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Missing or unseen? Exploring women’s roles in arms trafficking

By Emilia Dungel and Anne-Séverine Fabre

Executive summary

Researchers and policymakers have studied the roles of women in arms offences from the perspectives of violent extremism prevention, women offenders, political activism, and transnational crime in relation to drug trafficking and human trafficking. From a small arms control perspective, though, knowledge is limited.

In order to begin filling this research gap, this Report examines the extent to which well-established small arms research methods—general population surveys, key informant interviews, and court documentation reviews—can be used to explore arms trafficking through a gender lens. In doing so, it seeks to go beyond the victim paradigm to better understand the types of roles that women play, if any, in arms trafficking and, similarly, their motivations.

Focused around three case studies—in Niger, Ukraine, and the United States—the Report finds that the combined use of the aforementioned methods was fruitful, with each approach highlighting specific aspects. Although it is important not to extrapolate the findings beyond the contexts in which they were gathered, the data revealed women to be involved in varied roles in arms trafficking, including high-risk activities and, in a few instances, leadership positions.

Similar to research findings on other types of trafficking and criminal activities, the study identified economic necessity, financial gain, and familial ties, including intimate partners, as factors that drive women to participate in arms trafficking schemes. An additional motivation to engage in these types of activities stemmed from grievances over lack of public policy and services.

Note: The research on Ukraine carried out for this Report took place before February 2022.

Key findings

  • The use of different approaches—general population surveys, key informant interviews, and court case documentation reviews—to understand the gendered dimensions of arms trafficking in Niger, Ukraine, and the United States helped to shed light on specific aspects of the topic. Triangulating these methods in the same setting has the potential to enrich understandings of gender roles in arms trafficking.

  • Applying these three methods for the purposes of this study revealed women to be involved in varied roles in arms trafficking, including high-risk activities and, in a few cases, leadership positions.

  • The identified roles of women in arms trafficking include the following: procurers or buyers (including as straw purchasers); sellers; couriers/transporters; information gatherers; messengers/intermediaries; mediators/brokers; and other functions (such as assisting others by hiding arms and criminals).

  • Factors that drive women to participate in arms trafficking schemes reportedly often stem from economic necessity or profit, familial ties (including intimate partners), and grievances over lack of public policy and services.

  • Future research on the topic could include broader reviews of possible gender-specific motivations for, and roles of, both women and men in arms trafficking. Such studies could help prevention efforts by providing a fuller picture of different modus operandi.

  • Future research on the gender dimensions of small arms issues would do well to ensure that the entire process is gender responsive, from conceptualization and design to implementation.

Read the full report here.