Hidden harms: A feminist spotlight on space security

September 18, 2023

By Jessica West and Abishane Suthakaran

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 44 Issue 3 Autumn 2023

As the 2024 launch date of the NASA-led Artemis mission to return humans to the Moon draws near, the face of space activities is changing. Artemis astronauts include the first Canadian (Jeremy Hansen), the first woman (Christina Koch), and the first person of colour (Victor Glover) to be selected to reach the lunar surface. This diversity is intentional, emblematic of a new global push to make outer space more inclusive.

Such a step in representation feels both monumental and minuscule.

Astronauts are the most tangible link between humanity and outer space. They are legally assigned the role of “envoys” of humankind in the Outer Space Treaty. However, Western space exploration also continues European/American colonial patterns of exploitation and exclusion of women and of Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour. The first American woman astronaut, Sally Ride, and the first Black astronaut, Guy Bluford, flew on separate missions in 1983, more than two decades after Alan Shepard’s historic ride. Mae Jemison became the first Black American woman to go into space only in 1992. The United Nations reports that, as of 2021, only 11 per cent of astronauts had been women.

At Project Ploughshares, we have similar feelings about the work we have undertaken to employ a feminist lens to uncover the hidden human harms and inequalities linked to security in outer space. Although a modest effort, our work highlights the need to change both the face – and the underlying values and concepts – of space security.

Expanding the boundaries of Women, Peace, and Security

Three decades after landmark United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women, Peace, and Security [WPS]) urged member states to increase participation by women and incorporate gender perspectives into peace and security efforts, discussions of outer space security have yet to include a WPS perspective.

The WPS lens has focused on traditional armed conflict, with little attention given to non-traditional security environments and contexts below the threshold of armed conflict, including outer space. And the human implications of strategic competition and hardware in outer space have been ignored.

It’s time to refocus.

At the recently concluded UN Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats, Canada was one of a few states to raise the issue of gender, calling for the full and equal participation of women and an assessment of how space threats can impact people differently based on social identities such as gender. Canada is committed to the integration of Gender-based Analysis Plus in all defence activities. This process, “used to assess how different women, men and gender diverse people may experience policies, programs and initiatives,” provides Canada with a base from which to contribute to this effort.  

Project Ploughshares supported this global effort by hosting a series of virtual consultations in July intended to consider alternative approaches and perspectives to peace, security, and disarmament by focusing on feminism and the human connections to space security.

What we heard

1. A focus on women and gender alone is insufficient.

Although our work was originally prompted by the question “How is the future of conflict gendered?” and the WPS framework, this focus is too limiting. As Kimberlé Crenshaw explains, “all inequality is not created equal.” Systems of power rooted in identity, including gender, race, class, disability, and sexuality, are compounding and intertwined with hierarchies of economics and geography. A truly feminist analysis rooted in intersectionality is needed to explore the multiple, overlapping factors of advantage and disadvantage that shape human activities, experiences, and vulnerabilities in outer space.

The value of such a perspective was evident in discussions about safe and secure access to the Internet, which in parts of the world is dominated by private space services. These services are a growing target of warfighting in space. While such violence puts all users at risk, some people are more at risk; safe access and use are far more precarious for people who experience overlapping and compounding inequalities rooted in gender, race, and sexual orientation.

A secure use of space by some can be harmful to others.

Our discussion underscored that gender experiences are not uniform and feminist perspectives vary around the world. Consultation participants from developing countries emphasized that entrenched gender roles are reinforced by job scarcity and uneven economic development, which restrict participation by women – especially women of colour and ethnic minorities. Rather than being an equalizer, novel space technology can serve to exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities.

2. Participation is a necessary first step.

Questions about how the harms and benefits of space security are distributed and experienced are rarely raised. One reason: those who face disproportionate or different harms are rarely in the room. Thus, participation is a key tenet of the WPS agenda. Participation by women, people of colour, and those from the Global South in the diplomacy of space security has historically been abysmal.

But it’s not enough to diversify the faces in the room. Even in integrated spaces, patterns of entrenched gender, racial, and geopolitical dominance are difficult to overcome. Participants emphasized that existing governance structures are patriarchal, hierarchal, and archaic, limiting the ability to include voices often intentionally excluded in the first place. Such exclusion is fortified by unequal resources, discussions in technospeak, and informal constraints on what counts as “expertise.”

Focusing on “inclusion” and “equitable” processes can reinforce unfair power structures. For example, current efforts to expand participation by commercial and civil society organizations can, if care is not taken, strengthen already strong Western voices. Consultation participants stated clearly that modes of participation must be expanded to change the conversation. Recruitment, resources, and mentorship are essential; spaces must be made more accessible by and welcoming to diverse voices.

Finally, greater access to, and more diverse participation in, space governance must be used to attain and sustain a deeper level of inclusion in the creation of ideas, values, and structures that shape space governance.

3. Language, concepts, and ideas must change.

Expanded participation allows different people to bring in their distinct histories, experiences, and knowledge, which can help to advance long stagnant diplomatic discussions and invigorate practical approaches to space governance.

There is ample research demonstrating the gendered and colonial thinking that prevails in language about space activities, from “manned” spaceflight to notions of space as a “frontier” or “wild west.” Such language is harmful because it perpetuates exclusion, marginalization, and bias. Under these conditions, the knowledge and contributions of women and Indigenous peoples and First Nations, for example, are erased or buried.

Prevailing approaches to security in outer space that emerged during the Cold War are rooted in values of national security, strategic competition, and stability, enabling a buildup of military capabilities while overlooking the interests and needs of the less powerful. And a belief in manifest destiny has sustained unsustainable environmental practices.

A more peaceful and inclusive future in outer space requires new concepts and ideas for space governance. In addition to insights gleaned from intersectional, decolonial, and humanitarian perspectives – which have inspired renewed momentum for disarmament elsewhere – participants noted the value of practices rooted in ecology, cooperation, and an ethics of care. One example was the Australian Indigenous concept “care of country,” which includes past, present, and future generations.

4. A human view of space security is complicated.  

Our original research question is also limited by its narrow conceptualization of conflict and harm. Discussions unearthed myriad ways in which space is implicated in the unequal distribution of benefits and harms. People view outer space as a valuable resource that permits essential services such as Internet access, supports civilian infrastructure, spurs new knowledge, and even satisfies more niche needs such as combating gender-based violence with space data and communication. Among the countless uses and users of space, we must ask which are deemed critical and prioritized.

A secure use of space by some can be harmful to others. Participants pointed to the mining of resources and appropriation of land to power space programs, the ability to use satellite imagery and geo-location to inflict violence, the growing privatization of data, and environmental impacts on the atmosphere and night sky.

5. Leading is listening.

The series of consultations revealed a strong desire to participate in the conversation. A project that we had envisioned as a few people talking about gender and space quickly expanded into a series of vibrant global online gatherings. One participant noted that in her 30 years of practising space law, she had never before attended a workshop focused on feminism. A small step but still monumental.

Participants also expressed anger and frustration about the barriers that still prevent large swaths of the world’s population from participating and influencing space activities, governance, and decision-making. They were exasperated with the persistent relegation of questions about gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality to the margins of these processes when such questions are key to how we pursue and conduct ourselves in outer space.

There is no “gendered” perspective on space security because experiences of gender are impacted by race, sexuality, class, history, geography, ability, and other identities. Intersectionality requires not only acknowledging these differences but creating the space to learn from them. Leadership requires listening.

Abishane Suthakaran is a Master’s candidate in political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was a Ploughshares intern in summer 2023.

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