Press "Enter" to skip to content

Making Gender in Armed Conflict Operationally Relevant

The following article is based on two companion pieces on the operational risk of ignoring gender from November 2020, Gender Blindness in US Doctrine in Parameters, and Moving from Gender Analysis to Risk Analysis of Failing to Consider Gender in the RUSI Journal.

It has been over 20 years now since the promulgation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security by the UN Security Council.  One of the most important provisions of the resolution was the call for “all parties to armed conflict to respect fully international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls, especially as civilians,” including international humanitarian law (IHL).  Although cogent scholarship, particularly by Australian feminist writers, has long identified the need to consider all aspects of IHL from a gender perspective, including those provisions that address the use of armed force itself, these principles have received relatively little attention as compared to efforts to fight sexual violence that occurs in war.    

Consistent with UNSCR 1325 and the subsequent resolutions that have followed it, there have been important instances of meaningful progress in implementing practical steps to bring about greater protection of women and girls from violence in armed conflict.  In general, however, progress in efforts to include gender considerations in military planning and missions has been uneven—especially in kinetic operations.  There have been important developments in this regard, such as the pioneering doctrine notes published by the Australian Defence Force, Air Force Doctrine Note 1-18, Gender in Air Operations, and Joint Doctrine Note 2-18, Gender in Military Operations, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.     

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, and the reasons will likely vary in content and degree depending upon which country’s military organization we happen to be examining at any given time.  There are two things missing from an intellectual capital perspective, however, that are probably holding back progress in effectively incorporating gender in military operational activities irrespective of the nationality of any military organization.  First, there is no overarching theory of the operational relevance of gender from the perspective of risk to a mission or its personnel.  Second, there is a lack of staff analysis methodologies that would allow militaries to effectively implement such a theory if it existed.

Analysis of the Risk of Failing to Consider Gender in Operations

There are well-developed examples of operational gender analyses that can be conducted of the civilian populations in mission areas.  These analyses will often get to the point of describing the threats that women and girls in mission areas face because of being socially, economically, and politically marginalized, and the risks to them posed by these threats.  The Nordic Centre for Gender in Military Operations has a suite of gender training courses that identify the usefulness of such analyses, and some of the courses also provide instruction on how to create them.  What these analyses do not do, however, is take the next step and describe for commanders and planners what risks are posed to missions and their personnel if the headquarters planners fail to consider gender in their work.

This is important because there is a cognitive disconnect between the ways many advocates for the consideration of gender in operations describe the value of this work versus the ways planners make recommendations and the ways commanders make decisions about the allocation of finite military resources.  Many gender advocates highlight the benefits that could accrue to an operation from including gender factors, generally based on anecdotal examples rather than a comprehensive body of data and analysis—because that body of information does not yet exist.  Commanders and planners, however, are likely much more responsive to potential threats and the risks those threats pose to their missions than they are to possible benefits from a relatively new and underdeveloped area of operational thinking. 

To get commanders and planners to norm gender into their risk analyses as they would other operational factors, gender advocates must be willing to accept a limitation on gender’s operational value that might for many be an ideological or political struggle.  The limitation is this—from a perspective of operational risk, gender is not always relevant. 

In civilian-centric missions, involving host nation populations that are approximately half female, it is difficult to see how gender would not always be relevant, after all, the world is still a very gendered place.  In equipment-heavy, force-on-force engagements, however, particularly those outside of populated areas, gender is simply unlikely to be relevant from a risk perspective.  Taking a gendered perspective in these sorts of actions is therefore not likely to have a bearing on which side prevails.  If we can accept this limitation, this overarching theory of gender’s operational relevance, how best could we make it work in practice?  Let us consider the way in which this could be implemented in the U.S. military.

A Potential Way Forward:  U.S. Civil Affairs Doctrine

The U.S. Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 and it was signed into law by then-President Trump.  In 2019, the Trump Administration issued a national strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, which specified certain tasks for the U.S. military.  The Department of Defense issued a formal plan to implement the strategy in 2020, and one of the action areas that it sets out is the establishment of “policy, doctrine, and training, as appropriate, to enable implementation of the WPS strategy.” 

This is a favorable development along the path of realizing the goals of UNSCR 1325.  From one perspective, however, the U.S. national strategy has a gap in its coverage that would mean that even if the strategy were to be completely implemented by the Department of Defense, the U.S. efforts would fall short of achieving UNSCR 1325’s goals.  The aim of the U.S. national strategy is the “meaningful inclusion of women in processes to prevent, mediate, resolve, and recover from deadly conflict or disaster.”  What it largely ignores is the deadliest part of deadly conflict—what is actually happening during the fighting. 

There is a suite of U.S. military doctrine that could be used to both begin the implementation of the current U.S. national strategy and to serve as a launch pad for a more comprehensive approach to achieving better protection for women and girls in armed conflict—Civil Affairs doctrine, known more widely as Civil-Military Cooperation, or CIMIC.  In civilian-centric missions, such as stability or humanitarian operations, effective CIMIC is a crucial part of any operational plan.  Importantly, in U.S. operational planning, the Civil Affairs staff is already the section expected to address the civilian aspects of any area of operations, and gender should obviously be one of those aspects. 

There is a bit of a problem though.  At the moment, U.S. Civil Affairs doctrine from the joint level down through the land force level is almost completely devoid of any mention of women, girls, or even gender generally.  It is as if they simply do not exist, or if they do, that women’s and girls’ security needs and roles in host nation societies are essentially the same as men’s and boys’.  If the U.S. military were looking for a way to jump-start its work on achieving the tasks given to it under the U.S. national strategy, it should invest first in creating the intellectual capital to help drive this by updating its Civil Affairs doctrine. 

Importantly, for this investment to be most fruitful, it would need to include focused development of the staff methodologies that would allow the Civil Affairs staff of any U.S. planning headquarters to describe for commanders and fellow planners what the operational risk to the mission and its personnel would be if the command failed to consider gender.  Only in this manner will the U.S. military be able to go further and come to grips with the thorny issues of gender and the use of armed force that are contemplated under a fair reading of UNSCR 1325, and better realize the resolution’s goals for increased protection of women and girls in armed conflict.      

A short podcast on these articles is available at Decisive Point.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply