Gender and Climate Disaster: A Worsening Situation for Pakistani Women

By Tristen Thakar, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

Since mid-June, high levels of rain have unleashed catastrophic flash floods along the Kabul and Indus rivers, leaving over a third of Pakistan submerged in water. This has displaced over 7.6 million people throughout the country, including around 598,000 Afghans living in refugee camps.[1] Along with countless people losing their homes, over 1,500 people have lost their lives, including around 600 children.[2] Everyone in Pakistan is being affected by these floods, but pregnant women are being hit the hardest.

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 650,000 pregnant women and young girls have been affected by this disaster; in September 2022 alone, around 73,000 women were expected to give birth.[3] Many of these women need things like prenatal care and the presence of skilled medical staff, not to mention the special medical support for the child or mother that might be needed post-birth. All this is extremely difficult to find. In addition, it is still common for many women in Pakistan to deliver at home, and with many women currently living in plastic tents after losing their homes, the need for safe spaces to give birth in the coming weeks or months will be very important.

Meeting the other needs of these women will not be easy, either. Many pregnant women around the country struggle to find even basic food and clean water. Without homes to give birth in, many of them are scrambling to find other options. Traveling to healthcare facilities is difficult. The World Health Organization reports that of the 1,460 health facilities that were damaged by the summer floods, 432 were completely demolished.[4] Healthcare workers, essential medicines, and other medical supplies are in short supply, which means that many pregnant women will not receive the full treatment they might need even if they can reach a working healthcare location. This puts pregnant women in a very difficult situation.

The key point to remember, however, is that the summer floods have exacerbated this situation, not created it. For years, Pakistani women have faced the same medical issues due to weak healthcare infrastructure, a continuing rise in birth rates, and lack of services throughout the country. As a result, Pakistan has the highest maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in South Asia and has made less progress on this front than other developing countries outside of the region. Studies have shown that between 2010 and 2018, 91,076 children were born in Pakistan, with an MMR during that time of 319 per 100,000 as compared to the average of 124 per 100,000 in comparable countries.[5]

These statistics show that Pakistan was already behind many other countries when it came to the care of pregnant women, even before the floods worsened their situation. The Pakistani government must make the improvement of its healthcare infrastructure a top priority during the rebuilding of the country. This is not just because it is right from a humanitarian perspective; it is a key element for economic development. Studies have shown that deficient birth outcomes such as preterm delivery and low birth weights lead to high healthcare costs, which negatively affects a state’s economic development.[6] Because of this, the Pakistani government should act with some urgency to better support these women. The rebuilding and improving of the Pakistani healthcare system should focus on four things: overseeing the construction of modern healthcare facilities;  improving roads so women–and all citizens–have reliable ways of getting treatment; working with industry-leading companies to create reliable medical supply chains so pregnant women and their babies can receive the medications they need; and creating new government programs to support pregnant women throughout their pregnancy and post birth.[7] The introduction of all of these elements will make a major impact on the lives of pregnant women.

In conclusion, the floods throughout Pakistan in the summer of 2022 have been tragic and life-changing for many people, but they should also be seen as a time for the Pakistani government to improve conditions for all Pakistani citizens and to make a serious effort to help women, especially pregnant ones. They need a lot of support and will continue to need this support long after the flooding subsides.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 


[1] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. 000254-pak.

[2] “Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022. 000254-pak.

[3] Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2, 2022.

[4] Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in Danger.” The  Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news. has-nothing-pakistans-floods-put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

[5] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

[6] Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure, Saleem Jessani, Ana L.  Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and  Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

[7] Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country: Testing the WHO  Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.


Aziz, Aleha, Sarah Saleem, Tracy L. Nolen, Nousheen Akber Pradhan, Elizabeth M. McClure,  Saleem Jessani, Ana L. Garces, et al. “Why Are the Pakistani Maternal, Fetal and Newborn  Outcomes so Poor Compared to Other Low and Middle-Income Countries?” Reproductive  Health 17, no. 3 (December 17, 2020): 190.

Baloch, Shah Meer. “‘The Hospital Has Nothing’: Pakistan’s Floods Put Pregnant Women in  Danger.” The Guardian, September 14, 2022, sec. World news. put-pregnant-women-in-danger.

Human Rights Watch. “Flood-Affected Women in Pakistan Need Urgent Help,” September 2,  2022. help.

Gajate Garrido, Gissele. “The Impact of Adequate Prenatal Care in a Developing Country:  Testing the WHO Recommendations.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.

“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.

“Pakistan: Floods – Jul 2022 | ReliefWeb.” Accessed October 7, 2022.

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter 

Human agency is slipping out of Afghan women’s hands and into the Taliban’s as the group tightens their grip on women’s social, political, and financial freedoms. This devastating reversal of progress has affected even the youngest generation of Afghan women, as girls’ education is yet another casualty in the war on women’s rights under the Taliban.

Afghan girls in grades seven and above have been unable to go to class for more than nine months—most girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban’s takeover in August of 2021.[1] The considerable advancements in women and girls’ education made in the 20 years since the Taliban’s first rule have thus been undone in one fell swoop. For perspective, in

2001, less than one million Afghan children were in school, and none of them were girls. By 2020, the number of children in school grew to approximately 10 million, with girls representing 40% of these students.[2] Now, after such progress and effort, millions of children will be robbed of an education by the Taliban.[3]

What makes this affront to women’s rights even more devastating for Afghan girls, though, is the disappointing trajectory of inconsistent messages that raised female students’ expectations. The Taliban had promised to allow women to study at schools and universities even before their takeover in 2021.[4] Senior Taliban leader Zabihullah Mujahid stated on January 15, 2022 that classes for all girls would  commence by March 21, the beginning of the new school year in the North.[5] Expectations crumbled when the Taliban broke its promise and sent tens of thousands of  adolescent girls home from school the same day classes were meant to reopen. The education ministry had planned on reopening schools for girls (contingent on the requirements that secondary school girls must be taught by women and in separate buildings than men), but higher levels of Taliban leadership canceled the plan and declared girls’ schools to remain closed until future notice.[6]

This sudden reversal of policy demonstrates the internal divisions within the Taliban leadership. The Taliban’s extremist and reformist factions have been unable to come to an agreement on whether women “should” study, as reported by US special envoy for Afghan women Rina Amiri.[7] While the extremist faction supports “original Taliban ideology” and rejects the education and employment of women, the reformist faction consists of many members who are themselves educated and have daughters who are attending school. These reformists therefore recognize the benefits of education and support “a different future” for Afghanistan.[8]

Divisions persist even months after the decision to close girls’ schools. In early June, the reformist line of Taliban thinking was emphasized by Deputy Minister of Education Sheikh Ahmad Shahidkhail, who argued that allowing access to education for “men, women, children and the elderly” is key to building a developing society.[9] Less than a month later, though, Kabul’s grand national assembly of over 4,000 clerics, religious scholars, and tribal leaders  failed to address girls’ education, only suggesting that attention be given to religious and modern  education.[10] The all-male assembly closed on July 2 after discussing multiple pressing issues and supporting the supreme leader while dancing around the question of whether to reopen schools for girls.[11]

While Taliban-backed news has claimed that girls’ school closures are congruent with “Sharia and Afghan tradition and culture,” many Afghans reject that idea.[12] As stated by one  female student, the Taliban’s education policy is “unjust” because “Almighty God said in the  Koran that education is mandatory for men and women.”[13] The female students of a Baghlan province religious school echo this sentiment: they have called on the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban’s governing body) and July’s grand assembly to reopen schools, saying both male and female Muslims “[have] the right to education.”[14] In fact, even official Taliban documents “endorse the principle of education for all.”[15]

The devastation that the closing of women and girls’ educational institutions has caused is evident in testimonies from female Afghan students. “Why shouldn’t we go to school? What  crime have we committed” one female student cried.[16] Another woman, a university student two months away from graduating, described herself as “cheerful” when attending university but is now “weeping at home every morning” as she and fellow Afghan women “[mourn] their  identities”[17] One 24-year-old woman, an agricultural engineer, pushed against her family for her education yet was “the happiest when [she] was going to school.” She later taught agricultural processing and distribution skills to women of different villages, but she must now abandon her teaching opportunity and marry a Talib relative. She laments that her “achievements, aspirations, and dreams are multiplied by zero.”[18]

Indeed, Afghan women and girls are not only losing the opportunity to learn, but also to teach. One woman who formerly taught karate to girls and religious subjects to boys remembers the anxiety that she and her colleagues felt when the Taliban allowed male students and teachers to return to school but remained silent about women. These teachers worried about their livelihoods and providing for their families. This woman decided to protest with her colleagues and draft a resolution for the “rights to study and work,” but she later fled the country for her safety.[19] In another instance, three teachers were fired based on an alleged 10 months of absenteeism, yet their students claim it had only been three months—the time since the new school year started in March after the Taliban took over.[20] Removing women from their  teaching positions is stripping them of their livelihoods, and it is only making it harder for female students to obtain an education, as women can no longer be taught by men.

What’s more, as the Taliban restricts access to women and girls’ education, it is increasing access to religious education. The Taliban has turned dozens of secular public schools, universities, and training centers into Islamic seminaries called madrasahs. This plan will leave a devastating trail of students and teachers without education, jobs, and resources. For example, converting the prestigious Abdul Hai Habibi High School into a

seminary left its 6,000 students and 130 teachers empty-handed and resulted in the loss of access to its modern library, computers, and science labs.[21] But this is only one high school. The Taliban are hoping to create a “vast network” of madrasahs as part of their overall education plan for Afghanistan. They aim to erase “modern secular education” and generate more Taliban members, as the word “Taliban” itself signifies “students of madrasahs.” This is eerily close to the Taliban’s plan from the 1990’s whereby radical madrasahs “promoted militant ideologies.”[22]

On top of everything, many of the secular schools that are still open are in very poor condition. The department of education for the Nuristan province reported that 70% of its schools are without buildings and must rely on tents.[23] Many classes lack materials like pens and paper in addition to any protection from the heat or rain. Furthermore, some students are risking their safety just to get to school due to poor road maintenance and great distances between villages and schools. One girl asked for help from the government because she and her classmates must climb a mountain with a damaged road to reach their school, and they are “afraid of falling.”[24] Thus, not only are Afghan girls unable to attend class after sixth grade, but for many, their education up until that point is significantly compromised by insufficient resources.

There is some cause for hope, though. Due to a combination of “pressure from parents” and agreements made with UNICEF, some girls’ schools remain open in certain parts of Afghanistan. Despite the lack of publicity, evidence suggests Kabul’s schools and universities are functioning and allowing girls and women to attend.[25] One educational center near Kabul was established for female students and teachers for grades one through twelve and teaches girls in subjects from computers to tailoring. The center provides schooling for around 300 girls, and the enrollment has “surged” since the Islamic Emirate’s establishment, according to one of the center’s teachers.[26] Additionally, the Nimroz province’s education department announced in May that it would “reinstate” the nearly 200 female teachers that lost their jobs during the Taliban’s takeover in August, sending these teachers to “schools in need.”[27]

Afghan women and girl’s education could also eventually improve as the international community applies “pressure tactics.”[28] The US canceled the talks on “key economic issues” with the Taliban after the group abandoned its promise to reopen girls’ schools in March. As Hamad Bin Khalifa University Professor Steven Wright remarked, the Taliban is at a “turning point” whereby they can enact “gradual change” and choose the “path of engagement [with the international community],” or they can instead choose the “path of isolation.”[29] But the Afghan people cannot afford to be subjected to the latter path. Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis; the UN reports that “95% of the population is not eating enough food,” with about 58% facing “acute hunger.”[30] Consequently, there is reason to hope that the Taliban could eventually loosen restrictions if put under pressure.

The strategy of applying this pressure, however, is delicate. If all humanitarian aid is revoked, the people of Afghanistan—and the women and girls trapped at home, unable to learn and teach—will suffer.[31] To make sure the Afghan people receive aid while still maintaining economic pressure on the Taliban, the US can funnel its aid through the UN humanitarian organizations that can better relieve the Afghan people.[32]

As the Taliban’s rule advances, the women and girls of Afghanistan are facing more years without proper access to education. Education is not only a human right, but also the starting point for the formation of identities, passions, and careers. Afghan children are deprived of access to safe schools and educational materials, and their opportunities for secular education are being forcefully replaced by Taliban-controlled religious ones. Then, once girls reach the age of adolescence, they are deprived of any access to education unless they are fortunate enough to live in an area where certain centers are still operating. Now, Afghanistan is the world’s only country where secondary school girls are denied an education by their government.[33]

The Taliban has kept female teachers and students in a tortuous cycle of waiting and disappointment through its false promises and silence for too long. Justifications based on Afghan or Muslim tradition are patently untrue, and they act solely as lazy excuses for the Taliban. There are factions within the group that will allow for girls’ schooling, and both sides are desperate for economic relief. If the international community can continue to apply pressure tactics and donate through humanitarian organizations, then the divisions of the Taliban can be taken advantage of, and the women of Afghanistan can be given a chance to learn.



[1] Walizada, Toba, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns over Closed Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, June 15, 2022,; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, schools-for-girls-across-country.

[2] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open. There Is No Alternative,” Nature News, March 28, 2022,

[3] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: Millions of Children Under the Taliban Rule Have Been Deprived of Education,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 14, 2022, been-deprived-of-education-57483/.

[4] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[5] Ibid; “Taliban Says All Afghan Girls Will Be Back in School by March, Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, schools-for-girls-across-country.

[6] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[7] Eqbal, Saqalain, “UN: As the Weather Warms, ISIS and the Resistance Front Increase Their Attacks on the Taliban,” The Khaama Press News Agency, June 4, 2022, resistance-front-increase-their-attacks-on-the-taliban458409/.

[8] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[9] “Dep. Minister Calls Education ‘Vital’ for Everyone,” TOLOnews, June 7, 2022,

[10] “Tightly Controlled Afghan Assembly Closes with Call for Nations to Recognize Taliban Government,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 2, 2022,

[11] Ahmadi, Arif. “Taliban Grand Meeting Did Not Lead to Breakthrough: HRW.” The Khaama Press News Agency, July 4, 2022,

[12] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[13] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[14] “Religious School Students in Baghlan Call to Reopen Girls’ Schools,” TOLOnews, July 3, 2022,

[15] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “‘I Went Out and Shouted for Freedom,’” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, and-girls/.

[18] Omar, Nargis, “’Being Imprisoned at Home Is What Awaits Me’.” The Fuller Project, September 30, 2021, home-is-what-awaits-me/.

[19] Etemadi, Fatima, “‘Since the Taliban took over, I have lost almost everything,’” The Fuller Project, November 2, 2021, hazaras-women-protest-migrant/.

[20] “Questions Raised About Firing of 3 Female Professors,” TOLOnews, June 5, 2022,

[21] Siddique, Abubakar, “’War on Education’: Taliban Converting Secular Schools into Religious Seminaries,” Gandhara, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 25, 2022, education/31914672.html.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ghorzang, Sadaqat, “70% Of Nuristan Schools Lack Buildings,” TOLOnews, June 27, 2022,

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[26] Walizada, “Top UNHCR Official Voices Concerns.”

[27] “Female Teachers Called Back to Nimroz Schools,” TOLOnews, May 6, 2022,

[28] Mohnblatt, Debbie, “US Drops Economic Talks After Taliban Bans Girls’ Schooling.  Millions Face Hunger as Islamists Seek International Aid, Recognition,” Jerusalem Post, Mar 29, 2022, economic-talks-after-taliban-bans-girls/docview/2645499321/se-2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

[32] Mohnblatt, “US Drops Economic Talks.”

[33] “Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Can – and Must – Stay Open.”

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter 

The women of Afghanistan are living through oppression that most feared would only return in nightmares.

Since the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban’s takeover in August of 2021, Afghan women have been left with few options: flee your own country, or stay and have your rights, livelihood, identity—and in some cases, your safety—taken from you.

Many of us around the world remember reading about and seeing pictures of the chaos in Kabul’s airport last fall when thousands of Afghans desperately tried to board the last flights out of the country.[1] For many Afghans, though, fleeing was not an option. The women of Afghanistan who stayed behind are now living through mounting social and economic restrictions.

In August of 2021, Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, promised the Taliban would respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic, or Sharia, law.[2] While this claim was vague, the Taliban did originally state that girls could return to school and that women could leave the house without any chaperones, “encourag[ing]” them to return to work.[3] Furthermore, the Taliban initially assured Afghans that revenge would not be taken, stating “all those who have served the state will be forgiven.”[4]

This tone quickly proved to be disingenuous. By late August, Talibs were seen going through female journalists’ neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and “making lists of women who worked in the media and government.”[5] The Taliban has shut down women-led human rights organizations, and they have replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with the Ministry of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, a ministry “notorious” for its violent enforcement of social restrictions.[6]

The social restrictions put in place include revoking freedom of speech for women and girls and limiting women’s means for independent travel.[7] As a result, it has been nearly impossible for most women to keep their jobs (if they have not already been fired). In March 2022, secondary education was banned for girls. Only female “teachers, government employees, and aid workers” have been able to keep their jobs, as these positions cannot be filled by men due to the necessary contact with women and girls. Even female government employees who have kept their jobs are not allowed in the office except to receive paychecks. What’s more, these paychecks are essential in a time of high unemployment; many women are widows and/or are the only providers for their families.[8]

The restrictions have implications for Afghan women’s health as well. Since November of 2021, in the Ghazni province, women cannot be examined by a medical professional without a male chaperone, or “mahram,” present. One story told of a woman who gave birth without a mahram present: she fled the hospital without her baby to escape punishment. Consequently, the 18 hospital employees who treated her were prosecuted by the Taliban for providing healthcare to a woman without a male chaperone.[9]

On May 7, 2022, restrictions tightened further. The Taliban ruled that women must have their faces covered and be accompanied by a mahram in public.[10] This practice is part of Sharia, and supporters see this rule as protection for the “dignity and chastity of women.”[11] The Taliban’s decree further stated that the best way to observe hijab is “not to leave the house” in the first place, and that male relatives of a woman are tasked with enforcing her compliance with this dress code.[12] Indeed, the woman’s guardian (a close male relative or her husband) will be warned if the woman is not obeying the hijab dress code. After the first warning, subsequent incidents of the woman without a hijab in public will result in the male guardian being summoned, imprisoned for three days, then sent to court.[13]

Many Afghan women predicted the implementation of these restrictions and, accordingly, went into hiding. Female judges (who lost their jobs after the Taliban’s takeover) fear they will be killed in a “revenge attack” by either the Taliban or by one of the ex-prisoners who were sentenced by these judges but have since been released by the Taliban.[14] It is believed that 80 female judges remain in hiding in Afghanistan. One former judge had sentenced ISIS and Taliban members to prison during her career and consequently could not safely leave hiding to take her daughter to the hospital for leukemia treatment. “I can’t put all my family at risk if the Taliban recognize me.” Unable to obtain healthcare, her daughter subsequently passed away from leukemia.[15]

Clearly, the state of women’s affairs in Afghanistan is suffering under the Taliban’s rule. While the economic and social restrictions tighten, the international community must search for solutions that consider all Afghan women: those who have fled, those in hiding, and those who have been barred from education, occupations, free movement, and healthcare. We are obligated to try to help awaken these women from their living nightmare.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates.


[1] “Kabul Breached: Taliban Seize Presidential Palace, Declare ‘War is Over’: The Taliban Said There Will be no Transitional Government and Demanded Immediate Control After Afghan President Asraf Ghani Fled the Country,” The Jerusalem Post, last modified August 16, 2021, English ed.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ferris-Rotman, Amie and Zahra Nader,“ What Afghanistan’s Women Stand to Lose,” The Fuller Project, August 20, 2021.

[6] Nader, Zahra, “’We Have to Fight Back.’ Afghan Women Are Losing Their Hard-Won Right to Work Under the Taliban,” The Fuller Project. TIME, May 17, 2022; Rasuli, Humaira, “I Will Never Stop Fighting for Afghan Women,” Cognoscenti, WBUR, June 13, 2022. taliban-human-rights-humaira-rasuli.

[7] Mehmood, Arshad, “Faces Erased,” Jerusalem Post, May 13, 2022, erased/docview/2671697115/se-2; Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[8] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[9] Nader, Zahra and Nargis Amini, “The Taliban Are Harming Afghan Women’s Health,” The Fuller Project, March 2, 2022,

[10] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[11] Mehmood, “Faces Erased.”

[12] Nader, “We Have to Fight Back.”

[13] Mehmood, “Faces Erased.”

[14] Oppenheim, Maya, “Afghan Woman Dies of Leukemia While in Hiding from the Taliban,” Yahoo! News, Independent Asia Edition, June 9, 2022, 0v&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABijbutz7IznQNuMbBASrOMToePptsly4RIZJpQzeXMb EPtHb

tl7XJyNqxR4k5Pi1QcgMcXiM7loVQyh_vRsneQ5O7cxE6Supj8lS8Mhsaau_ODEP0jbV dkcPQA9NlmFoqQt5UvjbRF82L7WtmXrtu8pFpju0hWHWJkd2Ocz3iE.

[15] Ibid.

By Ann-Kathrin Rothermel[1]

Persistence of Anti-gender Narratives

Towards the end of January 2022, a Canadian trucker movement, which calls itself “Freedom Convoy,” made headlines for its loud and partially violent reaction to cross-border vaccination mandates between the United States and Canada. The protests quickly devolved into a mix of anti-government and far-right activism, with common appearances of both Confederate flags and references to the January 6 insurrection. This is just one example that shows how anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine talking points have become a new battleground for the far right. While the overlap between Covid-19 and far-right activism has been recognized and discussed by both journalists and academics, there has been little to no discussion of the similarity with anti-gender movements of the 2010s.

Back then, cross-border movements mobilized in opposition to what they called “gender ideology” across Europe and the Americas. ”Gender ideology” has been called an empty signifier because it is so ambiguous and imprecise that it has served as a canvas for a range of right-wing grievances such as the right to same-sex marriage, abortion, and the inclusion of queer experiences in school curricula. At the core of these different “anti-gender” grievances lies a rejection of the knowledge that gender is socially constructed and expands the binary of male and female. While anti-gender movements have lost most of their popular momentum over the last decade—with the exception of the United States, where another wave of protests of queer learning material has just recently made the news—the rejection of gender diversity has since become a staple of the far right and has united supporters across geographic locations.

Comparing these anti-gender discourses to the discourses that underline recent anti-Covid movements can provide new insight into both the role of gender in the current anti-vaccine mobilizations as well as expose how both narratives reject academic evidence and dehumanize those who are already vulnerable in society.

“Good Science” and “Bad Science”

One important aspect, which unites the narratives  around gender and the pandemic, is the rejection of academic knowledge. The long-standing anti-intellectualism that is part of right-wing populist discourses benefits from viewing the university as a detached ivory tower where elites are plotting against the people. The strong narrative of universities as spaces of radical left-wing or “cultural Marxist” propaganda can easily be mobilized to discredit scientific analysis.

During the last decade, this anti-academic viewpoint was mostly confined to social sciences and gender studies. The attack on social sciences by branding them as illegitimate propaganda was most obviously pushed by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who succeeded in abolishing gender studies throughout Hungary. But this strategy is not specific to Europe; it has advanced across many countries and continents. For example, in the United States, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, a right-wing media figure, is known to hold grotesque views about gender studies. In a recent show, he blamed gender studies for the failure of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Carlson often uses references to the natural sciences to bolster his claims and justify the rejection of social sciences, thereby pitting “real sciences” such as biology against a ”fake” social science, even though most biological studies confirm rather than disprove gender diversity.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this division of “good science” and “bad science” is being challenged. Anti-Covid-19 measures such as vaccines, lockdowns, and masking are products of academic research and thus open to criticism. Public health expertise is targeted because it is a field that intersects the social and natural sciences, but the ire of anti-vaxxers also stretches into the very heart of natural sciences when disputing and attacking the results of medical and biological studies. The pandemic has moved right-wing discourses from a rejection of social sciences towards a more general rejection of science and academic authority as such (except for some handpicked “real” academics who happen to defend right-wing causes).

Academic Knowledge versus “Common Sense”

As an important means to justify this rejection of science and academic institutions of knowledge, right-wing discourses creates a dichotomy between the rational, reasonable, and “common sense” knowledge of the many against the irrational, brainwashed, and hysterical zealots on campus who have fallen prey to the propaganda of a powerful elite. In the context of anti-gender activism, this representation is captured in the image of the “Social Justice Warrior” (SJW). This image has made its way from the far-right fringes of the internet to the mainstream and has been disseminated in countless memes (like the one below). It is highly gendered and ripe with misogynist stereotypes. The image constructs the mostly female SJW as irrational, hysterical, and incompetent and someone backed by a supposedly powerful academic elite. Due to the irrational rage females are accused of holding, the SJW is also depicted as willing to inflict violence on those who disagree with them on “leftist topics” of social justice. Prominently displayed topics include gender identity and vaccines. Identifying academic experts in gender studies and (public) health as irrational but simultaneously powerful and violent serves to both delegitimize academic expertise and justify the resistance against it as an act of self-defense borne from reason and common sense.


SJW meme from:

Constructing “Physical” Threats

Falsely casting one’s own activism as self-defense against oppression is an element that unites right-wing populist and fascist mobilizations across geographical and social contexts[2]. A striking parallel between anti-gender and anti-vaccine narratives is how the threats they claim they are responding to are framed as a direct threat to the integrity and autonomy of the physical body. Disregarding the fact that the idea of gender diversity is closely related to the fight for rather than against bodily autonomy, anti-gender “ideology” narratives almost always assert that the intent of gender advocates is to break down the binary heterosexual body and replace it with a gender-less ideal. This counterargument is based on right-wing advocacy’s core conviction that a person’s body must not be anything other than one compliant with cis-hetero norms. Different bodies thus automatically become a threat to one’s own body, an assertion common in anti-trans discourses. In the case of vaccines, masks, and lockdowns, the connection of this right-wing position with one’s own body is even more directly tangible. A particularly powerful (while false) claim of the right has been that mRNA vaccines change the DNA of those vaccinated.

Another area that deserves particular attention and that plays a crucial role in both discourses is “the child.” The idea that children suffer extraordinarily from masks, vaccines, and lockdowns has been central throughout the pandemic, even though their exposure to the virus has not provoked the same level of concern and resistance. There was fierce resistance by some parents to school closures and school vaccination in the name of children’s safety (while at the same time some students advocated for more measures). This shows similarity to the narrative in conservative discourses that frame gender equality and anti-racist education materials in schools as undue state interference into family life. At the root of this narrative is the idea of a family as an apolitical unit. This is an assumption that has always been contested by feminist theorists and activists because it obscures how exclusionary and violent structures in society have been reproduced for centuries through family politics.

The Result: The Politics of Dehumanization

It is this obscuring of the exclusion and violence of existing societal structures, or more precisely in the process of dehumanization that accommodates them, where the most horrific of the overlaps between the right’s anti-gender and anti-vaccine discourses are found. At their heart, both gender equality policies and many anti-pandemic measures serve and protect groups that are particularly vulnerable, both due to their physical health and their sexual and gender identities. Moreover, the pandemic and gender-based violence have been shown to interact with racist and classist societal structures to disproportionately affect communities of color. While anti-Covid measures such as masks, vaccines, and lockdowns tend to be justified in a variety of ways (some more, some less problematic), they do offer a way to protect those most vulnerable to the virus. In a similar way, feminist policies are mostly have been geared towards those who are particularly vulnerable to the (social) pandemic of patriarchy.

Upholding the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons is meant to counter the structural and interpersonal violence they experience under the status quo. The direction of right-wing discourses is the opposite. Right-wing discourses do not simply deny the need for vaccines and gender equality; they deny the very existence and legitimacy of those whose lives depend on such policies. In both discourses, this becomes blatantly obvious in the much-voiced assurance: “There are not many of those.”  Such discourses neglect the real-life experiences of all those who are not young, able-bodied, cis, hetero, or white carriers of privilege. While this has always been obvious in anti-gender discourses, where those experiences are often simply presented as lies, the anti-Covid discourse exposes even more blatantly the absolute and unimaginable violence of right-wing bio-politics.

The goal of feminist advocacy has always been to make visible the abuse suffered at the hands of the discriminatory structures of inherently racist and cis-hetero-patriarchy that is the basis of society. As has become clear from the parallels in right-wing discourses on both gender and the pandemic, this includes those whose lives and health are at stake because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of whom are also the victims of the systemic intersecting pandemics of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. While this is not always necessarily the case, from an intersectional and standpoint feminist perspective, advocating for those vulnerable to the health effects of the pandemic must therefore also be a natural part of feminist advocacy.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates.

AnnKathrin Rothermel is a Ph.D. student and research associate at the University of Potsdam and a research affiliate at the Berlin Graduate School for Global and Transregional Studies. She is also a Fellow with the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism. Her research focuses on the role of gender in regard to both radicalization and counter-radicalization in terrorism and violent extremism. After having completed a fellowship at the United Nations Secretariat in New York, she started her Ph.D. in 2016 focusing on gendered discursive struggles in the context of global counterterrorism reform by the UN. She has published several articles on the radicalization in antifeminist, male supremacist online movements.

[1] A different version of this article was published at:

[2] Ruth Wodak, The Politics of Fear, What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2015).



By Claire Harrison

In late January 2022, following a series of Houthi rebel strikes on its territory, the United Arab Emirates targeted several civilian infrastructure sites in Yemen that included a water facility.[1] Nine days later, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that in March 2017, the United States targeted a dam in Syria that was on the “no strike list.”[2] Both events circulated in the media on the same day, pointing to a historical trend of weaponizing water in war. As climate change further exacerbates water insecurity in much of the world, the disproportionate impacts of water scarcity on women and girls must be pushed further into the spotlight.

The January strike was not the first time the Saudi-led coalition, of which the UAE is a member, hit civilian targets, and specifically water sites in Yemen.[3] Such attacks have outsized effects on a country that suffers from climate change-induced water scarcity, lack of clean water access, and rampant water-borne diseases.[4] The January 11 strike destroyed a water reservoir in the Sahar district of  Sa’da Governorate, which supplies water to over 130,000 people.[5] The 2017 attack in Syria knocked out the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River north of Raqqa, controlled at the time by the Islamic State. It thus became a high value target, despite not being on any official U.S.-led coalition target list. The New York Times report revealed that the Tabqa Dam bombing took place after a top-secret U.S. Special Operations unit used a procedural shortcut reserved for emergencies to circumvent the chain of command and drop the bombs despite official warnings against the action.[6] In spite of the horrific humanitarian implications, flooding tens of thousands of people out of an area and depriving many more of electrical power and water supply may well be a tempting strategy for state and non-state combatants alike. Indeed, U.S. Central Command told The New York Times the bombs “prevented ISIS from weaponizing” the dam against the people of Northeast Syria, demonstrating how the same logic around water could apply to both sides of a conflict.[7]

Furthermore, grievances over water insecurity and lack of access were one of several factors culminating in the 2011 revolutions in Syria and Yemen. As freshwater resources evaporate and water scarcity becomes a truly existential threat for many populations, the monetary and identity value of water resources will skyrocket. This pattern of targeting water resources will accelerate, and water will become a driving factor for conflict. To be sure, many of the water scarcity challenges exacerbated by climate change are also attributable to weak governance and obstruction. However, both man-made and climate-driven accelerants of water scarcity create a negative feedback loop, exacerbating each other and driving up the value of water. As the earth heats up and resources evaporate, clean and safe water is often the first to disappear, leaving entire villages and sometimes countries arid. The price of water rises in parallel, and it is the lack of water that causes desperation and potential violence, not the cause of this scarcity.

When water becomes scarce, it is more likely to be monopolized and weaponized by groups seeking to capitalize upon desperation and fear as a means for legitimization and power. In many cases, the government’s inability to adequately meet its peoples’ needs further pushes people into jeopardy. This dynamic contributed to the entrenchment of groups like Al Shabab and Boko Haram in water-poor areas and their effective manipulation of water security as a recruitment tactic and funding mechanism.[8] It is also what made civilian water infrastructure compelling targets in Syria and Yemen.

When a water crisis strikes, the entire population suffers, but climate change and water scarcity extract the highest price from women and girls. This is especially true for those who are already left behind or made invisible by the circumstances of conflict. At the opening session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting on March 14, 2022, Undersecretary General Sima Bahous explained: “Women suffer most when local natural resources including food and water come under threat, and have fewer ways to adapt.”[9] In many water-poor countries, women and people who identify as women are heads of households and devote a significantly higher proportion of their time to unpaid domestic activities. Most of these activities are water-intensive, such as laundry, cooking, and cleaning. This means women often have a greater role in day-to-day clean water management and provision and understand the stakes, while men are more likely to control the financing and distribution. Thus, when water becomes scarce, it is women who are left to deal with the practical implications of water insecurity.

Further, when conflict breaks out, women in these situations are impacted in ways citizens of water-rich countries often do not consider. In countries where weak government institutions translate to a lack of adequate and equitable water management, there is often one source of water shared between communities and at a great distance from the home. It is frequently women’s responsibility to make the journey to collect remote freshwater. When water decreases in availability, this trek becomes longer and consumes more energy and time, leaving women less able to address additional responsibilities and less able to pursue personal means of economic fulfillment. This burden is even greater for rural women who are already more likely to be further from water sources, distribution sites, or the reaches of government assistance. When conflict erupts, not only do these water sources themselves become sites of violent clashes, but the journey to obtain water becomes increasingly dangerous.

The disproportionate impact on women and girls is evident in places such as the Syrian city of Raqqa. As a result of the U.S.-led coalition and the Islamic State both targeting water resources around Raqqa, returnees to a liberated city suffered shortages of clean running water and sanitation facilities. For the women returnees, these problems led to a number of specific gynecological problems like urinary tract infections and cystitis.[10] Children filled clinics in Raqqa city, plagued with respiratory illnesses, infections, and gastrointestinal distress, and one of the main causes was dirty water.[11] In Yemen, water scarcity combined with ineffective governance in government-controlled areas and Houthi control in other regions increased stress on women and girls, who bore the brunt of responsibility for collecting water and rationing its use in the household.[12] This in turn led to women increasingly dealing with health issues associated with expending the energy, time, and stress required to obtain water when food is scarce. Women were forced to stand for long periods of time in scorching heat and were exposed to sexual harassment and violence, depending on the time of day and length of time spent collecting water.[13] COVID-19 has only made this crisis in Yemen worse.

But this intimate connection between women, water, and climate change also holds the potential keys to resolution. When women are the community arbiters of water distribution and are most intimately involved with the movement of water resources and consequences of water scarcity in day-to-day life, they also become sources of vital contextual knowledge necessary to a conflict-sensitive approach to conflict arbitration, mitigation, and prevention. As the frameworks for water peace developed over the last few decades become less relevant and effective, there is an opportunity for the international community to practice climate diplomacy and push for new conflict resolution frameworks inclusive of gender and resource scarcity.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 

Claire Harrison is a 2021 WIIS Next Generation Scholar, a national security professional, and a research analyst. Her work focuses on climate security in the MENA region, institutional capacity building, and natural resources as a catalyst for violent conflict. She has previously served as a Research Associate in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses, as well as in various Middle East policy research roles at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the State Department. Harrison holds an MA in Strategic Studies and International Economics from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, an ML in Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy from Tsinghua University in Beijing, and a BA in Middle East Studies and Political Science from Sciences Po Paris.


[1] Colm Quinn, “Houthis Strike Abu Dhabi as Yemen War Drags On,” Foreign Policy, January 18, 2022,; Shuaib Almosawa, Vivian Yee, and Isabella Kwai, “Yemen’s Houthi Militia Claims Rare Military Strike on U.A.E.,” The New York Times, January 17, 2022,

[2] Dave Phillips, Azmat Khan, and Eric Schmitt, “A Dam in Syria was on a ‘No-Strike’ List. The U.S. Bombed It Anyway,” The New York Times, January 20, 2022,

[3] “Why did the Houthis attack the UAE? Everything you need to know,” Al Jazeera, January 31, 2022,

[4] Collin Douglas, A Storm Without Rain: Yemen, Water, Climate Change, and Conflict, Briefer No. 40: August 3, 2016; “Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation,” from Yemen, UNDP,,many%20sub%2DSaharan%20African%20countries; WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, “Cholera Situation in Yemen,” Document no. WHOEM/CSR/434/E, World Health Organization, April 2021.

[5] “Press briefing notes on Yemen,” delivered by Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Ravina Shamdasani, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, January 18, 2022,

[6] Phillips et. al., “A Dam in Syria was on the ‘No-Strike List’,” The New York Times.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Halima Gikandi, “The group behind Nairobi’s recent terror attack recruits young people from many faiths. Officials can’t stop it,” GlobalPost, January 25, 2019,; Mervyn Piesse, “Boko Haram: Exacerbating and Benefiting From Food and Water Insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin,” Future Directions International, September 19, 2017,; Laura Heaton and Nichole Sobeki, “Somalia’s Climate for Conflict,” The GroundTruth Project, April 19, 2017,

[9] Edith M. Lederer, “UN says women pay the highest price in conflict, now in Ukraine,” Associated Press, March 15, 2022,

[10] Arianna Pagani and Sara Manisera, “‘The world forgot us’: Women and healthcare in ruined Raqqa,” The New Humanitarian, January 8, 2019,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ashraf Al-Muraqab, “A daily struggle to fetch water,” Yemen Times, September 17, 2012,

[13] Margaret Habib, “COVID-19 Exacerbates the Effects of Water Shortages on Women in Yemen,” Wilson Center, August 20, 2020,

Gender, Climate Change, and Security: Missing Links

 By  & 

This article originally appeared on New Security Beat.

Gender issues, climate change, and security problems are interconnected in complex and powerful ways. Unfortunately, some of these connections have not received enough attention from scholars, policy analysts, and policymakers. This has serious, real-world implications for the promotion of gender equality, the mitigation of climate change, and the advancement of peace and security—three priorities that everyone should care about.  

The linkage that has received the most attention is the connection between climate change and security problems. Scholars have studied environment-security dynamics for decades and, in recent years, both the climate studies and the security studies communities have explored this linkage: This exploration has been a two-way street. Moreover, this recognition of climate-security linkages has crossed over from the scholarly and analytic worlds to policy communities.

For example, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has emphasized that climate change is “an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism.” In October 2021, the U.S. government released a suite of reports to elevate climate change as a policy priority in US foreign and security policy.

Unfortunately, in most policy discussions on climate change and security, gender perspectives are missing in action.  

This is not to say that gender issues have been ignored by everyone. Since the mid-1990s, feminists, gender scholars, and women’s rights activists have worked to advance understanding of gender-climate and gender-security issues, and they have established that these linkages are powerful. They have also pushed for policy actions.

Their efforts have led, in particular, to the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in 2000 and nine subsequent WPS resolutions in the 2000s and 2010s. National governments have adopted National Action Plans (NAPs) to integrate and implement WPS priorities in national security policies.

Starting in 2013, gender has been integrated into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by requiring annual reporting on the gender composition of state delegations and UNFCC-constituted bodies.

In October 2021, the US Government released its the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equalitywhich emphasized the importance of elevating gender equality in humanitarian relief and security issues as well as promoting the link between gender equity and climate change responses.

Women’s rights activists have also pushed the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to make climate change and disaster risk reduction a priority theme at its 66th session in March 2022.

All of this is significant progress.

The problem is that almost all of this effort has come from gender champions—gender scholars, analysts, and activists: It has been a one-way street. For example, the gender equity and equality priorities developed in the U.S. gender strategy were not included in the suite of reports released by the U.S. government on foreign and security policy.

Two decades into the 21st century, gender issues are still routinely ignored by the security policy and climate communities. This has profound policy implications because security policies and climate actions tend to be high-priority and relatively well-funded endeavors. This is where the action is, in terms of policy attention and resources.

Even relatively simple and visible commitments—such as ensuring gender balances in policymaking bodies and national delegations—have been poorly implemented. At the COP26 conference in Glasgow in late 2021, for example, women’s representation across the meeting’s sixteen constituted bodies was only 33 percent. The seriousness of policy commitments can also be measured by the amount of resources governments allocate to these commitments. In 2018, only 22 percent of WPS NAPs had allocated budgets, and disturbingly, average budget allocations for WPS NAPs are on a downward trend since 2014. Few countries have introduced gender budgeting—that is, allocation of specific resources to gender priorities and initiatives. A final problem is a worldwide lack of effort to collect sex-disaggregated data across an array of social, economic, political, environmental, and security issues.

The security and climate policy communities tend to be comprised of people—mainly men—who are almost completely lacking in gender expertise or even gender policy awareness. As a result, the gender dimensions of security and climate issues are usually not understood, prioritized, integrated, or even considered in security and climate policy packages. It follows, of course, that gendered risks and dangers—affecting more than 7.8 billion people around the world—are not being adequately addressed.

The sad irony is that this gender-obliviousness has tremendous implications for stability and security. Gender scholars have established—in one of the most important social science findings of the past two decades—that gender inequality is strongly associated with instability and conflict, both within and between countries. Gender scholars have also shown that gender factors will be critical to the development of effective adaptation and mitigation policies, as climate change progresses. Ignoring gender, therefore, is misguided not just in terms of gender outcomes, but for security and climate outcomes as well.

The gender-security and gender-climate connections—as well as the triple nexus of gender, climate and security—need to be developed more systematically. To date, the gender studies community has taken the lead in studying these connections and developing policy ideas. The security and climate communities need to recognize that they have a stake in these connections as well, and they need to become proactive in developing gender-focused initiatives. And it is not enough to talk the talk: policymakers have to follow through with policy implementation and gender-targeted budget commitments as well.

This blog is based on Chantal de Jonge Oudraat and Michael E. Brown’s contribution to 21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate PolicyGender, Climate Change, and Security: Making the Connections

Chantal de Jonge Oudraat is a Wilson Center Fellow in the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP). She was President of Women In International Security (WIIS) from 2013 to 2021.

Michael E. Brown is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. He was Dean of the Elliott School from 2005 to 2015.

Sources: The University of Sydney, The White House, United Nations. 

Photo Credit: Unidentified women draw water from the well and take it to their homes in rural areas of Jaisalmer, India, courtesy of Yavuz Sariyildiz, 

By Ana Blatnik

As it turns out, gender stereotyping and biases that have had a serious impact on women’s safety in the physical world now appear in our social media feeds. This may not be surprising in itself, but the severity of consequences brought about by these threats is. From the 2016 US presidential elections to a year-long Ukrainian smear campaign against a woman parliamentarian, we now have recorded examples of gendered disinformation campaigns that successfully framed public debates about politicians and, terrifyingly, influenced voters’ views. As such, this article focuses on highlighting the threat to democracy posed by online gendered disinformation campaigns targeting women politicians and explores potential solutions.

What is gendered disinformation?

To begin with, two main differing terms co-exist under the umbrella of what is colloquially known as fake news:  misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is the word used for “false information shared with no intention of causing harm.”[1] Disinformation, on the other hand, contains the intent to harm in some way.[2] Because a growing body of research shows that false information is directly used with the intent to negatively impact the person concerned, especially when it comes to gendered falsehoods, this article uses the term disinformation throughout.

Disinformation is gendered if it targets women on the basis of their identity as women.[3] Research shows at least one of two contrasting approaches is usually taken when it comes to online attacks on women politicians. First, there is the presentation of women leaders as enemies and, secondly, as victims without agency.[4] In doing so, rather than directly attacking the policy decisions women make, as is the case with male politicians, gender stereotypical characteristics (like being emotional or polite) and physical appearance are used instead to challenge female politicians.[5] Such disinformation may come in different forms, from harmful graphics to conspiracy theories. A known example of graphics usage is the case of Ukrainian parliamentarian Svitlana Zalishchuk who, following a pro-women’s rights UN speech, experienced a year-long social media disinformation campaign consisting of fabricated sexualized information and images.[6] Sadly, this is just one of many examples, with research showing that nearly 42% of women politicians have seen “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of themselves” online.[7] A well-researched instance is the 2016 US presidential election, when Hillary Clinton was demonized through fabricated evidence of involvement in trafficking scandals and misconstrued videos about the state of her health.[8] In either case, the disinformation focused on objectification and reinforcement of gender stereotypical characteristics.

What does it mean for women?

As highlighted above, a common result of disinformation campaigns is that the female politician’s fitness to lead is undermined. An obvious consequence of such is that negative public debate surrounding her is either initiated or amplified and that the woman politician concerned will find it harder to work effectively.[9] Another devastating consequence is that women who observe these attacks happening to others may hesitate entering politics in the first place. This kind of effect has been seen in the Georgian pre-election period when several female politicians signaled their intention to run and became targets of a smear campaign filled with fabricated intimate videos.[10] One research study that interviewed over eighty women politicians and experts shows gender-based abuse and disinformation in the digital space presents a serious “barrier for women who want to engage in politics and a serious disincentive for young women to consider a political career.”[11] Therefore, the direct negative consequences for the women targeted also confirm this chain effect as a challenge for women pursuing a political career.

What does it mean for democracy?

Any disinformation campaign that targets politicians should also be of utmost concern because of its serious implications for democracy. As part of a democratic society, voters can participate in public debates as well-informed citizens and have full freedom of expression in doing so.[12] In facilitation of these rights, voters must have access to impartial, fact-based sources of information so they can form their opinions in the first place.[13] When people are disinformed, however, this is not possible, and so the democratic process is directly impeded. In many cases, this kind of influence on people’s minds can also be seen as election interference – a goal of many state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.[14] The risk of having disinformed voters can hardly be ignored when online campaigns usually target marginalized groups, such as women, and where stereotypes and biases are more often than not already present in voters and therefore easily amplified and abused.

What are the possible solutions?


When it comes to moderating information available online, there are ongoing debates about the most productive and ethical approach. The first and milder form is information regulation, where the content flagged as false is accompanied with fact-checked information.[15] Certain social media platforms have experimented with this system during Covid-19: any mention of the pandemic on the platform would include a link to a credible source of information.[16] An alternative to platform-led regulation is co-regulation, where requirements for posting of fact-checked information are mandated by legislative and regulatory bodies.[17] At the same time, however, it is important to note that some research suggests corrective techniques have questionable effectiveness because people are often “resistant to information correction.”[18] This has proven to be especially relevant when it comes to psychological biases, such as gender bias, and suggests other methods need to be considered as well.

Mandated removal of disinformation is a potential alternative in cases where the addition of fact-checked information is not deemed to be productive. In such cases, the legislative and regulatory bodies set the parameters for social media platforms or independent bodies to carry out the regulations.[19] Governments in countries like France, Germany, and Canada have attempted to adopt this approach. Their efforts range from empowering authorities, removing false information, and imposing fines on platforms for not removing the deceptive material.[20] For gendered issues specifically, however, training would also be necessary to ensure the programs and individuals responsible for spotting false information take into account the fact that gendered speech has become the norm on many platforms.[21] At the same time, this process requires clear proportionality boundaries between the impact of any piece of false information and preservation of free speech, which is subject to ongoing debate.

Awareness Raising

At the same time, the effectiveness of gendered disinformation campaigns is fully dependent on the impact it has on voters. If every person used critical thinking when engaging online, the prevalence of such campaigns would likely decrease. As such, states and social media platforms must also focus on awareness-raising and the critical involvement of informed citizens. In fact, several countries have implemented cyber education initiatives.[22] For example, Belgium has invested in projects that inform people about disinformation and include them in finding solutions.[23] The UK’s education secretary announced in 2019 that online safety, including about false information, will be taught in schools.[24] Ahead of the latest European Union elections, the Dutch government launched a social media campaign with the goal of increasing users’ awareness about false information.[25] If such initiatives reach enough people, they can become a powerful tool in ensuring that voters are equipped to spot the disinformation online when other options for correction or removal have been exhausted.

What about a gendered lens in solutions?

However, it is important to point out that these initiatives rarely include considerations of gender, despite the fact that identity-based attacks have specific working mechanisms. Given the presence of subconscious biases, many voters may already hold some of the beliefs being perpetuated by such disinformation. In a similar vein, social media platform moderators may fail to spot the disinformation because stereotypes and biases about marginalized groups have not been adequately flagged in their systems.[26] For these reasons, it is all the more important that the issue of disinformation and the potential solutions start to be analyzed through a gendered lens at the policy making level and within social media platforms.

For that to happen, raising more awareness about the unique dangers faced by women politicians online needs to occur, and more pressure must be put on social media platforms to ensure moderation mechanisms spot gendered disinformation in the first place. While the US Democratic Women’s Caucus, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and over a hundred women politicians across the world, sent a letter urging Facebook to do their part in curbing gendered disinformation campaigns already, by no means should this be a battle fought only by women politicians.[27] As this article and much of the research looking at the impact of gendered disinformation makes clear, the campaigns also infringe on voters’ rights and can have lasting impacts on democracy. As such, curbing gendered disinformation online should be everyone’s concern.

What you can do today:

  • Find fact-checking websites relevant to your region and topics of interest. For example, if interested in the European Union politics, EU Fact Check looks at the accuracy of political statements made about current issues.
  • If available, always check multiple sources on the same topic when reading the news.
  • Look into and, if possible, support organizations that recognize gendered disinformation is a problem and advocate for solutions. An example of such is the EU Disinfo Lab, which has studied and written about gendered disinformation campaigns to highlight the issue.
  • Research the ways in which you could bring up the issue to relevant authorities in your country of residence and challenge your public representatives on what they have done to address disinformation and to support women politicians who are the targets of disinformation campaigns.
  • Most importantly, continue to educate yourself about gender stereotypes and biases so you can recognize them when interacting with news about women politicians online, especially in election periods. The WIIS website has a Resources page that may be a good starting point in that regard.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates. 


[1] Sharia Hinds, “The European Union approach to disinformation and misinformation: The case of the 2019 European Parliament elections,” University of Strasbourg (2019), 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maria Giovanna Sessa, “Misogyny and Misinformation: An analysis of gendered disinformation tactics during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Disinfo Lab EU (December 4, 2020),

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lucinda Di Meco and Kristina Wilfore, “Gendered Disinformation is a a national security problem,” Brookings (March 8, 2021); Jackie Speier et al., “Democratic Women’s Caucus, Speaker Pelosi Send Letter to Facebook Demanding it Stop the Spread of Gendered Disinformation and Misogynistic Attacks Against Women Leaders,” Congresswoman Jackie Speier in letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (August 6, 2020),

[6] Jankowicz, Nina, et al. “Malign Creativity: How gender, sex and lies are weaponized against women online” Wilson Center, (January 2021),; “Gendered disinformation and what can be done to counter it,” Media Support (May 4, 2021).;

Nina Jankowicz, “HOW DISINFORMATION BECAME A NEW THREAT TO WOMEN,” World Policy (December 20, 2017),

[7] Jackie Speier et al., Democratic Women’s Caucus.

[8] Stabille, Bonnie, et al. “Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: Gendered Implications of Fake News for Women in Politics.” Public Integrity, (2019),

[9] Lucinda Di Meco and Kristina Wilfore, Gendered Disinformation.

[10] Nina Jankowicz,  How Disinformation Became a New Threat.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Colomna, Carme, et al. “The impact of disinformation on democratic processes and human rights in the world.” European Parliament, (2021),

[13] Ibid; Sharia Hinds, The European Union approach:

“Digital Economy and Society Index 2018 Report.” European Commission (2018),

[14] Colomna, Carme, et al., The impact of disinformation.

[15] Helm, Rebecca K and Hitoshi Nasu. “Regulatory Responses to ‘Fake News’ and Freedom of Expression: Normative and Empirical Evaluation,” Human Rights Law Review, (2021),

 [16] “Keeping People Informed, Safe, and Supported on Instagram,” Instagram (March 24, 2020).; “Supporting our community through COVID-19,” TikTok (2021),

[17] Sharia Hinds, The European Union approach.

[18] Helm, Rebecca K and Hitoshi Nasu. Regulatory Responses to ‘Fake News.

[19] Sharia Hinds, The European Union approach.

[20] Helm, Rebecca K and Hitoshi Nasu, Regulatory Responses to ‘Fake News’

Sharia Hinds, The European Union approach: Melanie Ehrenkranz, “France’s President Macron Wants to Block Websites During Elections to Fight ‘Fake News’,” Gizmodo (2018),; Daniel Funke and Daniela Flamini, “A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world. Poynter,” (n.d.).; Nagasako, Tomoko. “Global disinformation campaigns and legal challenges.” International Cybersecurity Law, (2020),; Rachel Aiello, “Feds unveil plan to tackle fake news, interference in 2019 election,” CTV News  (February 27, 2019),

[21] “Understanding the gender dimensions of disinformation,” Countering Disinformation (April 1, 2021),

[22] “Digital Economy and Society Index 2018 Report,” European Commission (2018),

“Bienvenue sur la plateforme fédérale de consultation citoyenne,” Stop Fake News (2021),; Jessica Murray, “Schools to teach pupils about perils of fake news and catfishing,” The Guardian (June 26, 2019),

[23] Stop Fake News, Bienvenue Sur La Platforme.

[24] Jesssica Murray, Schools To Teach Pupils.

[25] Rachel Aiello, Feds Unveil Plan To Tackle Fake News.

[26] Countering Disinformation, Understanding The Gender Dimensions.

[27] Jackie Speier Et Al., Democratic Women’s Caucus.

By: Eva van Ophem

Ana Blatnik is a Gender and Global Security Program Assistant at WIIS. She is a third-year student at New York University in Abu Dhabi, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Legal Studies, as well as minoring in Economics and Political Science. Her studies focus on looking at different legal systems via a comparative lens, with an emphasis on the common law system. 

Ana grew up in the outskirts of a small town in Slovenia and spent all of her childhood there. When she was eighteen, she moved to the United Arab Emirates to pursue her bachelor’s degree at NYU. Throughout her degree, she has moved around different NYU campuses and has spent some time in the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, and the United States. When Ana graduates from NYU, she hopes to pursue her master’s degree in Europe, which is her home and her favorite place to travel. Her areas of interest range from commercial law to women’s rights and international security. Once she obtains a master’s degree in the latter field, she hopes to work for an institution or organization affiliated with the European Union or, alternatively, go on to pursue a legal career. In either case, she believes she will feel most fulfilled if her work allows her to increase people’s safety, whatever capacity that may be in. 

Ana has a wide range of past experiences that have spawned her interest in international security, the law, and gendered issues. Her past work includes working as an intern for UNICEF in the summer of 2019, where she worked in donations acquisitions. She underwent extensive training on working with potential donors and learned about how UNICEF organizes its various programs aimed at increasing child safety. Ana has also had various legal internships, as she worked for the law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in the fall of 2019 where she was both a legal intern and a research assistant. The experience of working in a successful Dubai office of a US law firm was completely different than anything she has ever experienced before but she really enjoyed seeing how fast-paced and intellectually stimulating commercial law can be. In 2020, she also interned at the Royal Courts of Justice’s Support Through Court unit in London, an independent charity that offers support to those that come to plead their case without legal representation. Working there gave her a very unique perspective on the legal system and made her realize how useful it is to have had some form of legal education in her studies, regardless of whether she ends up having a law-focused career or not. Finally, Ana also worked as an intern for the organization femLens which is focused on empowering women in underrepresented communities to become social agents of change through visual storytelling. 

As for her personal life, Ana’s favorite pastime includes watching TV shows and solo travel. The latter has been her preferred way of spending weekends abroad and summers living back home in Europe. Her favorite TV shows are workplace comedies or dramas which portray female characters in all their complexity. Her favorite series Suits merges both, but she is also a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, Bates Motel, Big Little Lies and Slovenian classics. Besides watching TV shows and travelling, Ana also loves yoga, which she finds is important for stress relief and staying in touch with her body. As for pets, Ana has a cat whom she adores and calls “Donna”, the name of a beloved TV character but also meaning “woman” in Italian. Funny enough, however, her family cannot agree on one name for their cat, so they have all come to call her a name they each prefer.. As of late, Donna has given birth to three kittens and they are all happy and healthy in Ana’s childhood home in Laško.

By: Ana Blatnik

Eva van Ophem is one of the 2021 Gender and Global Security program assistants at WIIS.
She grew up in White Plains, a suburb of New York City, where she is currently spending her
summer. Despite calling White Plains home since her childhood, she has extensive experience
abroad. Her dad comes from the Netherlands and her mom from Belgium. She speaks Dutch
and has travelled a lot outside the US.

Her desire to experience the world does not end there. Eva has just finished her third year of
undergraduate education at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She chose McGill as her
temporary home because she wanted to live abroad while still being close to where she comes
from. She is majoring in Political Science (Honors) and has two minors, one in Sociology and
one in Gender, Sexuality, Feminist and Social Justice Studies. Her courses focus on gender
and international relations, Canadian political science and political theory.

Much like her academic interests, her work experiences have also given her a breath of
knowledge. In high school, she worked for a medical malpractice law firm as an assistant. This
was a steppingstone in her desire to go to law school, which she is working towards right now
by preparing for LSATs. She has also visited Brazil for six weeks as an English teacher through
AIESEC. Her positive experience motivated her to become the VP for the AIESEC branch at
McGill. At the same time, she has been actively involved in her university’s WIIS club as their
VP external last year and now their co-president. Last summer, she also spent some time with
the now very familiar company Pfizer, where she worked in their regulatory affairs department.
Lastly, she assisted at the 12th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention
on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations. A common thread in all these
experiences seems to be their international focus and the desire to connect with people who
could benefit from her help.

Having had all this experience, Eva is also keeping her options for the future open. While hoping
to go to law school after McGill, she is alternatively also interested in pursuing an international
security and conflict studies master’s degree in Europe. Considering her parents’ connection to
the Netherlands, this would ideally be a university located there. Down the line, Eva would love
to work for an NGO that would send her abroad to different countries, integrating her passion for
helping and travelling into her career.

In her free time, it will not come as a surprise that Eva has visited many exciting countries like
Egypt, Iceland, and Peru. Besides travel, she also enjoys going to music festivals and has kept
a neat record of artists she still wants to see. When festivals were possible, she would attend up
to three every year. At McGill, she also spends her free time reflecting through a creative writing
club. But, whenever she does make it home, her cat Sugar is happily waiting for her there.

By: Alissa Indeck

Fiona Captan is a Gender and Global Security Program Assistant at WIIS. As a first generation
American and university student, Fiona is proudly pursuing her B.A. in International Relations at
Boston University (BU) with a minor in European Studies.

Fiona’s passion for international affairs stems from her experiences traveling and living abroad
and her love of language. While Fiona has traveled all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia,
she also lived in Austria for four years and Dubai for six years before moving to Los Angeles,
California. Fiona is fluent in German and English, and has strong proficiencies in Arabic,
Spanish, and French.

At Boston University, she is involved in several organizations. Fiona is a member of the Delta
Phi Epsilon Foreign Service and International Business Fraternity, a society that fosters a
community of professionals to become future world leaders that advocate for justice and peace.
Fiona is also the senior editor for the Europe region at the International Relations Review, BU’s
premiere academic journal that focuses on current news in international relations. In addition,
Fiona is also a writer for Migration Tales, a non-profit aimed to amplify migrant voices. She is
also conducting BU-funded research on the Nevada Nuclear Testing Site as part of the
Frederick S. Pardee School’s Global Decolonization Initiative.

After she graduates from Boston University, she wants to return to Europe for her master’s in
international security or war studies. She hopes to utilize her linguistic skills and continue to
travel as she studies to become either a foreign service officer or an intelligence analyst.
At WIIS, Fiona is currently working on several different projects. She is working on planning
events for the member engagement and professional development series, compiling interviews
for the Combat Integration Initiative with WIIS fellow, Zi, and conducting membership survey

Outside of school, Fiona travels around the United States and Canada for competitive freeride
skiing. After she moved to Los Angeles, she spent many weekends traveling to Vancouver for
skiing competitions during the school year, which inspired her to want to continue a work and
travel balance for her future career. One of her favorite travel memories was going to New
Zealand for the National Geographic Student Expedition where she traveled throughout the
South Island and filmed her experience to create a final presentation of her adventures for the
NatGeo Experts. Currently, Fiona enjoys watching British television like Peaky Blinders, the
Hercule Poirot series, Downton Abbey, and Collateral with her 14-year-old Yorkie, Lucky, who
was born in the Czech Republic and traveled to Dubai, Oman, Canada, and the US!