Gender Perspective in NATO-led Operations and Missions: The Involvement of Female Personnel and Local Women

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) emphasizes the need to engage female soldiers in NATO’s missions, particularly among military observers, civilian police, human rights and humanitarian personnel. Furthermore, it stresses on the importance of involving local women in conflict prevention and resolution and in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Following the UNSCR 1325 recommendations, in 2007 NATO Allies and their partners in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) adopted a policy that recognizes that complementary skills of female and male are essential to the success of NATO’s operations. The policy is reviewed every two years and develops the four pillars of UNSCR 1325: prevention, protection, participation, relief and recovery.

According to the policy, NATO assures that female personnel are part of the missions and encourages a policy of gender mainstreaming while dealing with local communities. To adopt a gender perspective means to evaluate the problems that in different manners affect men, women, children and the elderly; it means to identify their specific needs and their abilities to promote peace and reconstruction. The goal is to foster gender equality, assessing the implications that actions can have on the different groups.
NATO involves local women in conflict prevention, peace talks, political and socioeconomic reconstruction as well as in the cooperation with partner countries and other International Organizations. Cooperation with International Organizations and civil society represents the spirit of the Alliance’s comprehensive approach to security. In that framework, initiatives are undertaken to engage with other International Organizations, NGOs and civil society on the implementation of UNSCR 1325, including information sharing, lessons-learned, best practices and expertise, as well as practical cooperation.

The efforts addressed to conflict prevention and reconstruction include women’s economic empowerment, better health conditions, women and children’s security and all the other problems that affect the community. NATO improves life conditions reducing the risks caused by degradation and helping locals to acquire new abilities. Moreover, it organizes activities that promote women’s independence and economic self-reliance as well as leadership and decision-making abilities.

In Afghanistan, the Command of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) has supported the implementation of UNSCR 1325 by emphasizing the role that women can play in resilience programmes and reaffirming the urgency to respect gender balance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In particular, ISAF has insisted on the importance to involve local women within the Afghan Parliament and the Afghan High Peace Council. In 2012, NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) worked hard to provide gender-related trainings, support the recruitment of women in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and incorporate the gender strategy in the reconstruction of the country. Informative campaigns were conducted to convince women to apply for the ANSF. Among the motivations used to encourage them, the opportunity to be educated and advance in the career takes on great importance. Moreover, separate training sites as well as special infrastructure were opened to make women at ease2. NATO has helped GIRoA to develop ANSF and all the other abilities necessary to assure security and stability in Afghanistan and GIRoA has integrated the gender perspective in its national goals. The gender mainstreaming aligns also with the Constitution of Afghanistan, which declares that all men and women have equal rights and duties in front of the law.

In the Balkans, the Commander of KFOR has increased the number of women in the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). KFOR has provided support to the KSF through Military Command Advisory Division (MCAD). The KSF has produced guidelines on gender and diversity, which identify the need of mainstreaming a gender perspective while implementing activities so as to encourage locals to support KSF. The guidelines also aim at improving career opportunities for women, such as calling for policies that allows for maternity leave and for flexibility regarding assignments and duties following pregnancy.1

In order to mainstream the gender perspective and assure the participation of local women in the reconstruction of the society, it is necessary to build trust and confidence with locals.
To approach locals is often problematic due to cultural differences therefore NATO staff must have a complete culture awareness of the region in which is involved. Have a cultural awareness means to know uses and traditions of locals and avoid behaviors that may be misunderstood or create troubles. Although cultural awareness represent the core of efficient missions, NATO personnel are frequently unprepared to interact with different cultures due to the lack of a specific pre-deployment gender and cultural training.

In Afghanistan, for example, foreign men are not allowed to deal with women. The limited interactions may result in an incomplete understanding of the needs of local women and girls, which often represents an obstacle for the country’s reconstruction; indeed, when women are not involved in the peace-building process, after a while, the problems that have caused instability are likely to come back.
To cope with this issue, the Alliance has used a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it has nominated a Gender Advisor at the Strategic Command for Operations and for Transformation, both in Afghanistan and Kosovo. This measure was followed by the creation of a Gender Field Advisor at the tactical level. Due to the lack of pre-deployment gender perspective trainings, the Gender Advisor has been incorrectly considered the guarantor of the gender perspective in KFOR’s operations: indeed, although the Gender Advisor can brief on gender mainstreaming, he is not able to compensate this lack.
On the other hand, NATO has deployed female personnel in the field. Female personnel on the ground are able to deal with both men and women. This contribute to understand better women’s needs and collect information about the level of security of the area. Indeed, women are usually aware of everything happens around them: their collaboration, for example, has more than one time helped soldiers to know about insurgent activities and the location of explosive devices.

Both in Afghanistan and Kosovo NATO has employed some special women teams called FET (Female Engagement Team). At the beginning (2004) FETs were part of US Army and Marine Corps “cordon and search teams” in Iraq. Then they evolved in something more sophisticated and became a resource for interacting with local women. The presence of female personnel and gender enablers (such as FETs, Mixed Engagement Teams, Mixed Civil Military Cooperation Teams,2 and Cultural Support Teams) has facilitated the implementation of the gender perspective during the missions. These teams also support in collecting information on the local security situation, especially regarding the risks of rape and violence on women and young girls, and in informing local women about the mission’s tasks and activities. FETs are essential in post-conflict reconstruction areas because of their ability to engage with the local community. The interaction with local male is also very positive. Male are more open with female soldiers because are usually perceived more flexible than male soldiers. Moreover, dealing with male adolescents is also easier because of the natural male desire to impress women and to interact with them. Another task of female teams is to collect information to support the unit mission. The information gathered are then used to implement community development programs that meet the needs of the specific area. Most of the programs try to create the conditions to develop education and economic activities, assure basic sanitation, safe environment and infrastructure in order to empower the population on self-governance and internal security. Once the security, reconstruction, and the development plans are being established in the operational area, a transition of responsibility to other appropriate organizations, in particular local organizations, follows.

There are also other female teams that engage with Afghan women such as FST and FHET. FST (Female Searching Team) is responsible for security and its first task is to search people, while FHET (Female Human Intelligence Exploitation Teams) works on Intelligence data collection. The main difference between FET and these other teams is that FET members have a full time responsibility to engage with locals in order to build long term relations while the others have specific responsibilities according to their specialties.3 FETs are also involved in VMO (Village Medical Outreach), a program that offers medical assistance in the village. FETs visit local schools, share supplies and organize women’s shura to encourage women to be active in the community. Moreover, they help women to develop their own business, improve their skills and open markets.

Researches have shown that FETs have positively encouraged the empowerment of Afghan women. Since 2001 the number of girls attending school and the number of female teachers is increased. As attested in the Announcement about FET of the Ministry of Defence published in April 2011 “(…) Since 2001 there has been a 25 per cent increase in the rate of women entering Afghanistan’s Parliament.” 4At the same time ISAF trainings have facilitated women to join the ANSF, contributing actively to counter-insurgency operations.

The involvement of NATO’s female personnel on the ground has a positive impact on the results of operations. Generally, locals appreciate female soldiers’ deployment as their presence is perceived as less threatened than those of male, and their engagement allows local women to give voice to their needs and become an active part of the society. Furthermore, the involvement of local females in governmental institutions as well as in post-conflict reconstruction gives them more confidence and security about their possibilities and abilities as well as a sense of ownership over reconstruction. As reported in some interviews locals offer typical gifts to female personnel as thank for their presence and help: “The pigeons serve as a reminder that, even if we don’t came here and change the world, we made a difference to somebody.”

Lt. Col. Galarza, Gender Advisor in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) reveals as women were at the same time curios about a women in uniform, happy, and comforted because they realize that female soldiers were there to give support to the community. “I believe, as female soldier, I was seen in a very positive way, due to the fact that we are providing support to this community and because they view us as role models (…) Some of the women and children were impressed and curious to see a woman in uniform and others demonstrated their happiness because we were there”. Nevertheless, the lack of a pre-deployment training on gender perspective has often led NATO personnel to associate gender with women and prioritize women while dealing with locals. This tendency may represent a limit and proves that NATO has to continue to work hard to give voice to all people in needs: indeed, to foster a gender mainstreams means to take into consideration the problems of all, women, children, men and the elderly.

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