Linking Gender, Women, and Equality to NATO’s Peace and Security Efforts

The importance of a gender perspective in peace and security operations and military affairs has long been established by feminist activists and researchers, and recognized in a number of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) on women, peace, and security. UNSCR 1325, adopted in 2000, acknowledged for the first time the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls. It has become the internationally recognized legal framework for promoting gender equality and addressing issues affecting women’s peace and security at the local, regional, and international levels.[1]

UNSCR 1325 also recognised that the experiences and needs of women and girls differ from those of men and boys in conflict and post conflict situations, and that this underlines the essential role of women in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction and recovery efforts. UNSCR 1325 highlighted four pillars: the need for women's participation at all levels of decision making in peace building, the prevention of conflict and all forms of violence against women, the protection of women and girls and their rights, and gender-responsive relief and recovery. A further seven women, peace, and security resolutions have since been adopted. These all emphasise the need for greater participation by women in a wide range of functions and responsibilities in the field of conflict prevention, management and resolution.[2]

NATO has directly linked the role of women, gender perspective, and women’s equality, to more effective and sustainable peace and security efforts.

UNSCR 1325 tasked the UN system and member states with thoroughly integrating a gender perspective into all peacekeeping operations in conflict and post-conflict settings. Within a military context, the UNSCRs provide guidance as to how governments, militaries, security forces, humanitarian agencies, peacekeepers, and other key stakeholders engage women in peace and security efforts. The UN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have both placed an emphasis on implementing these women, peace, and security resolutions as an essential component of military operational effectiveness in three key areas. Firstly, as a human security aspect of operations. Secondly, as a means to enhance the meaningful and equal participation of military and police women in national defence and security institutions, and in leadership roles. Thirdly, by increasing operational effectiveness through the inclusion of women in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict. In this regard, NATO has directly linked the role of women, gender perspective, and women’s equality, to more effective and sustainable peace and security efforts.

Since 2006, 74 UN and NATO member states have developed National Action Plans (NAP) to implement UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions across a broad range of government, diplomatic, military, police, and civil society functions.[3] The priorities and actions identified within the framework on National Action Plans on women, peace, and security commonly include context or national specific provisions addressing a number of areas including gender perspective in peacekeeping operations and gender-sensitive security sector reform.[4] In doing so, these member states have reinforced the women, peace, and security resolutions as the mechanism to better respond to modern warfare and conflicts, through enhanced military capability requirements. The key to a more effective military capability and operational effect is a gender diverse workforce, and to achieve this, national action plans have been increasingly articulating strategies to enhance gender equality.

Launch event of the UK Government National Action Plan on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 Women, Peace & Security in London, 25 November 2010. (Wikimedia)

In a recent article, Andrea Goldstein discussed the importance of taking gender perspective into account when planning peace and security operations.[5] Goldstein argued that to do so would enable a better understanding of, and more effective exploitation of, human terrain and the link between gender and power. Goldstein also highlighted gender-balanced patrols, and the female engagement capability, as examples of the contribution of women to operational effectiveness. Furthermore, she emphasised two key facts: that to move gender considerations into the mainstream, the military would have to do more than just recruit and retain more women, and that the gender perspective was not just the responsibility of military women. important element of gender perspective in peace and security operations is also legitimizing women as equal and valued participants in national defence and security organizations...

Indeed, the recruitment and retention of more women in the defence and security sector is not the solution to integrating gender perspective in an operational sense. Rather, applying a gender perspective ensures the right men and women are in the right jobs to maximize the operational opportunities. However, an important element of gender perspective in peace and security operations is also legitimizing women as equal and valued participants in national defence and security organizations, increasing their access to all positions, and enhancing their opportunities for leadership and decision-making roles. As the armed forces of various countries open up more positions that create opportunities for women, their efforts in striving for gender equality and reducing barriers for their meaningful participation, both domestically and in international peace and security efforts, has become increasingly important.

Australia has made significant progress on women’s equality and parity over the past few years through three ground-breaking initiatives: the removal of gender restrictions on Australian Defence Force combat role employment categories in 2011, the implementation of the 2012 Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force, often referred to as the Broderick Review, and the implementation of the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018.

The removal of gender restrictions on combat roles is instrumental in a significant and ongoing shift in the culture of the Australian Defence Force. While recruitment to these roles has been slow, this decision created an environment that supports the aspiration of all members, both men and women, to contribute fully and equally to Australian Defence Force capability. The Broderick Review examined the impact of military culture on women’s leadership, access to promotion and career pathways, and reporting and response mechanisms for sexual and gender-based violence. Current reporting on women’s participation highlights overall participation rates, as well as the increased number of women assigned to more senior leadership positions, both at home and in peace and security operations abroad. As of 30 June 2017, the participation rate of women in the Australian Defence Force reached 16.7 percent, an increase of 2.3 percent from 14.4 percent in 2012. There were also 79 women in senior positions, seven times more than in 2016.[6]

The Australian National Action Plan, which outlined the Government’s approach to implementing UNSCR 1325, created opportunities to both embed gender perspectives into operations, and describe how women could participate meaningfully in preventing, mitigating, and resolving conflict. Australia’s defence and security sector has responded with specific initiatives under the plan to drive gender equality, and to enhance its operational capability and effect through gender considerations. The Australian Federal Police (AFP), for example, developed a gender equality strategy in 2015 aimed at promoting women’s participation in domestic and international operations.[7] Aspects of this strategy included promoting women into senior roles and operationalising its commitment to the promotion of gender equality through the provision of policing support to local women in developing, fragile and post-conflict countries.[8] This strategy also mandated gender analysis and the inclusion of explicit gender equality and development objectives in all mission planning documents for international operations.[9] The Australian Defence Force now reports annually on all aspects of women’s participation in its Defence Annual Report, to provide accountability to the Australian Government for the implementation of the Broderick Review, as well as identify gaps and deficiencies in policy development and implementation.[10]

Similarly, beginning in 2009, NATO has taken steps to actively integrate women, peace, and security, and well as gender perspectivesm into its command structure, and into operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, through substantial policy guidance on UNSCR 1325.[11] This policy guidance recognised the integration of gender perspective as the primary tool to mainstream gender into all activities during peace and crisis, and that the active participation of men and women was critical to the security and success of NATO and its partners. The policy provided direction and guidance to support the continued and effective institutionalisation of gender perspective in all activities within NATO’s Strategic Commands, including in the analysis, planning, execution, and assessment of NATO-led operations, missions, training and exercises.

In conjunction with its action plan on UNSCR 1325, released in 2014 and updated in 2016, NATO recognized the need to eliminate barriers for the active and meaningful participation of women in NATO’s Allies’ and partners’ defence and security institutions, and within NATO-led operations, missions and crisis management.[12] Currently, NATO’s UNSCR 1325 coalition is the largest worldwide with 55 nations associated to its action plan. This action plan focused on improving gender balance at all levels, through the implementation of gender equality policies across the employment lifecycle, reconvening the Council-mandated NATO-wide Diversity Task Force, and the conduct of a study to identify barriers for the participation of women with an emphasis on higher posts and leadership positions.

Contemporary threats such as cyber-warfare and urban warfare necessitate a wider range of skills than before, from both women and men.

This study, “UNSCR 1325 Reload”, conducted by NATO along with the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Human Rights Commission, and Rey Juan Carlos University, Spain, from 2014-17, examined the participation of women in the armed forces of NATO member states and partners.[13] The study found that women’s participation increased at a very slow pace, that some countries still limited women’s access to combat roles and positions, there appeared to be limited access to work/life balance initiatives, and that sexual assault remained a significant challenge for the recruitment and retention of women. The study also found that increasing the participation of women in the armed forces is not only about meeting normative quotas. Given the complex security environment and emerging security threats, requirements of physical strength are not as relevant today as in the past. Skills valued in today’s security landscape include adaptability, strategic thinking, working remotely, collecting intelligence, and reaching out to local populations. Contemporary threats such as cyber-warfare and urban warfare necessitate a wider range of skills than before, from both women and men.

Using the Australian initiatives, the study identified the following six key recommendations for NATO to enhance the status and equality of women across all aspects of military capability:

  • the use of strong leadership to drive gender-inclusive reform and create a stronger and more capable military;
  • creating diversity of leadership through enhanced opportunities for women which enriches and strengthens decision-making;
  • increasing numbers through targeted recruiting for combat roles which contributes to more effective performance;
  • preventing early and unnecessary separations to strengthens militaries;
  • preventing gender-based harassment and violence which ruins lives, divides teams and damages operational effectiveness; and
  • ensuring a strong and confident military through transparency and accountability.

The study was submitted to NATO in March 2017.

More recently, in the NATO partner nation of Georgia, senior defence officials realized that operational effectiveness came from providing a barrier-free, diverse, and equal environment and culture in which both men and women could maximize their potential. While there are no restrictions on the incorporation of women in the armed forces, nor are there any restrictions that apply only to operations, participation by women is low at 4.7% and there are no specific strategies to support their recruitment and retention.[14] Georgia released its first National Action Plan in 2011, with a distinct focus on increasing women’s participation in the security sector, in peacekeeping, and in senior leadership positions.[15] Though this initial effort improved conditions it was the development of a gender equality policy implementation plan in 2016 and a second National Action Plan with a goal of increased participation of women in the security sector that appears to be the catalyst for gender reform.[16]

In November 2017, NATO and Georgia launched a two-year project to improve the conditions for women in the Georgian armed forces and to develop and execute an organisational and gender-responsive climate assessment concerning gender equality, harassment, and abuse. The project, which falls in a period of a major transformation process of the Georgian defence system, is aimed at enhancing capabilities and resilience and increasing interoperability with NATO. This includes aligning with NATO’s goals and policies on gender equality and women, peace, and security, particularly in the operational context. In a recent NATO news release, Megan Bastick, Gender and Security Fellow at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, an intergovernmental foundation and think-tank supporting the project made this point when she said, “Focusing on achieving gender equality helps armed forces to improve their responsiveness to communities they operate amongst, as well as get the best from their personnel and meet the highest standards of professional accountability.”[17]

Similarly, Ukraine, also a NATO partner nation, is actively aligning its defence reform process with NATO’s strategic partnership gender goals. The aim is to reduce barriers to women’s meaningful participation and to emerge as a key proponent for gender equality in the defence and security sector in Eastern Europe. In 2015, women’s participation in Ukraine’s armed forces was towards the lower spectrum of participation rates across NATO and partner nations at 8.0 percent.[18] In the same year, a study, Invisible Battalion, was undertaken by Ukrainian gender advocates with women combatants from military units taking part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine. The study identified that when women were injured during combat duties undertaking roles that are not their regular employment category, such as driving tanks and operating heavy weapons, they were not entitled to the same health benefits enjoyed by their male colleagues under similar circumstances.[19]

Following this, the government of Ukraine released its National Action Plan aimed at contributing towards the elimination of cultural barriers that hinder the full participation of women in all aspects of negotiations and resolution of conflicts and/or matters of peace and security at the national level.[20] Working closely with UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, the Ukraine defence and security sector has produced some tangible results in implementing UNSCR 1325. Namely, the Ukraine security and defense sector has developed gender training, expanded combat roles to women, integrated gender into operations, and made recommendations for revisions and amendments to eliminate discrimination against women in national laws. In 2017, UN Women and the Ukraine government conducted a gender impact assessment that addressed legislation, human resource policies and processes, institutional culture, including measures to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, and leadership.[21] A subsequent Ukrainian gender equality strategy for five key defence and security agencies is focused on creating equal opportunities for women, institutionalizing gender, and creating a gender adviser capability and network.[22] All of these efforts are designed to eliminate discrimination in the security sector in general and in the anti-terrorist, thereby enhancing operational effect.

In the end, implementing UNSCR 1325 and National Action Plans is important not only for the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality, but it can also help military organizations maximize their operational effectiveness in a strategic context that demands local cultural understanding and great organizational diversity to tackle the often complex tasks involved in military operations.[23] Full operational effect cannot be achieved without the equal participation by, and contribution from, both men and women.

These examples demonstrate NATO’s commitment to link gender, women, and equality to its peace and security efforts through defence and security sector reform. The institutionalisation of gender reform is seen by NATO as a normative feature of the sector. These examples also demonstrate NATO’s dedicated effort and commitment to meet its goals on gender equality and enact all provisions of its action plan on UNSCR 1325. This, combined with the results of UNSCR 1325 Reload, provide a template for other NATO Allies and partners to follow suit and ensure their approach to women’s inclusion links to strategic outcomes on equality and peace and security.

Jennifer Wittwer is a Royal Australian Navy officer and the Australian Defence Force's first Gender Adviser to NATO operations in Afghanistan in 2013. Jennifer also led the implementation of the Australian National Action Plan on women, peace, and security from 2013-16, and she was seconded to the Peace and Security section of UN Women in New York in 2016-18. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the Royal Australian Navy, the Department of Defence, or the Australian government.

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Header Image: A female member of the NATO KFOR Joint Enterprise for Kosovo in February 11, 2010. (Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters)


[1] Sahana Dharmapuri, ‘Just Add Women and Stir’, 2011

[2] UNSCRs 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009), 1960 (2010), 2106 (2013), 2122 (2013) and 2242 (2015)

[3] NAPs provide a valuable tool for states to implement their commitments to the WPS agenda and for civil society to hold them accountable. NAPs are a practical document that detail the actions a government is taking to meet its obligations under the eight UNSCRs on WPS and other internationally agreed resolutions to ensure these commitments are translated into concrete policies and programs. NAPs provide an opportunity for national stakeholders to identify priorities, determine responsibilities, allocate resources, and initiate strategic actions within a define timeframe to deliver policies and programs that respond to the needs and priorities of conflict-affected women. (Source: UN Women,

[4] Also includes Conflict Prevention, Peace Negotiations and Peace Agreements, Constitutional and Electoral Reform, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of Combatants, Humanitarian Response: Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence, Post-Conflict Rehabilitation, and Truth and Reconciliation (Source: UN Women,

[5] Andrea Goldstein, ‘Planners need to Take Gender into Account, US Naval Institute, Proceedings, February 2018 , Vol 144/2/1, 380,

[6] Department of Defence, Defence Annual Report 2016-17, p. 111

[7] The AFP’s role is to enforce Commonwealth criminal law, contribute to combating complex, transnational, serious and organised crime impacting Australia’s national security, and to protect Commonwealth interests from criminal activity in Australia and overseas.

[8] The AFP’s role is to enforce Commonwealth criminal law, contribute to combating complex, transnational, serious and organised crime impacting Australia’s national security, and to protect Commonwealth interests from criminal activity in Australia and overseas.

[9] Australian Federal Police International Deployment Group Gender Strategy

[10] This is the Secretary of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Force’s performance report to the Minister for Defence for the financial year ended 30 June 2017. The report addresses the purposes and outcomes of the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force and relates to Defence’s performance for the period 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017 and is the department’s primary mechanism of accountability to the Parliament of Australia.

[11] NATO/Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Bi-Strategic Command Directive 40-1: Integrating UNSCR 1325 and Gender Perspective into the NATO Command Structure, p.3, para 1-3 (originally published in 2009 and updated in 2012 and 2017)

[12] NATO/EAPC Action Plan for the Implementation of the NATO/EAPC Policy on Women, Peace and Security

[13] NATO, Project UNSCR 1325 Reload: Research on the Annual National Reports to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives: Policies, Recruitment, Retention and Operations, 2017

[14] NATO, Summary of the National Reports of NATO Member and Partner Nations to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, 2016, p.233

[15] Georgian Parliament, 2012-2015 National Action Plan for implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions ## 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960 on “Women, Peace and security”, 27 December 2011

[16] UN Women, 2016-17 National Action Plan of Georgia for Implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, 2016

[17] NATO news release, Improving Gender Equality in Georgia’s Armed Forces, 21-23 February 2018

[18] NATO, Summary of the National Reports of NATO Member and Partner Nations to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives, 2015, p.213

[19] Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women, “Invisible Battalion”, 2015

[20] Ukraine Cabinet of Ministries, National Action Plan on implementation of UN Security Council Resolution #1325 “Women. Peace. Security” till 2020, 24 February 2016

[21] UN Women, ‘Gender Impact Assessment of the Security and Defense Sector in Ukraine 2017’ (not publicly available)

[22] UN Women, ‘Gender Equality Strategy for Security and Defense Reform in Ukraine 2017-2020’ (not publicly available)

[23] Prism, Robert Egnell, ‘Gender Perspectives and Military Effectiveness: Implementing UNSCR 1325 and the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security’, 1 March 201