Gendered Implementation of the Global Fragility Act: A Case for Haiti

Marvin Dee Mathelier and Tahina Montoya

The Global Fragility Act (GFA) and its subsequent Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS) constitute a fundamental shift in the way the U.S. government will act to address the root causes of violence in fragile states and stabilize conflict-affected areas. Given bipartisan support and congressionally mandated funding, the GFA is designed to produce a coordinated strategy that builds on lessons learned and prioritizes building partnerships with local communities and civil society actors. In terms of implementation, the GFA requires a whole-of-government approach and interagency process with regular reporting mechanisms applied to five high-priority countries over a ten-year period.

In Spring 2023, four years after the passing of the GFA, the U.S. State Department released a 10-Year Strategic Plan for four priority countries and one priority region. Haiti is one of the SPCPS-designated priority states, along with Libya, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea, as is the region of Coastal Western Africa (which includes Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo). The SPCPS specifically links the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) to its work, recognizing that the root causes of violent extremism are gendered and thus intimately linked to structural inequalities and discriminations that must be addressed to reduce state fragility. Haiti’s own 10-Year Strategic Plan identifies severe gender inequality and Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as elements that undermine Haiti’s stability. 

With the SPCPS specifically calling attention to drivers of conflict that are deeply gendered, this policy brief argues that country implementation plans must consider a whole-of-government (WOG) approach that integrates a gender perspective. Haiti’s implementation plan must also recognize Haiti’s complex history and how it has contributed to the gendered dimensions of Haiti’s current violence—political, economic, cultural, and structural—and integrate these factors into the tailored approach emphasized in the GFA’s strategic documents. 

The policy brief begins with an assessment of current conditions in Haiti and then turns to the question of why current conditions are so intractable. Using Haiti as a case study, the policy brief shows how consideration of a country’s history and gender-specific issues are factors that must be considered when developing tangible solutions, as doing so is necessary to promote long-term stability. The policy brief then presents a set of recommendations that can strengthen the Haiti implementation plan and programmatic objectives in critical areas: formalize the informal sector workforce to empower women, reform education policy, increase support to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and mobilize the Haitian diaspora in support of U.S. assistance to Haiti.

Haiti: The Current Situation

In addition to the 2020 COVID pandemic, 2021 was a devastating year for Haiti. Multiple protests and demonstrations have since occurred in response to high inflation and rising food and gas prices. The poverty-stricken country also saw an alarming increase in criminal and gang activity, a sign of the weakening authority and the incapacity of the Haitian National Police to control the gangs. Tensions escalated when, on July 7, 2021, a group of 28 foreign mercenaries broke into the home of President Jovenel Moïse and assassinated him. Only five weeks later, on August 14, 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the southern claw of Haiti, causing billions of dollars worth of infrastructure damage and affecting the lives of over 1.2 million people.  

In the wake of these political, economic, and social crises, human rights violations over the past two years have escalated and accelerated. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. The number of kidnappings and abductions has tripled since 2021 as gangs use women and children for financial gain or tactical advantage. Of the 5.2 million Haitians requiring humanitarian aid (nearly half the population), three million are children. Severe malnutrition and cholera outbreaks are overtaxing a failing healthcare system, and gender-based violence is rampant.

It is estimated that gangs control 90% of the capital, Port Au Prince, instilling fear through the use of violent tactics such as kidnapping, rape, and murder to control areas. Occasionally, to further aggravate the populace, and in an attempt to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry from power, these gangs block off access to fuel and goods, preventing access to other parts of the country. This further exacerbates food shortages that, if left unchecked, can lead to a man-made famine. The international community’s hesitancy to get involved has left citizens with few choices, leaving many to combat gangs on their own. Some citizens have retaliated by taking extreme actions of their own, such as burning gang members in the road as a deterrent.

On October 23, 2023, after intense pressure from both the Haitian government and human rights organizations, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved a Kenyan-led security mission to help the Haitian National Police combat gang violence. However, on October 24, 2023, Kenya’s High Court blocked the deployment of Kenyan police to Haiti after a petition was filed challenging the government’s deployment decision, and Kenya’s parliament has yet to schedule a debate on the issue, a ruling the High Court is expected to make on November 9.

Roots of Systemic Failure          

For Haiti, the current violence that handicaps efforts to stabilize the country and protect at-risk groups has roots in Haiti’s tumultuous history, which has been shaped by foreign intervention and occupation, crippling debts, weak governance structures, and devastating natural disasters.

Independence and Struggle: 1800-1900. Haiti became the first free Black republic on January 1, 1804, when a band of slaves raised an army to defeat France. To recoup and compensate for its economic losses, the French demanded reparations totaling 150 million francs ($20-30 billion in today’s currency). Debt payments consumed over 80% of Haiti’s revenues for the subsequent 122 years. The fear of political contagion from Haiti’s successful slave rebellion led countries, including the United States, to withhold recognition of Haiti’s sovereignty or offer any support for the young country.

U.S. Occupation: 1915-1934. The U.S. occupation of Haiti was designed to quell the political and economic turmoil plaguing Haiti and, through a campaign known as the Banana Wars, to protect U.S. financial assets and economic growth in the Western Hemisphere. Many atrocities and human rights violations, including torture, forced labor, and religious persecution against voodoo practitioners occurred during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Additionally, under the guise of protecting Haiti’s financial assets, the U.S. took custody of over $500,000 from Haiti’s national bank, roughly equivalent to $15,351,300 billion in current dollars. The loss of these funds had significant impacts on the country’s economic development and stabilization, and especially on Haiti’s social fabric and education system.

Despite promoting the goal of creating 1,074 schools in Haiti, the U.S. built only 306, much lower in comparison to schools constructed by the U.S. in Cuba (2,600) and the Philippines (1,000). For children in those countries, this support resulted in a significant increase in access to both schools and education. Rather than develop schools to promote education for all Haitians, the U.S. provided agricultural training for predominantly black Haitians, while their mixed-race peers continued their education at the limited and exclusive French-based curriculum schools in Haiti. This specifically limited black Haitians’ ability to acquire critical skills and knowledge, further widening the education and socio-economic gaps for black Haitian children.

The Duvalier Regime: 1957-1986. The 30-year reign of terror of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier that led to the killing of over 50,000 men, women, and children contributed to a massive exodus of Haitian citizens. This “brain drain” of highly educated and skilled Haitians had a devastating effect on the country’s social and economic development and placed the country in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Haitian citizens continue to struggle while members of the Haitian diaspora secure more economic growth and send remittances back to Haiti, often the only income many families have. Women, in particular, were severely affected by the impacts of emigration and economic crises, as most were forced to work almost exclusively within the informal sector. Statistics show the staggering cost: in 2021, the World Bank reported that “vulnerable employment” among Haitian women had reached 83.5%. 

2004 and Beyond: 2004 ushered in a crushing series of humanitarian, political, and economic crises that continued to disproportionately impact women and children in Haiti. This began with the second coup of Haitian President Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004, which in the wake of Aristide’s ouster led to the establishment of the UN peacekeeping mission Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH). Peacekeeping forces worked with the Haitian National Police to support police efforts to reduce violence. Unfortunately, trust in MINUSTAH evaporated as tensions grew. Corruption and GBV were endemic; serious incidents of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers against local citizens occurred, but few were held accountable for their actions. A severe cholera outbreak traced back to a sewage leak from a MINUSTAH base resulted in the loss of over 10,000 lives, and the UN was slow to accept responsibility. The withdrawal of MINUSTAH troops in 2019 left much destruction, loss of life, and a glaring security gap, creating an opening for gangs to take control of the country.

Finally, with more than 96% of its population exposed to hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, Haiti has become even more vulnerable to natural disasters. A 2010 earthquake killed 222,570 people, injured over 300,000, and displaced 3.5 million Haitians. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed around 250,000 people and wiped out 120% of its GDP. The destructive earthquake that hit Haiti on August 14, 2021, was followed two days later by Tropical Storm Grace, causing massive flooding and landslides and worsening the already desperate conditions on the ground. 

All these systemic issues and intractable problems, combined with a lack of faith in the government, have forced Haitians to fend for themselves. For women, this meant relying increasingly on the informal sector, primarily selling goods on the street and making the hard decision to use their financial resources to feed their children, pay for medical bills, or decide which of their children was most eligible to go to private school. This overwhelming conundrum created a practice with serious repercussions for poorer Haitians. With little money to send their children to school, a legalized form of child labor or slavery called Restavèk developed. With the creation of this system, limited resources drove many families to send their children to other, presumably wealthier, families who had the relative means to provide education, shelter, and food in exchange for their children’s service.

Current Impact on Women and Children

Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

With the ongoing turmoil in Haiti, marginalized groups such as women and children continue to be disproportionally impacted. GBV and violence against women and children are used as a deterrent to control a community. A Health Policy Watch study that evaluated the use of rape as a weapon of war in Haiti stated that “80% of the women and girls who participated in this research had been victims of one or multiple forms of sexual violence by one or more perpetrators. In 33% of the cases, the assailants were described as bandits, gang members, or kidnappers. 14% of the victims were only 10 to 18 years old.”  

Unemployment Rate & Informal Work Sector

Haiti’s unemployment rate is currently 15.73%. Women make up 62% of the labor force, and nearly half of the Haitian women are heads of households, but they do not work in the formal sector. Women constitute more than 75% of the informal economy in Haiti, where they sell produce and other items on roadsides to support their families with no benefits, health insurance, or other job protections.  

Lack of Representation in Politics

Unsurprisingly, women’s political representation in Haiti is negligent. In 2019, women constituted only 2.54% of the Haitian parliament, though as of January 2023, there is no functioning parliament at all in the country. Haiti established a Gender Equality Policy in 2014 and the Haitian Ministry for the Status of Women and Women’s Rights (MCFDF) in 1994. Nevertheless, the plan has not been effectively implemented, and the MCFDF faces chronic underfunding (0.01—0.05% of the national budget), government and parliamentary hostility, and little political will to change the status quo. 

Restavèk System

As noted, a modern version of child slavery known as Restavèk remains prevalent in Haiti. Studies have shown that male and female children who have been “restavèks” (more than half of whom are girls) likely never attended school and are more prone to experience sexual, physical, and emotional violence in childhood than non-restavèk children (See Figure 1). Some children do return home, but with few options available to them, many turn to prostitution, join gangs, or become beggars, which only continues the poverty-stricken cycle in Haiti. The Haitian government has attempted to crack down on this practice, but many families continue to resort to the only means they can afford to feed their children and families. 

                     Figure 1: Restavèk vs Non-Restavèk Children

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Access to Education

Education in Haiti is valued but not accessible to all since 85% of schools in Haiti are private schools. Families understand the power and opportunities an education can bring and, if they have the means, are willing to pay more than 40% of their income to send their children to school. In families with multiple children, children may skip a year to let their siblings go to school or, as is often the case, preference is given to boys under the assumption that it will be easier for them to find jobs. Parents often have no money to pay for their daughter’s education, and it has been known that some girls ask their male counterparts for money in exchange for sex in hopes they will make enough money to afford an education. Additionally, while the global average for “mean years of schooling” is 8.7 years, Haiti’s is a mere 5.6 years, placing it 124th out of 150 countries.

An Opportunity for Change: The Global Fragility Act

The U.S. 10-year Strategic Plan for Haiti identifies key factors that contribute to Haiti’s fragility (including the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and increased criminal gang activity) and delves into gender-specific issues that continue to contribute to the countries’ instability, namely, GBV and gender inequality that disproportionately impacts women and girls. It specifically highlights the creation of a working group that consulted 230 individuals from different facets of the Haitian government and civil society. But gaps remain. 

It is particularly important that a detailed implementation plan arising from interagency discussions successfully integrate a gender perspective. However, a growing list of documents referenced for GFA implementation (see Figure 3) has made an already complicated effort more onerous. 

Figure 3: U.S. Government Documents: WPS and GFA

December 2017The United States Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017
June 2019The United States Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security
December 2019Global Fragility Act
December 2020The U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability
December 20202020-2024 The USAID Strategic Framework: Haiti
April 2022Announcement of GFA Priority Countries and Regions
March 2023U.S. Department of State Integrated Country Strategy
March 2023Publication of Country and Regional Plan Summaries

Despite multiple failed attempts by Haiti and the international community to address existing complex conflict dynamics, the Global Fragility Act and its 10-Year Strategic Plan for Haiti offers an opportunity to course-correct if implemented with a gender-sensitive lens alongside the people of Haiti. We offer four tangible recommendations that help codify how gender-conscious GFA implementation could look like in Haiti. They provide a unique and crucial approach to stabilizing Haiti’s fragile situation through the lens of gender-centric solutions.


Recommendation 1:  Increase Women’s Economic Agency in the Workforce

Through the support of the DoS, DoD, and USAID under the GFA, the Haitian government should create a joint coalition with the Haitian Ministry of the Economy, local government officials, and local NGOs to develop a pilot project for supporting the women-led informal sector. While most plans would center their efforts in the capital, specifically in Port-au-Prince, this plan is better suited for development and implementation in Cap Haitian, the second-largest city in the country.  With over 190,000 people, Cap Haitian is in the northern tip of Haiti and has thus far been shielded from the violence currently engulfing key cities in Haiti. Through monitoring mechanisms and data collection, a pilot case will provide lessons learned for implementing programs tailored to support women’s agency in more fragile and conflict-ridden environments. This approach has positive multiple effects, and it will address the persistent insecurity women face socially and economically and help ensure they are in a space that enables economic growth for their families and encourages career development.               

Recommendation 2:  Enhance the Ministry of Women’s Affairs

While the Haitian government has established laws addressing gender equality, policymakers are noncompliant with the laws. Enhancing the capability of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is needed to oversee and enforce these laws, though it is doubtful the Haitian government will extend the resources and staff to support the Ministry’s work. International assistance can provide financial support for the Ministry’s activities, such as developing education and gender awareness programs for men, women, and children or building women’s economic empowerment. Collaboration among diverse international stakeholders that provide training, business advice, and increased access to financial resources or that work to build women’s business leadership and ownership in emerging markets will strengthen the Ministry’s capacity to empower more women.

Recommendation 3:  Education for Children

Education is the key driver to economic growth within a country. A highly educated and skilled labor force will increase the quality of work in all sectors and will contribute to increased income, tax revenue, and better-quality public education. To get there, with the help of GFA entities, Haiti should establish an education initiative similar to the approach conducted in the High Performing Asian Economies (HPAE) that includes Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. Although different in culture, government structure, and region, these countries were able to shift from developing countries to leading economies within half a decade. With high rates of investment in education, the governments were able to reallocate funds towards human capital such as schools and other necessary training, which helped each respective economy grow. This is a challenge for Haiti–not just because of government instability and scarce resources for education, but because of structural inequalities in the education system itself that must be eliminated to spur greater economic growth in the country. Nevertheless, making progress towards quality universal education must be a political priority.

Recommendation 4: Mobilizing the Haitian Diaspora

Despite significant international assistance to Haiti–$13 billion between 2011 and 2022 alone–Haiti remains an impoverished failed state. Earlier efforts have failed for many reasons, among them, poorly managed projects, local capacity limitations, corruption, and a political and economic elite complicit in gang violence and unwilling to implement structural changes to address state instability. An approach that has not been optimized is leveraging the Haitian diaspora to advance develop-driven, long-term solutions for Haiti, with the diaspora working hand in hand with the U.S. government and Haitians on the ground. Outside of the Haitians on the ground, there is no other group that understands the complexity and issues within the island nation or that contributes more to Haiti’s GDP: around two-thirds of Haiti’s GDP comes from remittances, showing that the Haitian diaspora not only influences but drives and deeply cares about Haiti’s success.

The Global Fragility Act and the 10-year strategic plan for Haiti can lead to novel implementation approaches by incorporating members of the diaspora while engaging with Haitian civil society organizations, and do so with the intent to leverage Haitian diaspora expertise. This includes engaging with organizations like the U.S. National Haitian Elected Officials Network (NHEON), a U.S.-based organization of Haitian-American politicians who can be an additional voice and liaison between Haitian citizens and U.S. organizations working towards implementing the GFA. We also recommend exploring the opportunity to grant voting rights to Haitians living abroad. While Haitians living abroad are eligible for dual citizenship, they cannot currently vote in Haitian elections. Doing so would insert a diversity of views and weaken the ability of corrupt politicians to manipulate voters, in the hope that diaspora voters would help to push the Haitian government to be more accountable to its citizens.


While Haiti’s history has contributed greatly to its current situation, and prior policies (with the best of intentions) have failed to alter Haiti’s current state, the Global Fragility Act is, undoubtedly, currently the best option to address fragility in Haiti. Though a challenge, cooperation between U.S. government agencies working with Haiti’s citizens and the diaspora to develop and implement the above-listed recommendations would contribute to addressing key concerns of GBV, employment, education, and safety, all of which are discussed in the guiding frameworks that have been identified as key documents for GFA implementation in Haiti. Despite the delay in implementation, the GFA is a policy that provides a significant opportunity for change. If implemented alongside the people of Haiti in a gender-sensitive way, the GFA can address fragility in innovative ways that will work for Haiti and its people.

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.

Student Blog

By Claire Pamerleau, University of Pittsburgh WIIS Chapter

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.

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] 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.”

Student Blog

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,” CognoscentiWBUR, 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! NewsIndependent Asia Edition, June 9, 2022, 0v&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABijbutz7IznQNuMbBASrOMToePptsly4RIZJpQzeXMb EPtHb

tl7XJyNqxR4k5Pi1QcgMcXiM7loVQyh_vRsneQ5O7cxE6Supj8lS8Mhsaau_ODEP0jbV dkcPQA9NlmFoqQt5UvjbRF82L7WtmXrtu8pFpju0hWHWJkd2Ocz3iE.

[15] Ibid.

Student Blog

By Alicia Luedke, Chloe Lewis, and Marisella Rodriguez


•                Recent attention to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) on the part of military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN peacekeeping operations and to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) by state and nonstate armed groups reveals policy silos that obscure similarities between the two and result in ineffective prevention efforts.

•                Instead of being regarded as separate kinds of activities, SEA and CRSV are best seen as occurring on a behavior spectrum that ranges from strategically motivated to opportunistic.

•                Much of this behavior revolves around power and is rooted in structural factors, including gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation.

•                Policy responses need to go beyond an emphasis on accountability for CRSV, on the one hand, and the prevention of SEA through conduct and discipline on the other and address the underlying causes of sexual violence in conflict and postconflict situations, namely, gender inequality and the political, social, and economic vulnerabilities of civilian populations.

•                Efforts to address SEA and CRSV should emphasize both legal accountability and appropriate conduct and discipline, as well as the root causes of such behaviors.


Whether on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria or in the remote villages of South Sudan, sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, also known as conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), has drawn increasing attention from researchers, activists, and organizations concerned with protecting vulnerable populations during war. As a result of the efforts of feminist scholars and activists beginning in the 1990s, CRSV now informs an important part of

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international policy agendas. It is criminalized under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is the subject of a number of significant UN Security Council Resolutions, collectively referred to as the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, drew attention to the gendered experiences of armed conflicts and emergencies and called for the protection of vulnerable populations against various forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Eight years later, in 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1820 recognized CRSV as a “tactic of war” and a threat to “international peace and security,” stressing the significance of “ending impunity for such acts as part of a comprehensive approach to seeking sustainable peace.”1

Similar developments have also taken place in the realm of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by the military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and by humanitarian aid workers operating in conflict and emergency settings around the world. SEA occurring in the course of peace and humanitarian interventions has made headlines for more than a decade. In one of the better-known recent examples from 2016, UN and French peacekeepers found themselves at the center of allegations of child rape and sadistic sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, including reports of a French military commander tying up young girls and forcing them to have sex with a dog.2 In the first half of 2017 alone, there were forty-one allegations of SEA by UN mission personnel. In seven cases the victims were under the age of eighteen.3

In parallel with efforts to recognize and criminalize CSRV, there has been a strong effort to prevent and eliminate SEA, reflecting the wider emphasis on experiences of sexual violence in war since the development of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in the early 2000s.4 In March 2016 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272, aimed at curbing SEA committed by those operating under UN mandates. In 2017 UN Secretary-General António Guterres named SEA a top priority. Corresponding efforts have also occurred in the humanitarian sector. In 2016 the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the main coordination mechanism for humanitarian operations, reestablished the taskforce to support the implementation of measures to protect vulnerable populations from sexual exploitation and abuse on the part of humanitarian aid workers.

While progress in addressing both CRSV and SEA must be acknowledged, efforts to understand and mitigate sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings have been limited by the separation of the two in policy circles. CRSV has often been regarded as a “tactic of war” perpetrated by state and nonstate armed groups, requiring criminal accountability through prosecution. Conversely, SEA has usually been considered a matter of conduct and discipline to be addressed by and at the discretion of individual troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and humanitarian agencies.

The treatment of CRSV and SEA as separate issues has overlooked the similarities between the two and resulted in partial and ineffective policies for dealing with the problem of sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings. Patterns of CRSV by armed groups, on the one hand, and SEA by the military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN PKOs and humanitarian organizations on the other have much in common and are best seen as existing on a spectrum ranging from ordered, strategic behavior to unordered, opportunistic behavior. Much of this behavior revolves around power and is rooted in structural factors, including gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation. Thus, policy responses for both CRSV and SEA need to go beyond an emphasis on accountability and prevention and address the underlying causes of gender inequality and the political, social, and economic vulnerability of civilian populations.5

This is critical, as failing to address both CSRV and SEA and the commonalities between them can lead to further insecurity, deepening the culture of impunity, undermining long-term

state stability, and exacerbating the fragility of conflict and disaster-ridden areas. Indeed, CRSV and SEA undermine peace and security and contribute to the breakdown in social and political order.6 Similar to state and nonstate armed groups, when peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers exploit the vulnerability of those they are meant to protect and serve, it undermines their credibility while at the same time signaling to would-be perpetrators that acts of sexual violence are permissible.7 In the same way that CRSV is recognized as a threat to “peace and security,” 8 so also should SEA, which also creates insecurity and undermines long-term stability, even if it is not acknowledged as doing so.

Moving beyond Stereotypes of Sexual Violence

CRSV is often identified based on two predominant patterns. The first is strategic sexual violence, or sexual violence used as a weapon of war. The second is opportunistic sexual violence. The strategic use of sexual violence as a weapon or tactic has frequently been conceptualized as the targeting of individuals, groups, or entire communities with rape and other sexual crimes to advance an armed group’s political or military objectives and to instill fear in the general populace.9 Researchers have long recognized the strategic deployment of systematic sexual violence across conflict and postconflict contexts, including as a strategy of ethnic cleansing10 for sexual humiliation and torture,11 and as a tactic of political repression to thwart women’s political participation.12 Opportunistic wartime sexual violence, by contrast, is often perceived as driven by individual motivations, such as sexual gratification, revenge, and status seeking, in which the chaos of war enables perpetrators to commit sexual crimes with impunity.

Recent research on CRSV, however, has looked beyond this binary interpretation of strategic and opportunistic violence and found that sexual violence in war exists on a spectrum. Elisabeth Wood, for example, has shown that CRSV reflects a mixture of both strategy and opportunity, a “practice” that is condoned but not directly ordered by commanders.13 For instance, commanders may permit certain acts of sexual violence, such as sexual slavery, as a form of compensation for participating in fighting.14 This has been said to be the case in South Sudan, where combatants are paid in the currency of “what they loot and the women they abduct.”15

Research on SEA is similarly moving away from simplistic understandings. Although SEA is regularly viewed as involving transactional and survival sex between peacekeeping and humanitarian interveners and the populations they serve, close to half of allegations of SEA encompass more serious offenses, including rape and sex with minors.16 While the United Nations documents and defines both acts of exploitation and abuse, prevention efforts must recognize and address the full range of behaviors. Instead of viewing SEA simply as sexual misconduct by individuals, Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Louise Searle differentiate among four patterns of SEA perpetrated by peace interveners: opportunistic sexual abuse; planned, sadistic abuse; transactional sex; and networked abuse and exploitation.17 Viewed in this way, the motivations behind SEA, like those behind CRSV, exist on a spectrum that encompasses “related but distinct types of behavior” that thrive on and reinforce gender and material inequalities.18

As such, although SEA and CRSV are not always ordered by superiors in the chain of command, they have been widely tolerated forms of criminal behavior across conflict and emergency settings.19 Thus those in leadership positions—commanders of armed groups, heads of peacekeeping battalions, managers of humanitarian organizations—need to take responsibility for the actions of those working under them. In particular they need to create and adhere to effective complaint mechanisms, develop and implement codes of conduct, and investigate and hold to account perpetrators of sexual violence.

Root Causes of Sexual Violence in Conflicts and Emergencies

Over the past two decades, researchers have established connections among gender inequality, sexual violence, and armed conflict, which emphasizes that many of the elements that drive sexual violence in peacetime also drive sexual violence in wartime.20 Sexual violence in armed conflict does not occur in a vacuum; it is rooted in preexisting peacetime gender inequalities and violence, such as forced or early marriage, domestic violence, and marital rape.21 In South Sudan, for instance, research has shown that CRSV in the context of the ongoing civil war is rooted in the local political economy of bridewealth that commodifies women and girls and treats them as property.22

Material inequality, itself grounded in gender inequality, also contributes to CRSV by making civilians more vulnerable to attacks by armed groups as they seek to meet their basic needs, such as obtaining food and shelter. In another example from South Sudan, women living in the UN Protection of Civilians camps are sometimes forced to choose between staying inside the camps or leaving the camps in search of food and firewood to support their families, where they risk being raped outside the gates of UN bases by armed actors.23

Many of the root causes of SEA comparably lie in the gender and material inequalities that exist between peace and humanitarian interveners and local populations.24 The settings in which peacekeepers and humanitarians operate are largely unregulated, marked by economic collapse and nonexistent rule of law. These factors create an opportune environment for the exploitation of vulnerable civilians.25 Because of the inherently unequal relationship between interveners and the people they serve, sexual acts can be demanded in exchange for protection and material support, with peacekeepers and aid workers withholding food, shelter, and other services until their sexual demands are met.26

In this regard, it is worth noting that work on SEA has shown that higher levels of gender equality in TCCs for PKOs tend to be associated with lower levels of SEA allegations in the field.27 Such evidence points to the important role of gender inequality in influencing the prevalence of sexual abuse by peacekeepers abroad. Accordingly, in much the same way that gender inequality feeds into the use of CRSV by armed groups, gender inequality in UN TCCs can also influence the likelihood that peace and humanitarian interveners will sexually exploit and abuse communities in host countries. Promoting gender equality at home thus becomes a critical step toward promoting gender equality during mission-based interventions.

Lessons for Preventing and Responding to CRSV and SEA

Although CRSV and SEA share clear similarities, policy responses for the two differ significantly. Policies for combating and ending CRSV strongly underline accountability, focusing especially on promoting justice for survivors and restoring trust in rule of law institutions, with the aim of deterring future crimes. This has led to huge investments to support capacity building in domestic courts and tribunals in conflict settings, including the development of specialized mechanisms for investigating, documenting, and, ultimately, prosecuting CRSV.28 However, initiatives to prevent CRSV from occurring in the first instance, such as better training and rigorous vetting, remain relatively rare.

This stands in stark contrast to efforts to address SEA, which have emphasized prevention, stressing individual compliance through standards of conduct, recruitment, and training as the main vehicles for policy dissemination and enforcement. This has led to what Westendorf and Searle call the “individualization of responsibility.” 29 The approach along these lines largely foregrounds predeployment training based on the principles of the UN and humanitarian system.30 However, efforts to hold perpetrators of SEA to account have been difficult,

with complaint mechanisms rarely established or well understood among the people they are intended to protect.31 The lack of accountability for SEA is reinforced by the fact that, at least in the case of PKOs, the responsibility to investigate reports of SEA and hold peacekeeping personnel accountable rests in the hands of TCCs. In 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2272 introduced new punitive measures applicable to TCCs, including the repatriation of troops. If consistently enforced, such a measure has the potential to generate greater levels of collective responsibility, and thus greater collective security, by TCCs in particular.32

Legal accountability needs to be accompanied by prevention in the form of conduct and training. Similarly, prevention in the form of conduct and training needs to be accompanied by legal accountability. What’s more, the disparate emphasis on accountability for CRSV and prevention for SEA, respectively, has in both cases failed to address the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality and vulnerability, such as resource access for civilian populations.


A policy focus on CRSV as strategic and opportunistic sexual violence and on SEA as a matter of individual misconduct has obscured the root causes these behaviors have in common. Thus, in developing recommendations for reining in, dealing with, and ultimately eliminating sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings, it is necessary to address the sociocultural conditions, as well as leadership, training, and agency focus.

•                The root causes of sexual violence in conflict or postconflict situations are gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation. Many of these are structural factors that facilitate or devolve from unequal power relations. Promoting gender equality in PKOs and humanitarian interventions begins with greater gender equality in TCCs themselves. Once interveners are in the field, gender equality should be aided by increasing the number of women peacekeepers and officials in top-level decision-making positions across PKOs and humanitarian agencies. Supporting vulnerable civilian populations’ access to an adequate livelihood and to resources to help mitigate the causes of vulnerability is the third leg of the stool. Here, access to resources should be understood as including access to redress for sexual violence committed against civilians.

•                The emphasis on strategic and opportunistic sexual violence in the case of CRSV has lent itself to a focus on acts of sexual violence that are ordered by armed groups, ignoring sexual violence that is tolerated or condoned. Similarly, viewing SEA as an issue of individual misconduct primarily involving transactional and survival sex neglects the responsibility of leaders and managers for the range of SEA behaviors perpetrated by peace and humanitarian interveners. People in leadership positions (commanders of armed groups, heads of peacekeeping battalions, managers of humanitarian agencies) need to take responsibility for the actions of those in their charge. In particular, they need to build and adhere to effective complaint mechanisms, develop and implement codes of conduct, and investigate and hold to account those who resort to sexual violence. A zero-tolerance policy will only be effective if clear structures are in place to hold accountable those who perpetrate acts of sexual exploitation and abuse. Leaders and managers also need to make explicit statements in support of these processes to ensure others, especially in middle management, also take them seriously.

•                Speaking across silos should encourage disparate bodies and agencies—such as the UN Special Coordinator for Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the Inter-Agency Standing Commitee’s Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Task Force, and the UN Office of the Special Representative of the SecretaryGeneral for Sexual Violence in Conflict—to work more closely to find avenues where efforts to prevent and eliminate CRSV and SEA converge.


The similarities between CRSV and SEA should encourage policymakers to look more critically at the common issues and policy implications of these two streams of work. CRSV and SEA exist on a spectrum that encompasses related behaviors rooted in gender and material inequalities.33 Developing a common understanding of CRSV and SEA can help policymakers better respond to and mitigate the factors that make civilians vulnerable to sexual violence in conflict settings, specifically gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation.


1.              UN Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (June 2008), 2–3.

2.              Al Jazeera, “‘Sickening’ Sex Abuse Alleged in CAR by UN Peacekeepers,” Al Jazeera, March 31,


Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by

Interveners in Peace Operations. Pilot Project Findings, December 2016” (Melbourne: La Trobe University, Transforming Human Societies, Humanitarian Advisory Group, December 2016), http:// /uploads/2016/06/HAG-La-Trobe__Mapping-the-impact.pdf.

3.              United Nations, “Conduct in UN Field Missions: Professionalism, Efficiency, Integrity, Dignity,” subsection “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” (2017),

4.              Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Louise Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations: Trends, Policy Responses and Future Directions,” International Affairs 93, no. 2 (2017): 365–87.

5.              See Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impacts.”

6.              Nora Dudwick and Kathleen Kuehnast, “Gender and Fragility: Ensuring a Golden Hour,” Fragility Study Group Policy Brief 8 (November 2016): 1–8.

7.              Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact.”

8.              UN Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), 2–3.

9.              Megan Bastick, Karin Grimm, and Rahel Kunz, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Global Overview and Implications for the Security Sector“ (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2007).

10.            Inger Skjelsbaek, “Sexual Violence and War: Mapping out a Complex Relationship,” European Journal of International Relations 7, no. 2 (2001): 211–37.

11.            Michelle Leiby, “Digging in the Archives: The Promise and Perils of Primary Documents,” Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (2009): 75–99; Michelle Leiby, “Wartime Sexual Violence in Guatemala and Peru,” International Studies Quarterly 53 (2009): 445–68.

12.            Roudabeh Kishi, “Gender-Based Violence and Women’s Political Participation,” ACLED Crisis Blog, August 2, 2017,

13.            Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research,” International Review of the Red Cross 96, no. 894 (2014): 457–78.

14.            Ibid., 473.

15.            Hannah McNeish, “South Sudan: Women and Girls Raped as ‘Wages’ for Government-Allied Fighters,” Guardian, September 28, 2015,


16.            UN, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: A Summary of the Latest Policy Recommendations,” UN Women Policy Brief (February 2015), 1–6.

17.            Westendorf and Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations.”

18.            Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact” 2.

19.            Ibid. See also Wood, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research.”

20.            Cynthia Cockburn, “The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace,” in Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones, ed. Wenona Mary Giles and Jennifer Hyndman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 24–44.

21.            See Valerie Hudson, Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

22.            Alicia Luedke and Hannah Logan, “‘That Thing of Human Rights’: Discourse, Emergency Assistance and Sexual Violence in South Sudan’s Current Civil War,” Disasters (forthcoming).

23.            See Alicia Luedke, “Congestion in the Malakal Protection of Civilian Site, South Sudan” (Danish Refugee Council, May 2017),

24.            Westendorf and Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations.” See also Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact.”

25.            Jenna Stern, “Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping: Ten Years after the Zeid Report,” Civilians in Conflict Policy Brief 1 (February 2015), 1–24.

26.            UNHCR, “Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA),” in UNHCR Emergency Handbook, https ://

27.            Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley, “Explaining Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peacekeeping Missions: The Role of Female Peacekeepers and Gender Equality in Contributing Countries,” Journal of Peace Research 53, no. 1 (2016): 100–15.

28.            Ketty Anyeko, Kim Thuy Seelinger, and Julie Freccero, “Improving Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Africa,” Peace Brief 206 (Washington, DC: USIP, June 14, 2016), /publications/2016/06/improving-accountability-conflict-related-sexual-violence-africa.

29.            Westendorf and Searle,  “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations,” 383.

30.            Ibid.

31.            Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN, NGO and INGO Personnel: A Self-Assessment,” June 2012, /magazine/sexual-exploitation-and-abuse-by-un-ngo-and-ingo-personnel-a-self-assessment/.

32.            Jeni Whalan, “Dealing with Disgrace: Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping” (New York: International Peace Institute, August 2017), -and-abuse-in-un-peacekeeping.

33.            Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact” 2.

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Of Related Interest

•                What Works in Facilitated Dialogue Projects by Jack Froude and Michael Zanchelli (Special Report, July 2017)

•                Women in Nonviolent Movements by Marie A. Principe (Special Report, December 2016)

•                Ending Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in War and Peace: Recommendations for the Next US Administration by Amanda H. Blair, Nicole Gerring, and Sabrina Karim (Special Report, September 2016)

•                Atrocity Prevention through Dialogue: Challenges in Dealing with Violent Extremist Organizations by Sofía Sebastián and Jonas Claes (Special Report, August 2016) • UNSCR 1325 in the Middle East and North Africa: Women and Security by Paula M. Rayman, Seth Izen, and Emily Parker (Special Report, May 2016)

Written by Roxana Allen

It took thirty years, two generations, fifteen prime ministers, and numerous elections to appoint the first woman Prime Minister in Romania.  With the introduction of the Membership Action Plan twenty years ago, NATO requested that Romania implement a 25 percent quota for women in Parliament and public service.  Consequently, there are many women in leadership today.  Prime Minister Viorica Dancila leads in a world confronted with violent extremism, terrorism, cyber security, and hybrid threats.  While strategists have continually resigned NATO to the dustbin of history, with its original rationale of defending Europe from the Soviet Union, NATO’s membership policies have been a symbol of hope but also despair since the 1989 Revolution in Eastern Europe.  NATO’s commitment to inclusion launched an enlargement process that empowered women, changed societies, and expanded peace and stability.  While the “carrot” of NATO membership spurred liberal reforms, it also produced complacency and a nationalist backlash.

After its 1989 Revolution, Romania found itself without the strong cosmopolitan leadership ready to take power or embrace the West that blessed other Eastern European states—cosmopolitanism meaning those who support civil society, tolerance, human rights, rule of law, and democracy.  The Czechs had Václav Havel.  The Poles had Adam Michnik.  The Hungarians had Miklos Haraszti.  The success of these cosmopolitans and their revolutions seemed to prove Francis Fukuyama’s argument that with the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy, civil society, free markets, and the rule of law would eventually prevail in all states.  As a consequence of the Stalinist nature of the Ceausescu regime, Romania did not have any outspoken cosmopolitan leadership.  The West’s seemingly disorganized engagement, which did not embrace the Romanian intellectuals, allowed for the growth of nationalism in Romania á la Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” In his vision of competing civilizations, “the fundamental source of conflict…in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic…its center-piece becomes the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations and among non-Western civilizations.”  This interaction was best demonstrated in Romania in 1991 when coal miners smashed their way into Bucharest, attacking students, intellectuals, and Westerners. Raised in the Stalinism of Ceausescu, then fed by nationalism, the lumpenproletariat continually tried to destroy Western norms.

The cosmopolitans of Bucharest, Cluj, and Timisoara needed help to establish Western norms in all of Romania, as Dr. Adrian Nastase stated: “The Balkans zone needs not only financial support, but also an outspoken desire from the part of the developed states to offer the former room for integration in their community…Establishment of democracy in the former communist countries needs an economic support and a political one as well.”   After the creation of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, the Western desire to support democracy and integration was affirmed.  Enforcing the Dayton Agreement and peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in 1995, NATO became the primary Western means of implementing cosmopolitan intervention.  Cosmopolitans, as Mary Kaldor describes in New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, are buttressed by Western armed forces.  The perceived NATO commitment to Romania’s and the Balkan’s efforts to establish Western norms led to the election of new democratic leadership under President Emil Constantinescu in 1996.

The successful NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina had emboldened NATO’s leadership to redefine the Alliance’s mission and attempt to provide a “carpet of stability” in Europe through enlargement.  This carpet, intended to support those cosmopolitans who led their nations to freedom in 1989 and faced growing domestic intolerance, soon developed holes.  Referring to the enlargement of NATO in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and PolandCharles Gati explains that “the post-communist success stories that most people expected to write themselves after 1989 have turned into tales with rather mixed plot lines.”  As NATO stumbled, so did the establishment of Western norms in Romania. Constantinescu’s corrupt and divisive government was not that different from the previous one.   By 1998, during NATO’s war in Kosovo, Western norms were openly challenged in Romania.  Once again, the dangers to democracy began to reveal themselves in Romania.

The introduction of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the Washington NATO Summit in 1999 provided guidelines for NATO membership and strengthened Western norms in Romania. NATO membership was the main plank of Adrian Nastase’s election bid in 2000.  With the new elections and with MAP as a guide, Prime Minister Nastase instituted the National Action Plan for NATO. Aside from military issues, this plan led to more progress in the reform of laws, regional cooperation, disarmament, protection of the national minorities and human rights, a 25 percent quota of women in Parliament and public service, combating organized crime and international terrorism, and fighting and eradicating corruption.  Although NATO and EU memberships were obvious benchmarks for the Action Plan, the real goals were to reinforce Western norms in Romania – in effect, to change Romanian society.

NATO enlargement as a defender of cosmopolitan values became internalized, changing domestic politics.  As NATO enlargement became more dynamic, so did the entrenchment of democracy in Romania. As enlargement waned, so did freedom in Romania.  NATO became the force maintaining and expanding political stability from the Atlantic to Urals.  NATO membership became more than a destination; it was the only tool the leaders could use to instill Western norms in their country. Their real goals, like those of the early Western European cosmopolitan leaders, were to create and reinforce Western norms in Europe, in effect, to make their countries “normal.” Fifteen years ago in 2004, Romania joined NATO  after the Prague Summit in November 2002.  NATO enlargement converted a totalitarian Romania into a free democracy and made Romania a better place.  Better, however, does not mean perfect or even just.

NATO could use lessons learned to expand peace and stability to other regions beyond Europe, though as the example of states that emerged from totalitarianism show—Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Georgia—the process will be painful.  Paul Wolfowitz stated, “If you think where Romania started from at the end of the Ceausescu era, it has come a terrifically long way.  If you think about some of the problems that remain, then obviously the transition still has some work to do. What I think is impressive is, considering how embedded old totalitarian system was here, Romanians are an inspiring example to people in Iraq and elsewhere in the world in what you can achieve with freedom.”  Under continued Western engagement, Iraq and other countries could be like Romania and most of Eastern Europe today, an imperfect but progressing democracy.

In a paradigm shift, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller placed women’s empowerment at the center of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda by recognizing the impact conflict has on women and girls:  “Empowering women is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do:  it makes countries safer and more stable. NATO is determined to make a difference, including through our training and operations – for example, by deploying gender advisers to local communities in Afghanistan.  We also aim to raise the profile of women at all levels within the Alliance. We still need to do more, but for NATO, peace and security are not just a man’s world.” In January 2018, to support full and equal participation of women at all levels of conflict prevention to post-war reconstruction, and protection of women and girls from sexual violence in conflict, Mr. Stoltenberg appointed a NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative.   Clare Hutchinson is the high-level focal point for the NATO Women, Peace and Security Agenda.  As a provider of peace and security assistance and capacity building, NATO is reforming itself into a human-centric organization by empowering women as agents of change, implementing innovative programs in collective defense, crisis management, and security cooperation to contribute to a modern, ready and responsive NATO in a changing world. Gender becomes the driving force and advances NATO’s cooperation with other international organizations such as the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations (UN) and grass-roots civil society.  Moreover, the newly created NATO’s Civil Society Advisory Panel provides a safe space for all women to engage with NATO on security cooperation and defense. Addressing women’s empowerment from all dimensions, including equal participation of women at all levels of conflict prevention, post-war reconstruction of governments and implementation of the 25 percent quota of women in Parliament and public service will lead to more changes from the inside.  More women in leadership will expand peace and stability beyond Romania and Europe in a rapidly globalized world.


Roxana Allen is the Deputy Vice President at IIA NOVA, SAIS Johns Hopkins Alumna and a WIIS member. Ms. Allen was a Personal Adviser to the Prime Minister of Romania during Romania’s accession to NATO and the Head of Field Office Trebinje with OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina during NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.