of civilian victims when the methods of violence involved indiscriminate weapons fired from a distance (air attacks and mortars). In contrast, male civilians made up the highest proportion of victims for more targeted methods such as gunshots, execution, and torture. This research was based on data from the Iraq Body Count. This study is one of the few which begin to examine the direct, gendered impacts of explosive weapons through casualties.
Milwood Hargrave, et al., ‘Blast injuries in children: a mixed-methods narrative review’, BMJ Paediatrics Open (2019), 3:e000452, 1-18.
This study collated papers with data on paediatric injuries following blast. It analysed data on factors such as demographics, service requirements, and mortality. A comparison of these studies found that children affected by blasts were predominantly male, most commonly aged 10 to 18. In this review, they claim that studies showed male predominance in victims, with over 70% male in three quarters of the studies. The authors claim that this demographic disparity is due to the makeup of the public space in low-middle income countries and the likelihood of male children helping herd and farm, making them more likely to encounter ERWs.
While the existing literature does, indeed, provide insight into gendered impacts of explosive weapons, significant more work remains to be done. In terms of direct consequence, most of the work has been carried out by academics, using the data provided by casualty recorders. There has been little work done by NGOs examining how casualties from explosive weapons may be gendered. Far more work has been done exploring the long-term or indirect gendered impacts of explosive weapons. However, it is still necessary to work towards a coherent framework for analysing these impacts.