Gendered impacts

ILPI Publications > ILPI-UNIDIR Joint Papers

The humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons from a gender perspective

By Anne Guro Dimmen
4 December 2014

Using a gender perspective ‘adds a layer’ to understanding the effects of nuclear weapons on humans. Women are biologically more vulnerable to harmful health effects of ionizing radiation than men. Social effects of nuclear weapons are gendered, women often being the ones most affected in relation to psychological health, displacement, social stigma and discrimination.

ILPI–UNIDIR Vienna Conference Series Paper No. 5


A nuclear weapon detonation in a populated area would be indiscriminate in its immediate destructive effects. Nevertheless, as with the impacts of other weapons, the consequences may be different for men and women in terms of the profile and severity of harm. This article adopts a gender perspective in analysing nuclear weapon impacts.

The flash, blast, and heat generated by the explosion of nuclear weapons are virtually instantaneous, and are accompanied by prompt radiation that is also harmful, and possibly lethal, for anyone within range. Ionizing radiation is harmful to the human body in significant doses. It also increases the long-term risk of cancer and other diseases, and the prevailing view in the scientific community is that it does so even at very low doses. Nuclear weapons detonated on or near ground level also generate radioactive contamination—including fallout, the process by which radioactively contaminated particles and water droplets gradually fall to the ground, often far from the initial point of detonation.[1] Beside these effects, nuclear weapon detonations in populated areas have a number of harmful longer-term impacts on survivors, their offspring, and society in general, including psychological trauma, displacement and other social changes. In addition to the harm a nuclear conflict would cause, production of nuclear weapons, storage and testing are all also conduits for risk of harmful exposure to ionizing radiation: see the second joint-paper in this series.[2]

There are both sex-specific health impacts pertaining to the biological effects of radiation, as well as gender-specific impacts due to different cultural and social roles or stereotypes based on gender (see Box 1).

The paper does not intend to be exhaustive. Instead, it introduces some relevant issues in how nuclear weapons affect men and women differently. Also, the gendered impacts of nuclear weapons focus here is in the awareness that other factors and parameters such as class, political context, cultural beliefs and societal structures are also important.

Box 1: What is gender?

Box 1: What is gender?

Box 1: What is Gender? [3]

Biological impacts

Fortunately, the world has not witnessed war fought with nuclear weapons since 1945. How- ever, the legacy of the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities, more than 2,000 nuclear weap- ons tests since then, as well as several major nu- clear plant accidents, have resulted in significant radiation release into the environment. Studies of these effects provide indications of the kinds of health impacts due to ionizing radiation that could be expected from use of nuclear weapons in populated areas if it were to occur again (see Box 2).

Box 2: Ionising Radiation

Box 2: Ionising Radiation

Box 2: Ionizing radiation[4]

One important finding about the stochastic effects of ionizing radiation is that cancer incidence and mortality risk due to exposure to it depends, among other factors, on sex. A life span study of survivors of the 1945 nuclear weapon attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan found that the risk of developing and dying from solid cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure was nearly twice as high for women as for men.[5] Gender-specific cancers and female breast cancer seem to be the main reason for the heightened risk for women: when these cancers are excluded from analysis, the absolute rates were essentially equal.[6]

Figure 1 on the next page shows the estimated number of cancer cases expected to result in 100,000 persons exposed to a certain dose (0.1 gray) of ionizing radiation. The Figure illustrates only cancer cases that arise from ionizing radia- tion: it does not cover other causes of cancer.[7]

Pregnant women exposed to high doses of ion- izing radiation have the risk of damage to their children, including malformations and mental retardation.[8] Spontaneous abortion and stillbirth will occur if pregnant women are exposed to a certain level of radiation. Evidence for human inter-generational genetic effects due to exposure to ionizing radiation currently appears to be inconclusive.

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident released a large amount of radiation into the surrounding environment, and created fallout that spread for long distances at high altitude before settling back to earth. After the Chernobyl disaster, an increase was recorded in thyroid cancer in children and adolescents, most prominently in the areas surrounding the plant (see the second paper in this joint-series for more about thyroid cancer risk). Here too, there are apparent sex differences. The increase in thyroid cancer incidence rate in Belarus for children under ten years old at diagnosis was substantially higher for female children than for male children, [9]probably in accordance with the normally higher female incidence risk, both for youngsters and adults.

Estimated number of cancer cases expected from 100,000 persons exposed to a certain dose (0.1 gray) of ionizing radiation. The Figure illustrates only cancer cases that arise from ionizing radiation: it does not cover other causes of cancer. SOURCE: Commit- tee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII PHASE 2).

Estimated number of cancer cases expected from 100,000 persons exposed to a certain dose (0.1 gray) of ionizing radiation. The Figure illustrates only cancer cases that arise from ionizing radiation: it does not cover other causes of cancer. SOURCE: Commit- tee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII PHASE 2).

This section has focused on the biological effects of ionizing radiation, noting that women are biologically more vulnerable to harmful health effects of ionizing radiation than men. In addition, there is also strong evidence to suggest that a range of other negative impacts may be gendered, as will be considered next.

Gender-specific impacts 

In most societies men and women have different social and cultural roles and responsibilities. These gender roles result in different social impact of nuclear weapons for women and men.

Psychological effects

Invisible environmental contamination from radiation can also have traumatic psychological effects that are not related to radiation dose.[10] These fears may be widespread, as contaminated radioactive particles from atmospheric nuclear detonations can travel over long distances in patterns that can be difficult to predict. Ionizing radiation cannot be sensed: being exposed to it constitutes what one study termed a ‘silent disaster.’[11] Although the effects of high doses of ionizing radiation lead to deterministic effects such as acute radiation syndrome that become apparent soon after exposure, the harmful effects of exposure to low doses, on the other hand, are more unpredictable since the link between absorbed dose and effect, is stochastic. This means that there is no threshold, and the probability of having the effects is proportional to the dose absorbed. Information and uncertainty about health risks then become a stressor, as is the fear of the delayed effect of radiation exposure.

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946 (Photo: United States Department of Defense / Creative Commons, duotone added).

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946 (Photo: United States Department of Defense / Creative Commons, duotone added).

The psychological impacts of radiation contamination may be more serious for women. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident fallout, women in most European countries reported more stress than men, and women were shown to have taken protective measures more often.[12] Mothers with children under 18 in the city of Gomel, approximately 110 kilometres north of Chernobyl, had a higher prevalence of mental health problems.[13] After the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States in 1979, researchers found that the ‘most highly distressed people around Three Mile Island were mothers of young children who were asked by the Pennsylvania governor to leave the area in the initial aftermath of the accident to safeguard their families’.[14]

The traumatic psychological effects due to fear of radiation potentially have a range of health implications for women. For example, in Ukraine pregnant women were advised to have abortions without being given clear explanations,[15] and it has been claimed that thousands of additional abortions were undertaken in Western Europe in the months after Chernobyl.[16]


The destruction caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in a populated area, as well as the risk of radioactive fallout, will necessitate evacuation and lead to displacement. This displacement causes a range of problems (see the fourth paper in this series). Displacement is in general often considered to impact women differently than men, and this is also of relevance if the cause is nuclear weapon use. Due to their gender roles and position in many societies, women may face specific risks and are less likely than men to have access to their rights,[17] which can be worsened by displacement. Women tend to be more susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence, have less access to assistance, are likely to face difficulties in exercising rights to housing, land and property—exacerbating pre-existing patterns of discrimination.

Gender differences were apparent in the impacts of resettlement after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Women did not experience any significant reduction in stress following relocation. While a conclusive explanation has yet to be found, this is perhaps because the women affected were more rooted in the extended family and the community.[18] Research has also found that evacuee mothers from the Chernobyl accident reported worse health than the control group eleven years after the accident.[19]

Women survivors of the Marshall Islands have told of the shame they experienced during the evacuation process when subjected to examination; being stripped naked and hosed down with liquid in the presence of their male relatives, and enduring on-site examination of their pubic hair by American male personnel.[20] Tales of humiliating examinations, particularly in the accounts of women, was also a repeated theme in the accounts of Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks.[21]

Long-term or permanent displacement can affect cultural and indigenous rights that have a gender dimension. Indigenous Marshallese women are an example: in a matriarchal society where land is passed from mother to child, displacement from land due to nuclear testing denied Marshallese women the right to exercise their cultural right as custodians of land in society.[22] Displacement also meant that these women lost their ability to generate income as they did on their own property because they lost access to materials needed to make handicrafts and households supplies.[23] Marshallese men were also affected by displacement in a particular way: they used to ensure food for their families by using their cultivated fishing and food-gathering skills, but in the areas they now live the ability to survive largely depends on generating cash income. People interviewed by researchers have noted that suicide has increased dramatically among young Marshallese men. The interviewees further believed that the higher suicide rate could be explained by perceived loss of worth.[24]


Japanese survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have also faced radiation-related social stigma. They were deemed ‘contaminated’, and were treated with fear and suspicion by some others in Japanese society. Though this stigma was experienced by  both male and female ‘hibakusha’ – a term used to described survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan – the images and beliefs related to female bodies seem to contribute to the intensified discrimination experienced by women related to marriage or reproduction. It is often the case that women, rather than men, are those blamed of sterility or abnormality in offspring. In Japan, beliefs and popular imagination about the dangers of radiation and the ‘contaminated blood’ of female survivors contributed to marriage discrimination.[25] In the Marshall Islands, some women face stigmas and fears of the prospect of marriage and motherhood.[26]


Gendered cultural habits may also lead to different radiation effects on women and men, for example because of eating traditions. In the Russian Bryansk region affected by the Chernobyl accident, men were more likely to eat ‘wild’ natural foods (such as forest mushrooms, forest berries, game and lake fish) that contributed to much higher internal doses of radiation.[27] In Marshallese dietary customs on the other hand, women eat different parts of the fish than men, especially bones and organ meat, in which certain radioactive isotopes tend to accumulate.[28]

The Chernobyl nuclear accident also influenced the inner functioning of social groups and family, and the relationship between spouses. One study found that spouses of the men taking part in the clean-up of the Chernobyl nuclear accident’s consequences living in the contaminated area were afraid of having a new child, often resulting in them refusing their men sex.[29] In turn, these wives’ fear of having sick children contributed to the development of inferiority complexes in their husbands, the men fearfully avoiding genetic examination that could confirm an unfavourable diagnosis.[30]


As this paper has shown, using a gender perspective deepens insight into the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. There are biological differences; women are more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than men. A number of social and cultural gender differences can also be found in relation to psychological impact, stress, and shame in the situations of for example evacuation and displacement, as well as social stigma and discrimination.

This article indicates that the sex- and gender-specific impacts of nuclear weapons have policy implications. As yet, these gendered impacts and implications do not appear to have been subject to comprehensive research. Nevertheless, existing information underlines the challenges of adequate humanitarian response—and thus the importance of preventing nuclear weapons from ever being used again in populated areas.

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[1] See S. Glasstone and P.J. Dolan, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd edn, United States Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration, 1977.

[2] J. Borrie, The lingering humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons testing, ILPI-UNIDIR paper no. 2, December 2014.

[3] R. J. Cook and S. Cusack, Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 9.

[4] See J. Borrie and T. Caughley, An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of Nuclear Weapon Detonations for United Nations Humanitarian Coordination and Response, UNIDIR, 2014, Appendix 2.

[5] K. Ozasa et al, ‘Studies of the mortality of atomic bomb survivors: Report 14, 1950−2003—an overview of cancer and non-cancer diseases’, Radiation Research, vol. 177 no. 3, 2012, pp. 229−243, p. 232.

[6] D.L. Preston et al, ‘Solid cancer incidence in atomic bomb survivors: 1958-1998’, Radiation Research, vol. 168 no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-64, p. 55.

[7] Data plotted by author from ‘Estimated Lifetime Attributable Risks of Solid Cancer Incidence for a Population of Mixed Ages Exposed to 0.1 Gy (Table 12-10)’ in Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII PHASE 2), National Research Council of the National Academies, 2006, p. 284. The 100,000-person population reflects a standard age distribution.

[8] See J. Valentin, ‘Biological effects after prenatal irradiation (embryo and fetus)’, Annals of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, vol. 33, no. 1-2, 2003, pp. 1-206.

[9] United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, ‘Sources and effects of ionizing radiation’, Volume II (Scientific Annexes C, D and E), 2008, p. 60, figure VIII on health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident.

[10] H.M. Vyner, ‘The psychological dimensions of health care for patients exposed to radiation and the other invisible environmental contaminants’, Social Science and Medicine, vol. 27 no. 10, 1988, pp. 1097–1103.

[11] A. Tønnessen, Mårdberg and Weisæth, ‘Silent disaster: a European perspective on threat perception from Chernobyl far field fallout’, Journal of Trauma Stress, vol. 15 no. 6, 2002, pp. 453-459.

[12] Ibid.

[13] J.M. Havenaar et al, ‘Mental health problems in the Gomel region (Belarus): an analysis of risk factors in an area affected by the Chernobyl disaster’, Psychological Medicine, vol. 26 issue 4, 1996, pp. 845–855.

[14] M. Yamada and S. Izumi, ‘Psychiatric sequelae in atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki two decades after the explosions’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 37, 2002, pp. 409-415, p. 414. See also M.A. Dew and E.J. Bromet, ‘Predictors of temporal patterns of psychiatric distress during 10 years following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 28, no. 2, 1993, pp. 49-55, p. 54.

[15] E. J. Bromet et al, ‘Somatic Symptoms in Women 11 Years after the Chornobyl Accident: Prevalence and Risk Factors’, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 110 no. 4, 2002, pp. 625-629.

[16] K. Becker, ‘Economic, social and political consequences in Western Europe’, European Commission and World Health Organization international conference one decade after Chernobyl: Summing up the consequences of the accident, 1997:


[18] T.R. Lee, ‘Environmental stress reactions following the Chernobyl Accident’, European Commission and World Health Organization international conference one decade after Chernobyl: Summing up the consequences of the accident, 1997, p. 295. See

[19] E. J. Bromet et al.

[20] Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Calin Georgescu, document A/HRC/21/48/Add. 1, 2012, paragraph 32:

[21] M. Todeshini, ‘Illegitimate Sufferers: A-Bomb Victims, Medical Science, and the Government Author(s)’, Daedalus, vol. 128 no 2, 1999, p. 73.

[22] A/HRC/21/48/Add. 1.

[23] B. R. Johnston and H. M. Barker, The Rongelap Report: Consequential Damages of Nuclear War, Left Coast Press, 2008, p. 188.

[24] Ibid, p. 189.

[25] Todeshini, p. 73.

[26] B. R. Johnston, ‘Nuclear weapons tests, fallout, and the devastating impact on Marshall Islands environment, health and human rights’ in B. Fihn (ed.) Unspeakable suffering, Reaching Critical Will, 2013, pp. 88- 93, p. 91.

[27] International Atomic Agency (IAEA), Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation—Twenty Years of Experience: Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group on Environment, IAEA, 2006, p. 115:

[28] A/HRC/21/48/Add. 1, paragraph 29.

[29] S. Krysenko, ‘Psychological support in family disorders caused by Chernobyl catastrophe’, Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Long-term Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster, World Health Organization and Association of Chernobyl Physicians, 1998, p. 467:

[30] Ibid.