Over the past decade, advancements in space technology have increased the importance of space security and the potential for armed conflict. Space-based systems, such as communications satellites, are crucial to the daily lives of many people, and disruptions to these assets could have severe consequences.
However, these consequences would not be felt equally on Earth, as their nature and severity depend on people’s access to and reliance on space-enabled services. Gender could also be a determining factor, as roles, behaviors, opportunities, and relationships associated with gender identity can affect who benefits from these services.
Despite ongoing multilateral discussions on space security, there have been limited efforts to assess the differentiated impacts of space threats. The United Nations General Assembly resolution 76/231 recognizes the need to address this issue, emphasizing the importance of equal participation of women and men in discussions on reducing space threats. The upcoming UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting in November could drive progress in incorporating gender perspectives in space security.
Despite the recognition of the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of a space arms race and the urgent need to address space threats, states have not made significant progress in mitigating them. The UN Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on reducing space threats, convened in 2022 and 2023, ended its work without adopting a consensus report on procedural issues. Despite this, the OEWG process offered positive signs, such as the engagement of a diverse group of states, exchanges on substantive issues, and multiple joint statements.
Many states at the OEWG in 2022-23 stressed the importance of protecting civilian uses of space systems to limit the human costs associated with military operations in outer space. Few states have explicitly acknowledged the importance of gender in space security or the gender dimensions of potential human costs.
Canada and Sweden emphasized the need for full and equal participation of women and men in the OEWG process, while Australia co-organized a side event to highlight the importance of gender equality. A dedicated focus on gender perspectives in space security would inform a fuller understanding of threats and bolster multilateral governance in the domain.
The Women and Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, established by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), is crucial for ensuring gender balance in space security bodies and processes. It calls for increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional, and international institutions for conflict prevention, management, and resolution. The WPS agenda is critical to ensuring that space remains a peaceful domain and activities serve the interests of all peoples, in line with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
The discussion on gender dimensions in space security will need further discussion. Leaders in the OEWG process could facilitate multilateral engagement. 19 states in the September 2023 Political Declaration reaffirmed their commitment to feminist, intersectional, and gender-transformative foreign policy.
Initial dialogues among like-minded states could focus on expressing views and awareness raising, then moving on to the exchange of best practices and lessons learned regarding equal participation. This exchange can help clarify priorities and concepts, including the differences between sex’ and ‘gender’.
States should improve women’s participation in space security processes at all levels, in line with the WPS agenda. To date, UN space security governance processes have come up woefully short, with poor gender balance noted by former UN representatives. Calls to redress the imbalance have come from several sides, including civil society. Given UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s 2018 commitment to achieve or exceed gender parity in UN disarmament bodies, the upcoming GGE should demonstrate marked improvement.
Women’s participation in space security processes is crucial for achieving gender equality and achieving the WPS agenda. Space for Women, a project by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, aims to enhance women’s access to education and career development in the space field. Meaningful participation by women would facilitate the exchange of gender perspectives on substantive areas.
Sweden’s national space strategy aims to ensure equal opportunities for men and women in space operations, directing the Swedish Space Agency and Research Council to collaborate with universities. The United States’ 2023 Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy commits to advocating for equity and equality in diplomatic space dialogues and pressuring for broad, consistent inclusion of civil society and non-governmental organizations in multilateral space governance.
States should provide funding for research on the gendered effects of military operations in space. The WPS agenda led to studies on gender-based impacts of armed conflict and the risks and vulnerabilities faced by different populations. However, no such studies have been done related to the space domain, especially in light of growing attacks on space systems.
The destruction of earth-observation satellites could make it harder for states to monitor climate change and mitigate natural disasters, potentially having disproportionate impacts on populations in developing states, especially women. Further study is needed to address these differential potential impacts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has identified essential space systems for civilians, including in armed conflict situations, to explore the differential impacts of damage or disruption. The OEWG has made statements indicating a desire to clarify which systems constitute critical infrastructure. The European Union and the Philippines have expressed convergence on the need for norms addressing activities that impair the provision of space-based/enabled services critical to the public.
The United Kingdom warns of the profound and prolonged effects on citizens and economic well-being from damage to global navigation satellite systems, and the risk of escalation and retaliation. Research could characterize different groups of users of services provided or enabled by specific types of space systems, considering intersecting factors such as race, religion, nationality, age, caste, and disability.
More data can facilitate intersectional approaches and move beyond gender binaries. Research could explore the state or regional level’s reliance on and resilience of specific systems, including their ability to detect, respond to, and mitigate attacks.