Op-ed: For a safer and more resilient world, put people before runaway military spending
By: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
For all of us, but especially women, the pandemic is a reminder that traditional notions of “security” that fuel the weapons industry cannot protect us from dangers and challenges we routinely face.
Before the pandemic, women were already over-represented in vulnerable economic sectors and bore the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work. When COVID-19 hit, the women who make up 70 per cent of the global health care workforce found themselves on the frontlines of the response—even as countless other women lost their livelihoods and took on greater household burdens.
The pandemic will push 47 million more women and girls into extreme poverty. Rates of intimate partner violence—mainly perpetrated by men against women—have skyrocketed, in a horrifying “shadow pandemic” of all forms of violence against women and girls. Millions of women now face greater risks of female genital mutilation, child marriage or preventable maternal death.
In short, the virus revealed that gender divides not only persist but are worsening, threatening decades of progress, especially if women continue to be excluded from shaping the response to the pandemic.
Recovering from the pandemic must mean strengthening women’s social and economic security, including through stronger investments in health, education, and social protection systems that advance gender equality.
But the safety and well-being of everyday people has historically taken a backseat to a narrower and militarized idea of “security”, one that still leads decision-makers to spend vast amounts of money to build overflowing arsenals of weapons. The United Nations Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire at the beginning of the pandemic, but most conflict parties kept fighting, and the international arms trade remained as active as at almost any point since the cold war.
Yet, all these weapons have not brought us closer to peace. They have only sown distrust, eroded relations between countries, and increased global tensions.
Moving forward will require embracing a broader vision of security—one that reduces reliance on military armaments, accounts for our common humanity and recognizes women’s empowerment as a critical driver of sustainable peace and development.
These ideas are not new. For instance, the United Nations has made reducing military budgets a core objective since its founding.
Nonetheless, attention to the problem has dwindled in recent decades. Bloated military budgets held the global spotlight throughout much of the cold war. But in the years since, relatively few voiced alarm as military outlays more than doubled. Military expenditures in 2020 reached USD 1,981 billion, which translates to approximately 252 USD per person in one year. In comparison, only USD 115.95 per person was spent on bilateral aid on average in 2018, out of which a meagre 0.2 per cent went directly to women’s rights organizations – a percentage that has not changed in a decade.
The pandemic has offered us a rare chance to “reset” our approach to security in a way that also advances gender equality. As two United Nations leaders working for disarmament and gender equality, we believe three things need to happen.
First, we must refuse to shy away from hard questions. Whose security is protected by modernizing or expanding weapons, like nuclear bombs, that would result in a human catastrophe, with disproportionate impact on women and girls, if used? To end our global arms addiction, decision-makers need to take a more human-centred approach to security, recognizing how countries have pursued disarmament for centuries as a way to protect themselves, look out for each other and prevent needless human suffering. This will require political will and a revitalization of diplomacy over investment in huge militaries.
Second, the voices calling for an end to rampant militarization need to be taken seriously. Many women’s organizations have been pushing back against runaway military spending for more than a century, while feminist movements have been key to critically examining whether our governments’ investments in strengthening security have actually had the opposite effect. They are part of a multi-generational, multi-sectoral drive for change. We must hear these messages loud and clear, and create conditions to include them in policy-making.
Third, we need action by our elected officials to stop spending so much money on weapons. If our leaders instead prioritize investments in social protections, like equal access to quality health care and education for all, they can bring us closer to achieving Global Goals, including on gender equality. Such investments must be seen for what they are: down payments to make our societies more resilient, equal and secure.
From April 10 to May 17, we will mark the tenth annual Global Days of Action on Military Spending. To seize this moment, our governments should take a stand by sharing concrete commitments to begin redirecting resources towards a more peaceful and secure future that benefits us all.
This is not a utopian ideal, but an achievable necessity.