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“We’re Too Busy Fighting a War to Worry about Gender” – The Operational Importance of Gender Advisors in Armed Forces

04 Mar 2022
By Associate Professor Katrina Lee-Koo, Dr Eleanor Gordon , Jennifer Wittwer and Sarah Brown

Gender Advisors (GENADs) in armed forces are critical to the implementation of the United Nations Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and organisational and operational effectiveness. Fully realising this potential requires improved investment in training and resources, stronger leadership and support, and more robust policy.

GENADs within military organisations are a relatively recent phenomenon, but over the last decade they have become an increasingly common feature of armed forces, peace operations, and other humanitarian engagements around the world. Together with Gender Focal Points (GFPs) and other gender staff, they comprise the GENAD capability within armed forces, responsible for facilitating the implementation of the UN WPS agenda and gender mainstreaming practices by militaries and within militaries.

The WPS agenda is comprised of ten UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR), beginning with the landmark UNSCR 1325 adopted by the Security Council in 2000. Recognising that women and girls are uniquely impacted by conflict and have different security needs, the WPS agenda underscores the importance of preventing all forms of violence against women and girls as well as protecting and promoting their rights in conflict-affected environments.

Critically, the WPS agenda also promotes women’s full and meaningful participation in all areas of peace and security decision-making and action, and the integration of a gender perspective into peace and security efforts. This is not only so that the specific needs of women and other genders can be known and addressed, but in recognition of the fact that efforts to build sustainable peace will be compromised without women’s meaningful participation and without the integration of a gender perspective. Indeed, by highlighting the unique impacts of conflict and disaster on women and girls and their marginalisation from efforts to prevent conflict and build peace, through the WPS agenda, the UN Security Council is also highlighting the links between violence against women, gender inequality, and armed conflict.

What do they do?

The WPS agenda explicitly draws attention to the important role that GENADs play in supporting gender-responsive peace operations and promoting gender equality in conflict and crisis contexts. GENADs within military organisations play a critical role in facilitating the implementation of the WPS agenda within peace operations and other deployments, ensuring “gender mainstreaming” in plans, policies, and practices. Gender mainstreaming involves incorporating a gender perspective into policies and programs and prioritising gender equality — for instance, by ensuring women participate in decision-making with equal access to all roles and leadership opportunities. GENADs work to integrate a gender perspective, ensuring that the specific needs and concerns of different genders are more consciously considered and in recognition that conflict, humanitarian crisis, and disasters — and responses to them — impact women, men, girls, boys, and other genders differently. In peace operations and other deployments, this is critical to responsive and effective engagement, as well as avoiding harm.

By directing the WPS gaze internally, GENADs also play a critical role in advancing the WPS agenda within military organisations, as well as through the work they do, including by influencing the strategic thinking, work practices, and workplace culture of military organisations. This occurs through mainstreaming gender and promoting gender equality, including supporting women’s participation, retention, and advancement.

Why are they important?

Beyond being instrumental to facilitating the implementation of the WPS agenda, GENADs enhance organisational and operational effectiveness by advancing gender equality and diversity within armed forces and ensuring gender-responsive operational and organisational planning, policy, and practice. Gender equality, organisational diversity, and gender-responsive approaches can benefit organisational effectiveness, improve staff well-being, and reduce unintended harms across organisations, including militaries.

GENADs also have a pivotal role in influencing the thinking and behaviours of military organisations, often through gender awareness training and gender mainstreaming practices, in all areas, including human resources, logistics, intelligence, and communication. In doing so, GENADs increase the military’s ability to provide effective, gender-sensitive responses to crises that impact communities.

What challenges do they face?

While policy frameworks governing the work of GENADs are becoming more robust at the global, regional, and national levels, they still lack the clarity and strength required to fully support the GENAD in their work and communicate to military structures the purpose and value of their work. This prevents the full realisation of the benefits of a military GENAD capability.

Similarly, while training programmes for GENADs have increased in quality and number over the last few years, they generally remain insufficient in both substance and duration to fully equip the GENAD with the knowledge and skills required to undertake their work. This is especially the case given the challenging contexts in which GENADs often work. GENADS may be required to work on missions in insecure environments, or within military organisations that may not be wholly familiar with — or may even be resistant to — the need to advance gender equality and responsiveness. This is more problematic given GENADs are often appointed from junior ranks, with little prior relevant experience or knowledge, and benefiting from little or no handover, which can inhibit their influence over others and their ability to potentially challenge and change cultures, attitudes, and practices within the organisation.

GENADs also require strong and vocal support from senior military leadership to raise awareness of GENAD work and its importance to military organisations. This support also needs to be matched with adequate resources and a clear and robust structure that is integrated within the military organisation and provides a career pathway for GENADs. Often, this requisite leadership, resources, and structure are absent, which hinders the work of the GENAD. Similarly, inadequate training on gender and WPS responsibilities for all military personnel, at all ranks and in all functions, also impacts the extent to which the work of GENADs is understood, supported, and effective.

Opportunities and Recommendations

Nonetheless, there is a wealth of expertise, experience, and commitment to implementation of the WPS agenda among the many serving and former GENADs across the globe. There is an increasing commitment to the WPS agenda and investment in efforts to implement it on the part of military organisations. There is also a culture of sharing training resources, information, and advice, although this would benefit from a formalised mechanism or global hub for the exchange of GENAD-related best practice, lessons learned, and other resources. There is much to build upon to enhance the work of the GENAD in facilitating implementation of the WPS agenda.

For full realisation of the benefits provided by military GENADs, the GENAD capability needs to be recognised by, and embedded within the structure of, military organisations. The GENAD capability must also be adequately staffed with personnel who have appropriate senior rank and military experience, requisite training, adequate resources, a clear and robust policy framework to guide their work, and the full and visible support of senior leadership. This will simultaneously advance implementation of the WPS agenda as well as enhance organisational and operational effectiveness. 

Katrina Lee-Koo is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Monash University.

Eleanor Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Development and Deputy Director of the Master in International Development Practice programme at Monash University.

Jennifer Wittwer, CSM is an international consultant, speaker, and author on Women, Peace and Security and gender mainstreaming in security sector institutions.

Sarah Brown is an international consultant on human rights and gender, peace and security, and former military Gender Advisor.

This article draws from a research project (A Global Review of the Development of Military GENAD Capabilities), funded by the Australian Department of Defence’s Strategic Grants Program (2020-2021) and led by Associate Professor Katrina Lee-Koo (Monash University). 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.