13 August 2018

Why Militaries Need to Understand the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

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by Robert Lummack, Professional Military Education Department, CMRSJ


For me, a crucial part of military design is to break from conditioned ways of thinking in order to go beyond that which would be produced by following established institutional scripts or leaving implicit assumptions unchallenged. This strives to avoid the formulation of action (policy, strategy and tactics) based upon erroneous understandings and to uncover and potentially harness novel thinking productively. I think design’s most crucial contribution is located here in helping to make sense of the dynamic environments in which militaries will be called to operate within. In this post I encourage a deeper reflection of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, arguing that it has much to say about such spaces and with regard to the emergent war and security concerns of our shifting world.

The WPS agenda began with UNSCR 1325 and broadened and deepened with follow-on resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, 2242. UNSCR 1325 was a landmark achievement of decades of activism of women’s groups globally. It was a formal recognition of the experiences, roles and contributions of women before, during and after conflict and a call for security and defence issues to include the experiences and input of women formally, systematically and substantially. Although over seventy countries have now developed National Action Plans (NAPs) operationalizing WPS commitments, global progress has been slow, suffering from a lack of political will, lack of financing and a lack of data (Coomaraswamy 2015).

These challenges do not discredit its importance but rather demonstrate that it remains under theorized and possibly misunderstood. Thus, I desire to nudge designers to consider or reconsider its importance as a source of research which can potentially bring in new insights at all levels of analysis. Of course, one may ask why this argument is required, particularly in Canada given the establishment of Gender Advisor positions informing CAF action (as of 2016) and similar efforts within NATO or key allies. However, speaking strictly from personal experience, it is my perception that the WPS agenda within the military sphere remains marginally understood. To put it another way – there is a great deal more that we could know about it.

Why it is not well understood

The WPS agenda is horizontally broad (global scope) and vertically deep (a massive range of activities within the ‘P’ priority areas or pillars: prevention, protection, participation, peacebuilding and reconstruction). Therefore, it is easy to ruminate upon one issue and lose sight of other aspects and their interconnections. For example, it is easy to lose sight of the agenda’s domestic and international implications which will vary contextually. Domestically, it is easy for the agenda to take on singular identities. In some cases it takes on the appearance of equality and the advancement of rights. In particular here the focus may be upon the ‘participation’ pillar, and societal debates about women’s participation within the military, particularly with respect to combat roles. Recently for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the WPS agenda may have been understood as Operation Honour, the CAF’s widely publicized addressment of sexual misconduct. This is understandable as the CDS Directive for Integrating 1325 and Operation Honour were developed during the same time period, approximately 2015. The point is that although Operation Honour is critically important in its own right (protection), it does not represent the entirety of the WPS agenda.

Additionally it encompasses the military sphere, but goes far beyond it, including political, social, economic and legal considerations. In consequence, I suspect that militaries are less familiar with the WPS agenda, particularly its form as a series of United Nation Security Council Resolutions, (UNSCR) and related terminology than other parts of governments, such as diplomatic, development or foreign affairs departments – natural due to proximity of the subject matter to these other actors and governmental bounding of responsibilities. For militaries then, on one hand there is likely a knowledge gap with respect to the specifics of the WPS agenda, as well in some contexts an unfamiliarity with or resistance to the ontological focuses of a broadened concept of security in which the WPS agenda resides.

Yet, despite a lack of familiarity with the terminology, historical development, implicit assumptions or politics surrounding the WPS agenda, many CAF members have experienced it. CAF members have been confronted with forms of sexual violence in previous operational experiences (protection),  have navigated different gender norms in different contexts, and have experience working in mixed-gender teams (participation) following the 1989 Human Rights Tribunal ruling which opened all CAF units and trades.

In terms of introducing new knowledge or demonstrating how the WPS agenda links in to prior experience, aesthetic sources have been a great andragogical tool. In particular, the film ‘the Whisteblower’, (Kondracki, 2010) is extremely effective at demonstrating multiple intersections of the WPS agenda. The emotions felt by viewers during the film as they sympathize with the heroine’s dangerous work to expose trafficking and sexual slavery networks in post-conflict Bosnia, leads to seeing interconnections of the WPS agenda in new ways. This is amplified as viewers realize the film is based upon historical occurrence (Vulliamy, 2012).

Why is it important to understand?

Even if one does not agree with the normative aspect of the WPS agenda or its underlying telos (of which I do), the WPS agenda remains critically relevant to understanding how sex and gender affect the contemporary security environment and the conduct of warfare. Therefore, how one feels about the agenda is secondary to the fact that it has the potential to affect military operations in multiple ways. It exists as a factor which adds variables to inquire about and thus builds complexity within systemic conceptions of security environments. Actors within security environments as complex spaces can be be considered Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) (Holland 1991; Bar Yam 2003). Their processes of adaptation can produce what Earnest (2015) terms ‘reflexive complexity’, whereby, the actor responds to social knowledge of others (Earnest 2015). This is apparent within tactical evolution of CAS actors within war. A few examples: until the addition of females to certain Canadian units, arms were smuggled past checkpoints knowing that women, or men dressed as women would not be searched by Canadian forces. Also, Boko Haram increasingly began using girls as suicide bombers to evade suspicion from security forces (Matfess & Warner 2017). We are also increasingly aware of how sexual violence is common and used as a cheap and effective tactic for various purposes – to cause people to flee, to cause shock or to shame, etc… (Chinkin & Kaldor 2013). As well, we are aware of Islamic State IS enslavement of Yazidi women and girls as sexual slaves and part of recruitment and retention strategies of its fighters. Feminist theorizing calls attention to its personal and experiential aspects of war (See Sylvester, 2013,pp.617-220). Therefore, these focuses can be captured with a focus upon the WPS agenda, and reveal useful insights about what constitutes war and its effects in different contexts.

Additionally, assumptions derived from the WPS agenda have influenced military strategy in terms of becoming more effective at discerning the human terrain. Advantages were seen during counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan with Female Engagement Teams as they allowed for increased access, communication and intelligence collection (Moore et al. 2012). Similiarly, DPKO has desired to increase numbers of women in uniformed roles in peace operations, premised laregely upon building greater trust with local populations (DPKO, 2016). This has in part inspired Canada’s recent Elsie Initiative. Further, there is also a growing understanding of how extremism can be combatted through the empowerment of women in gender unequal societies (Dharmapuri 2016). It appears that militaries in some spaces are taking this point seriously, considering women as important to social stability (David, A & Matfess, H, 2018). Also, the Kurdish Female Protection, YPJ, units provided psychological advantage against IS and have provided a powerful model of female emancipation in the region (Sharif,  2018). Of course, there are valid concerns about generalization, instrumentalization and essentialization of conceptions of women within militarism (Ní Aoláin, 2016; Simić, 2010).

At the political level the WPS agenda is normative, representing member state commitments to its ideals. Thus, underlying assumptions of the WPS agenda may form part of a reason why a state enters a conflict, or how it builds domestic legitimacy for military participation (Canada in Afghanistan). At the strategic level, it will affect troop contributing countries to multilateral vehicles, directly if they have National Action Plans (NAPs) or indirectly through the imposition of observing membership norms enshrined in NATO/UN methodologies which operationalize WPS agenda commitments. For example, UN adherence to regulations and vetting procedures to avoid abhorent Sexual, Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) occurences (Odello, M. & Burke, R, 2016).

Therefore, the military designer, or planner must understand how the WPS agenda affects at all levels (political, strategic, operational, tactical). Certainly the recent inclusion of Gender Advisors in Canada, NATO and other partner countries aids in this respects and represents an opening of a research agenda, to be continually theorized and balanced with empirics in light of dynamic contexts.

Ultimately, there are untold potentialities to discover as we now pay attention to something that was previously not visible, or which was considered unimportant. This is because the WPS agenda is very recent in the grand scheme of human experience and it certainly challenges centuries of how militaries and societies have thought about warfare, conflict and international relations. Some of the underlying feminist theorizing about war that underpins the WPS agenda also parallels design culture. In many ways, feminist theorizing particularly in International Relations (IR), was not welcomed with open arms by the traditional discipline, in much the way that the mainstream military thinking has been skeptical of design. Here, some important parallels could be explored and tools exchanged which could potentially prove mutually productive such as Enloe’s conception of a feminist curiosity always striving to challenge assumptions and fixed and normalized understandings (Enloe, 2004).


* Author’s observation based upon Canadian and international military teaching experiences. In particular, between 2015-2017, during courses on the subject for senior non-commissioned members overwhelmingly very few people had heard of UNSCR 1325 or related concepts such as gender analysis. This began to change with the Chief of Defence Staff Directive for integrating UNSCR 1325 and the introduction of GBA+ training.

Author Bio

Robert Lummack, is a teacher at the Professional Military Education Department, CMRSJ. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa with interests in the interconnections between diverse subjects—development, conflict, and the global economy—systems thinking, cultural intelligence, ethics, the Women, Peace and Security agenda and post-conflict contexts. With National Defence, Robert has participated in military training and cooperation missions in Jordan, Brazil, Philippines, Macedonia, and Peru. He has prior experience as Emergency Unit staff at UNICEF HQ, has acted as a researcher for the Presidential Human Rights Commission of Guatemala through CIDA, and as a participant for electoral observation missions in Ukraine and Central America.


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Chinkin, C & Kaldor, M (2013) Gender and new wars. Journal of International Affairs, 67 (1). pp. 167-187. ISSN 0022-197X

Coomaraswamy, R (2015). Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. UN WOMEN.

David, A, Matfess, H. (April 23, 2018) Navigating Human Terrain with GPS (Gender, Peace, and Security) in Western Africa | RealClearDefense. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from

Department of Peacekeeping Operations (2016). Women in Peacekeeping. Accessed August 10th 2016.

Dharmapuri, S. (2016). UNSCR 1325 and CVE: Using a Gender Perspective to Enhance Operational Effectiveness, p. 36-52 in Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Sara Zeiger & Rafia Bhulai (eds.) A Man’s World: Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism. Hedayah and The Global Center on Cooperative Security.

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Moore, T. W., Finley, P. D., Hammer, R. J., & Glass, R. J. (2012). Opinion dynamics in gendered social networks: An examination of female engagement teams in Afghanistan. In International Conference on Social Computing, Behavioral-Cultural Modeling, and Prediction (pp. 69–77). Springer.

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