Small Arms Put Women at Risk in Their Own Homes

November 25, 2011

Photo from “Why Women? Effective engagement for small arms control”; IANSA Women’s Network, 2011

By Alice Dahle, Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group

Today marks the beginning of the annual international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign. Since 1991, over 3,700 organizations in at least 164 countries have participated in the campaign, which runs from November 25, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, through December 10, International Human Rights Day, to emphasize the connection between violence against women and the violation of women’s human rights.

The theme of the 2011 campaign is: From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! 

Amnesty International will be posting a series of four blogs outlining some broad issues, linked to daily blogs on the Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group’s Facebook page illustrating the intersection of violence against women and militarism in 16 countries around the world.  Visit our homepage frequently to take daily action!

Today’s blog focuses on small arms and violence against women.  Although the vast majority of those who make, sell, buy, own and use guns are men, large numbers of women and girls are affected directly and indirectly by armed violence in their homes, in their communities and during and after armed conflict.

Women around the world are at greatest risk of gun violence, not on the streets or in combat zones, but in their own homes. More than 75% of the nearly 900 million small arms in the world are owned by private individuals – mostly men – and kept in their homes. A gun in a home is much more likely to be used to intimidate or injure a family member than to be used against an intruder.  Family killings are the only type of homicide where women outnumber men as victims.  Guns are the weapons of choice in domestic violence, and when a woman is killed in her home, her partner or a male relative is most likely to be the murderer.  According to research in the USA, just having a gun in the house increases the risk of someone in the home being murdered by 41%, but for women in particular, the risk is nearly tripled with an increase of 272%.

Women also encounter gun violence in the community outside their homes at the hands of police, immigration and security officers, border guards, military and paramilitary personnel and criminal gangs.  Both security officials and armed criminals can use their guns to threaten, intimidate, rape or kill women and girls, especially in areas where law enforcement officers are poorly trained and equipped, where those responsible for gun violence are not brought to justice, and where there is a widespread lack of respect for the human rights of women.  When armed gangs are active in a community, women may fear going to work, collecting water or firewood and going about their daily lives.  In places where the criminal justice system is weak, corrupt, or simply does not take violence against women seriously, women are often afraid to even report violent abuse for fear of shaming their families or retribution from the perpetrators.

Because of easy access to small arms of all kinds, modern conflicts frequently target civilians for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and mass rape as a weapon of war.  As Annie Matundu Mbambi of the Democratic Republic of Congo said in a recent interview, “A guy with a machete in a village can rape one woman.  Two guys with a machine gun can rape the whole village.”  Such violent conflict forces women to flee, leaving their homes, livelihoods and communities behind.  Women are forced to become heads of their households caring for their children, the elderly and those with disabilities single handedly when their male relatives are involved in fighting, or when they are detained, injured or killed.  Those who become war widows may lose their land, family support, and status in the community.

Even when armed conflict is officially over, the brutalizing effects of war do not end.  When combatants return to their communities, many bring the trauma and violence of the fighting into their homes.  If men bring their weapons home with them, the women and girls who live with them are at high risk for threatening and violent treatment.

To reduce the availability of guns used to commit violence against women around the world, the Arms Trade Treaty currently under negotiation at the United Nations should require countries to prevent any international transfer of conventional arms when there is a substantial risk the arms are likely to be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law. Such regulations could help ensure that human rights offenders— particularly, those who use small arms to commit egregious acts of violence against women—do not get their hands on the instruments of violence and repression. As the negotiations move forward, we must continue to hold governments responsible for protecting their citizens and upholding the human rights of women who live within their borders.