From Exception to Norm: Closing the Women, Peace, and Security Gap Through Joint Professional Military Education

By Tahina Montoya and Joan Johnson-Freese

With passage of the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act, the United States became the first country to mandate implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) framework. In accordance with act requirements, Congress released a report in July 2022 evaluating the progress of the four US government agencies charged with implementation—the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and US Agency for International Development (USAID). While progress was noted across all agencies, it was inconsistent. According to the report, for example, the Department of States invested $110 million, USAID $239 million, and Department of Defense $5.5 million for execution. Setting aside the discussion of how much is the proper amount to spend to fulfill the requirements specified by Congress—a vital discussion that should continue and be informed by regular reviews of progress made by each agency—DoD is clearly lagging far behind, a fact that becomes even more apparent when considering the vastly larger budgets apportioned to it than either the Department of State or USAID. Moreover, the differences in budget allocations among the implementing organizations create and exacerbate a WPS implementation gap and hamper collaboration. They also reflect differing perspectives on WPS relevance to organizational mission success. Thus, understanding relevance is a prerequisite to successful WPS implementation and education becomes both a fiscally responsible and necessary step in moving WPS implementation forward within DoD.

In 1986, Congress passed the sweeping Goldwater-Nichols DoD Reorganization Act, designed to address issues associated with intraservice rivalries that hampered mission success during the Vietnam War, the Iran hostage crisis, and the invasion of Granada. In addition to establishing command structure changes, Goldwater-Nichols also mandated that military officers complete joint professional military education (JPME) as a prerequisite for certain joint assignments and promotion categories. Education was thereby recognized as the right means for instilling “jointness” both within and between services. Subsequently, through designations of special areas of emphasis and legislation, education has repeatedly been recognized as the right means for mainstreaming key concepts and topics relevant to the military into the forces. As the July 2022 congressional report section on professional military education (PME) states, “The Department has recognized that WPS is an important field of study and as such, must be incorporated into how the Department educates its commissioned and non-commissioned officers to think strategically and identify creative approaches to joint warfighting and sustaining momentum in the Department’s campaigns.” While the benefits of mainstreaming WPS relevance through JPME are clear, integrating WPS into JPME has been hampered by organizational silos and organizational cultures that often still see security as primarily linked to men.

The Benefits of Mainstreaming WPS Relevance Through JPME

There are multiple benefits to incorporating WPS into JPME. Doing so would not only help align DoD with its Department of States and USAID counterparts to alleviate the already widening WPS knowledge gap between the agencies, but would do so with minimal fiscal impact to the DoD budget. JPME institutions already exist, are fully staffed—many including a WPS chair or lead—and are increasingly working together on WPS implementation. Incorporation of WPS principles into the core curriculum of JPME organizations is a logical next step. Further, incorporation addresses Defense Objective 1 in the 2020 DoD WPS Strategic Framework Implementation Plan, to ensure that the DOD “exemplifies a diverse organization that allows for women’s meaningful participation across the development, management, and employment of the Joint Force,” and mandates that DoD do so through JPME. In addition to abiding by published directives, incorporating WPS principles into JPME provides the United States with a stronger voice when encouraging partner nations to do the same.

More directly, incorporating WPS principles into DoD through JPME enhances readiness. In other words, WPS enables a US military that is a more effective fighting force, one that is better equipped and more capable of fulfilling any of the broad range of mission it may be tasked with. Failure to have troops prepared in advance resulted in the United States’ initial struggle to engage and work with a key source in the Middle East, women. Rather than being ready for the fight, the United States was forced to play catch-up, driving the development of rushed, ad hoc, separate training for cultural support teams and female engagement teams, while already at war. Having WPS principles incorporated throughout JPME would ensure gender perspectives, empirically shown to be relevant to conflicts and DoD missions, are part of standard operating procedures in future engagements.

For example, during the resettlement of Afghan evacuees into the United States after the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Operation Allies Welcome was the first time two specific roles—gender focal points (GFPs) and gender advisors (GENADs)—were part of the mission planning process, as opposed to being an afterthought. Trained gender advisors were deployed to each of the eight task forces established throughout the country to serve as a cultural bridge between Afghanistan and the United States. They were there, as stated by Northern Command, to “provide a gender perspective into decision making; build relationships and trust with female guests; ensure women had equitable access to information and were able to voice their issues, concerns and ideas; and provide English classes and education on US cultural norms and expectations.” Accounting for those considerations better situated the task forces to advance an otherwise hectic mission, enhance evacuees’ perceptions of the United States, and ultimately contribute to more positive diplomatic and national security benefits. Unfortunately, gender perspectives and considerations prevalent in Operation Allies Welcome remain operational exceptions, rather than the norm.

Additionally, mainstreaming WPS principles into DoD through JPME provides future forces, including US allies who attend JPME, with valuable threat assessment, strategy development, and force enhancement tools, like the consideration of gender, not available elsewhere. In essence, incorporating WPS in JPME will not only benefit the United States on a national level; educating international officers attending JPME (many of whom are the future leaders of their respective countries) will, undoubtedly, also benefit the United States from a diplomatic and international perspective.

On June 16, 2023, with the publication of its WPS Strategic Action Plan, the Department of the Air Force became the military department to establish how its services—the Air Force and the Space Force—would implement WPS. The plan specifically identifies training as the department’s first WPS objective. Within that objective, intermediate objectives are identified that explicitly state that the department “incorporates WPS principles and gender perspectives into all training and professional military education.” Formalizing a strategic action plan that recognizes the role PME plays in institutionalizing WPS is a step in the right direction, but DoD-wide implementation requires other services to commit to the same, and then follow through. Follow-through in this regard has been slow, at best.

Inhibitors: Educational Silos and Organizational Culture

Gender is not the first topic difficult to understand and implement through JPME. But the JPME enterprise has rightly tackled those difficult topics—topics that span multiple overlapping academic silos and are vital to US national defense—just as it must with gender.

One of those difficult topics has been jointness. Part of the rationale behind the Goldwater-Nichols JPME requirement was to promote jointness. Jointness is essentially a force enhancer, intended to improve military effectiveness, and thus is a topic overlapping all aspects of military operations. Consequently, instilling jointness required integration into multiple JPME lessons across multiple, often siloed, departments for it to become standard operating procedure and part of future operations and doctrine. In crises, military organizations execute how they train, and they train according to doctrine.

The requirement to integrate jointness throughout JPME curriculum meant that every faculty member had to understand and seamlessly integrate it into the curriculum. At times, and at some PME institutions, faculty had to be incentivized. For example, for a time, the Naval War College annual faculty ratings included considerations of how well individuals instilled jointness into their teaching. Being part of their annual ratings encouraged faculty to become familiar with and incorporate jointness into their courses. Incentivizing faculty might also need to be the case with WPS.

Space security provides another example of challenges that accompany integrating crosscutting topics into military studies. Space operations includes four mission areas: space force enhancement, space support, space control, and space force application. Within space force enhancement, space capabilities aren’t important somewhere, they are important everywhere. Space security also has highly technical aspects and classification issues, further complicating its understanding and teaching. Consequently, JPME institutions have long struggled with questions regarding how to teach its importance, uses, and limitations as those considerations require at least limited knowledge of physics, engineering, policy, law, strategy, and security considerations. DoD has worked to address these issues for decades, and became part of the impetus behind the 2019 creation of the Space Force. Creation ensured the development of a critical mass of individuals with the requisite knowledge, clearance, and access to decision-makers to make inclusion of space security considerations part of national security standard operating procedure.

The incorporation of both jointness and space security in JPME offers insights applicable to WPS. In the case of jointness, the limited technical or classification components involved eased its incorporation, which should similarly make JPME incorporation of WPS more achievable. Additionally, as with jointness, the will and faculty motivation to incorporate concepts into their classrooms is key to implementation. The space security example offers an example of how, with the creation of the Space Force, DoD looked externally, to different organizations, to attract the expertise required to successfully develop and achieve the mission. This could also be the case with WPS, at least initially. In both cases, jointness and space security were topics that encountered organizational friction in JPME integration. In the case of gender considerations, however, in addition to friction, despite presidential and congressional direction to implement WPS, there has been outright organizational resistance centered on outdated notions of whether and how gender is relevant to national security.

Though well-established empirically, the relationship between gender and security has been largely unrecognized in academic courses related to international relations or security studies in both civilian and PME academic institutions. In military commands and PME institutions, that knowledge gap inhibits WPS implementation, forcing WPS advocates to rely on individual access to senior leaders and those individual leaders’ willingness to learn about WPS. The creation of two courses, WPS 100 and WPS 200, offered through Joint Knowledge Online was intended to provide leadership an introduction to WPS, at times and in ways convenient to them, but it remains utilized predominantly by action officers—those specifically tasked with ensuring a unit or organization is fulfilling WPS requirements—rather than the broader cohort of leaders necessary to effect widespread cultural change.. WPS 100 and WPS 200 are currently prerequisites of GFP and GENAD training, training essential to building a formally trained cadre of experts that serves an entirely separate, but equally beneficial, purpose. Separate from GFP and GENAD training, broadly integrating WPS principles throughout JPME ensures all service members have a basic understanding of WPS relevance to security. One does not, and is not intended to, replace the other as both are essential to expand the understanding and relevance of gender to security and military operations within DoD.

The perspectives of authors whose works are being read, promoted on military reading lists, and included as core curriculum in JPME remain predominantly male authored. This, in itself, evidences that security is still seen as a primarily male field by leadership and JPME administrators. For context, among 2022 military reading lists, the Air Force list was the most diverse, with 8 of 21 of the recommended books authored by women; followed by the Navy, 4 of 12; the Marines, 7 of 46; and the Army, 1 of 113. Regarding core curriculum readings, based on two in-house surveys regarding articles used in JPME, women authored or coauthored only about 10 percent of students’ readings. Conversely, a quick review of articles in Foreign Affairs between May/June 2022 and May/June 2023 shows that women authored or coauthored nearly 37 percent of works published. Similarly, 55 percent of articles and editorials published by the Harvard International Review from April 2022 to April 2023 were authored by female scholars. The issue, then, is not a lack of women-authored security-related articles being available, but rather, a lack of recognition and endorsement of such work in military institutions.

Organizational cultures tied to gender stereotypes and adverse to thinking beyond those gender stereotypes are inherently skeptical of recognizing gender as a security factor tied to readiness and mission success. But, as with JMPE being effectively used to overcome service rivalries in favor of jointness, even if faculty had to be incentivized to do so, education can effectively drive the change that is required to effectively implement WPS.

Incremental Steps

It is laudable that many JPME institutions have hired WPS chairs, conducted workshops, and held conferences on WPS. But, like gender advisors and gender focal points within other commands, WPS chairs can only do as much as their personal access to amenable leaders allows. JPME offers a means to continuously reach and educate the fighting force as a whole. Further, one person (or even a handful of people) cannot integrate gender perspectives into a curriculum taught by multiple faculty members in various departments. It must be integrated by the entire faculty.

Understandably, however, many JPME faculty members are reluctant to integrate gender considerations into curriculum, as most are largely unfamiliar with the subject themselves. Ensuring integration of gender perspectives into course material requires offering faculty development opportunities to learn about WPS. Like jointness, gender is not a stand-alone topic, but one that permeates throughout security studies. Like space, gender considerations must be worked into wargaming, exercises, and doctrine. While this is beginning to happen, it is still only by exception. Development of a WPS primer outlining core elements of WPS that institutions can adapt to their circumstances, faculty, student body, and budget and that is flexible enough to be used by both domestic and international organizations is needed. This primer would provide guidance on what key topics need to be integrated into core curriculum, not how to teach it, and would facilitate WPS standardization across JPME.

Finally, but not inconsequentially, mainstreaming WPS into DoD through JPME serves as a mechanism to address the issues continually surrounding and negatively impacting the military regarding sexual assault. At a March 2023 briefing on the 28 percent rise in sexual assault and harassment reports at military service academies, a DoD official called the statistics “extremely upsetting and disappointing.” In April 2023, DoD provided Congress with its Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for fiscal year 2022, reporting a total of 8,942 sexual assault reports throughout DoD, a 1 percent increase from the previous year. In addition to the immeasurable trauma experienced by survivors, these statistics also represent a threat to maintaining an effective workforce and readiness, making sexual assault and sexual harassment a direct threat to US national security. While DoD is taking steps to counter sexual assault in the military (addressing the issues that already exist), WPS education at JPME would contribute to preventing sexual assault (taking steps to address issues before they develop).

DOD has an opportunity build on the successes noted in the July 2022 congressional report and JPME provides the mechanism to do so effectively. Failure to consider efficient implementation of WPS in JPME will only hamper opportunities to facilitate mission readiness and ensure mission success.

Tahina Montoya is an officer and gender advisor in the Air Force Reserve and a fellow at Women in International Security.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor emeritus at the Naval War College, senior fellow at Women in International Security, and author of Educating America’s Military and Women, Peace and Security: An Introduction.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Department of the Air Force and the Naval War College.

By Eric Rudberg

Female participation in both conflict prevention and conflict resolution enhances security interests. Studies have found that a significant inclusion of women and civil society groups in a peace negotiation makes the resulting agreement 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years.[1]  Evidence has repeatedly illustrated that full and meaningful participation of women in peace operations broadens the perspective on conflict management, allows for more inclusive political resolutions, and, in the end, improves international peacebuilding strategies. It has also been shown that there is a direct correlation between the meaningful participation of women in peacekeeping and the performance and effectiveness of peacekeeping units.[2] This participation of uniformed women peacekeepers can be divided between the police component, justice and correction, and, finally, the military.  Of the three, this paper will exclusively examine the military component in depth.  It will explore the importance of meaningful participation of female peacekeepers as well as examine the current status of military women in peacekeeping operations. 

Importance of Meaningful Participation of Female Peacekeepers

The increase of women’s participation in global peacekeeping operations has been shown to improve the effectiveness and stability of a mission. Missions with more women personnel are more likely to achieve their mandate and bring sustainable peace.[3]  However, evidence strongly shows that it is the “meaningful” participation of women and not just numbers that matters. The Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations defines meaningful participation as “the presence and leadership of women in UN peace operations, across all ranks and functions.”  According to the Elsie Initiative, women can participate meaningfully “when they contribute to, and are included in, all aspects of operational and mission planning, and decision-making processes…[and] when they hold operational command and leadership positions, and non-traditional as well as non-stereotypical roles.” Additionally, women can participate meaningfully “when they have access to the same training, promotion and career advancement opportunities as their colleagues who are men;…when they hold positions that are in line with their training, rank and area of expertise; and when their workplace is free from all forms of harassment, bullying and intimidation.”[4]

Meaningful participation of female peacekeepers improves the operation and performance of a peacekeeping force. They enhance the overall holistic approach in today’s peacekeeping operations by contributing an additional perspective to the planning and key decision-making process, especially those affecting civilians, particularly women and girls.[5] A diversity of backgrounds and experiences has been proven to enhance a unit’s performance and ability to solve problems. This female perspective enables the peacekeeping operation to successfully address the needs of the entire civilian population it is there to serve.[6]  Female peacekeepers also bring a unique set of tactical skills that their male counterparts often do not possess, including the ability to physically screen/search females.[7]  Knowing that peacekeepers are supposed to abide by the cultural sensitivity of not having males searching females, it is not uncommon for spoilers, also known as the opposing force, to have females carry illicit items under their clothing since the females will probably not be screened and searched.

Women peacekeepers’ access to the local population is particularly valuable when there are cultural restrictions around interaction across gender lines and in venues that are closed to men.[8] Reflecting on her service in Afghanistan, Major General Kristin Lund pointed out that, “being a female, from my recent deployment in Afghanistan, I had access to 100% of the population, not only 50%.”[9] Locals often feel more comfortable liaising and sharing information with military troops that include women peacekeepers, giving them better situational awareness of the environment they are operating in.[10] The ability to gain the trust of local populations is a vital component of any peacekeeping operation.[11] It results in good intelligence and a reduction in violence in the communities that peacekeepers seek to protect.[12]

Female peacekeepers often cultivate trust and confidence with local communities which in turn encourages these populations to work with the peacekeeping force by reporting a variety of crimes, in particular, sexual violence. Major General Lund explains, “if a woman has been gang-raped by men, she will most likely approach a woman in uniform rather than a man. And men that are raped will, I think, also approach a woman soldier rather than a man.”[13] Women’s participation is also connected with fewer misconduct complaints lodged against the peacekeeping force since these women are perceived as being more effective at de-escalating potential violence and are less threatening.[14] Finally, the inclusion of female peacekeepers has been associated with fewer allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by the peacekeeping force.[15] Studies have found that an increase in the proportion of women from zero to five percent reduces the expected count of sexual allegations by half.[16]

Current Status of Women in Peacekeeping Operations

Despite evidence that the meaningful participation of women in the military contingent of  peacekeeping operations is both the right and smart thing to do, they are routinely underrepresented. For example, led by the United Nations Department of Peace Operations, there are currently twelve peacekeeping missions deployed worldwide to help countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.[17] According to the Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender spreadsheet for October 2022, out of 63,310 strictly military peacekeeping troops deployed to these twelve missions, only 3,789 are female, or roughly 6.0%.[18] However, this percentage has very slowly been increasing throughout the years.  In 1993, women comprised less than 1% of the uniformed personnel deployed.[19] In 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2242 encouraged the Secretary-General, in collaboration with member states, to “double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations over the next five years.”[20]  Regardless of this call to action, there has not been a significant increase in female participation since the end of 2009.[21] In 2018, UN member states adopted the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028, which set the goal of 15% for female participation in the military contingent by 2028.[22] It also established annual targets for the Secretariat to accomplish this lofty goal. The target for 2022 was 9% but fell short by 1,909 female peacekeepers.[23]

Nevertheless, some countries have managed to deploy significantly higher percentages of female peacekeepers.  As of October 2022, of the fifteen countries that deploy over 1,000 troops to peacekeeping operations, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, and the United Republic of Tanzania exceeded the UN’s contribution target (9%) for the percentage of women deployed.  Additionally, multiple countries that deploy fewer troops have done better. Nigeria, for example, has 21.5% of women in their peacekeeping forces (14/65) and Estonia is at 100% (1/1). On the opposite end of the spectrum is India, which only deploys 51 women on their missions (0.9%), despite being the second largest troop-contributing country in the world, with 5,548 troops deployed.[24] As of October 2022, the top three UN peacekeeping missions with the highest number of female troops are the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) with 781, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) with 776, and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) with 746.  In spite of those large numbers, relative to the proportion of the total force, female troops only made up 6.4% of MINUSCA, 5.9% of UNMISS, and 6.0% of MONUSCO. The top three missions with the highest proportion of female troops are the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at 40.0% (8/20), the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) at 8.9% (66/740), and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) at 7.3% (692/9490).[25]

Although the number of female peacekeepers and the proportion of the military contingent made up of women is slowly increasing, this does not mean that meaningful participation of women is rising in UN peacekeeping missions. Often, women peacekeepers who do serve are limited to stereotypical roles such as nursing, community engagement, administration, and domestic services, which include such tasks as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, irrespective of their skills and experience.[26] Missions with a higher percentage of combat-related forces tend to have the lowest percentages of women, in part because of a reluctance to send female peacekeepers to dangerous areas of conflict, where there are higher levels of sexual exploitation and abuse or higher numbers of peacekeeping deaths. The belief that women cannot protect themselves is still prevalent among peacekeeping forces today.[27]

  This tendency results in women peacekeepers being underutilized since they rarely conduct patrols or interact with locals, especially with the women and children in the community.  Even though their numbers and proportions are expanding, women might not be deploying to missions evenly or where they might be most needed. Consequently, these operations lack added benefits and the potential impact that meaningful participation of females brings to a mission.[28] Ambassador Melanne Verveer bluntly explained, “Inclusion is not enough for meaningful participation, which is what matters in the end.”[29]

There are numerous barriers and challenges women must overcome in order to participate in peace operations. Females experience similar stigmas and taboos throughout their military careers regardless of their rank, nationality, or background. These stigmas and taboos create challenges at the individual and community level, within women’s national defense structures, and within UN peace operations.[30] In July 2018, the Elsie Initiative published a baseline study which was the first attempt to systematically gather, analyze, and categorize the barriers female soldiers face in their pursuit of deploying on peacekeeping operations. Fourteen different barriers that can prevent women from deploying on peacekeeping operations were identified and organized into six main categories: equal access to opportunities, deployment criteria, the working environment, family constraints, equal treatment during deployment, and career-advancement opportunities.[31] Since the baseline study was published, further research has reduced and combined these fourteen barriers into ten: eligible pool, deployment selection, deployment criteria, household constraints, top-down leadership, inadequate accommodation and equipment, negative experiences, disincentives to redeploy, stereotypical gender roles, and social exclusion.[32]  Many of these barriers address cultural challenges women face in their home countries, both in society and within the military itself. Studies show that when a troop-contributing country has a better record of gender equality, it is more likely to send female peacekeepers. In other words, when a country strives to gender mainstream its own national military, it is more likely to send women to a peacekeeping mission, which, therefore, improves the gender balancing in said mission.[33] Ghana is an example of this since it was among one of the few countries globally to have started enlisting females as far back as 1958, barely a year into its independence. It is also given credit for having trained the first female officer pilots in the sub-region in 1965.[34] Thus, it is not surprising that Ghana’s contributing percentage for female peacekeepers in October 2022 was 14.1%.[35]

On October 31, 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 to address women, peace, and security. This groundbreaking resolution highlighted a shift in UN policy to engage more females in peacekeeping operations.[36] It stressed “the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”[37] In the two decades since Resolution 1325, the UN has continued to adopt numerous other resolutions and initiatives aimed to address the underrepresentation of women in UN peace operations. This includes both the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028 and Resolution 2242, which, among other things, encourages troop-contributing countries to hit targeted female participation percentages. Also, in August of 2018, 152 member states of the UN committed to “ensuring full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all stages of the peace process” and “recommit[ted] to increasing the number of civilian and uniformed women in peacekeeping at all levels and in key positions” in their Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN

Peacekeeping Operation as part of the Action for Peacekeeping initiative.[38] This initiative was a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a renewed collective engagement with UN peacekeeping and to mutually commit to reaching for excellence for all those involved.[39] Most recently, in August 2020, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2538 which unequivocally recognizes “the indispensable role of women in increasing the overall performance and effectiveness of peacekeeping operations.”[40] It also offers clear direction on how member states can increase the deployment of female peacekeepers. Finally, it supports the need to ensure that the working culture is gender-sensitive for women, and addresses threats and violence against them.[41] Despite all of these efforts, female military troops continue to be a rarity in UN peacekeeping operations. 


The meaningful participation of women is not only an extremely important issue for peacekeeping but also for gender equality. The benefit they bring to a mission can be the difference between success and failure. Because of this advantage, everything possible must be done to ensure that women are an integral part of every peacekeeping operations.  It is inspiring to imagine how the world will be once this is accomplished. The UN, along with all its member states, must continue to strive for this goal.

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

After graduating from the United States Military Academy, Eric served as an Army infantry officer, which included two combat tours in Iraq. Wanting to share the hard lessons he had learned, once out of the Army, he began to train and mentor future peacekeepers across Africa through the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). He then returned to academia and earned both a master’s in Security Policy Studies and a graduate certificate in Global Gender Policy from The George Washington University.  He now serves as the Finance and Operations Analysis for the African Team within GPOI where he works on increasing the meaningful participation of females in peacekeeping operations. 


United Nations Peacekeeping. “Action for Peacekeeping (A4P).” Accessed February 9, 2023.

Bigio, Jamille, and Rachel B. Vogelstein. “CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum Advocates for More Female Peacekeepers.” Council on Foreign Relations (blog), September 27, 2018.

———. “How Women’s Participation in Conflict Prevention and Resolution Advances U.S. Interests.” Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2016.

———. “Increasing Female Participation in Peacekeeping Operations.” Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2018.

Brabant, Solene. “Assessing Barriers and Opportunities for Women’s Participation in Peacekeeping.” A Propos 162 (September 2019): 15–16.

Candela, Kacie. “Women’s Roles as UN Peacekeepers: A Status Report.” PassBlue, August 7, 2018.

“Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender.” United Nations Peacekeeping, 31 October 22.

Coulouris, Renee. “Why We Need More Women in Peacekeeping.” Foreign Policy Rising (blog), March 27, 2019.

“Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations,” August 16, 2018.

Government of Canada. “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations,” February 21, 2017.

United Nations Peacekeeping. “Female Military.” Accessed February 9, 2023.

Gentry, Caron E., Laura J. Shepherd, and Laura Sjoberg, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Security. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.

Ghana Web. “Ghana Attains UN Target of Women Deployment in Peacekeeping Missions,” October 13, 2020.

Ghittoni, Marta, Léa Lehouck, and Callum Watson. “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations: Baseline Study.” Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, July 2018.

Ivanovic, Alexandria. “Why the United Nations Needs More Female Peacekeepers.” United Nations University, July 9, 2014.

Kenny, Charles. “The Elsie Fund: Good News for UN Peacekeeping.” Center For Global Development (blog), March 28, 2019.

———. “Wanted: More Women Peacekeepers.” Center For Global Development (blog), October 11, 2016.

Moditsi, Kleopatra, and Aditi Gorur. “Overcoming Hurdles for Women Peacekeepers in the Field.” Stimson Center (blog), May 29, 2020.

Security Women. “New Security Council Resolution on Women and Peacekeeping Announced,” September 7, 2020.

Phillimore, Arabella. “We Need More Female Peacekeepers in War Zones.” Financial Times, October 16, 2019.

Pulliam, Jennifer. “Women in Peacekeeping: A Key to Peace – and a U.S. Priority.” DipNote: Military and Security (blog), May 29, 2020.̶-and-a-u-s-priority/.

“Reducing Barriers for Uniformed Women in Peace Operations: DCAF’s Contribution to the Elsie Initiative.” Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance. Accessed February 9, 2023.

“Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000).” New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, October 31, 2000.

“Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015).” New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, October 13, 2015.

“Security Council Resolution 2538 (2020).” New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, August 28, 2020.

Torres, Daniel de. “The UN Wants to Deploy More Women in Peacekeeping, so Why Are There so Few?” Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (blog), September 10, 2018. /un-wants-deploy-more-women-peacekeeping-so-why-are-there-so-few.

“Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028.” New York: Department of Peace Operations, January 2019.

Vermeij, Lotte. “Addressing Taboos and Stigmas Military Women in UN Peace Operations Experience.” IPI Global Observatory (blog), February 9, 2023.

Verveer, Melanne. “Championing Gender – Sensitive Security Sector Reform.” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, October 13, 2020.

United Nations Peacekeeping. “Where We Operate.” Accessed February 9, 2023.

United Nations Peacekeeping. “Women in Peacekeeping.” Accessed February 9, 2023.

“Women Peacekeepers: Gender Imbalance.” United Nations Peacekeeping, October 2022.

[1] Jamille Bigio and Rachel B. Vogelstein, “How Women’s Participation in Conflict Prevention and Resolution

Advances U.S. Interests” (Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2016), 1, .pdf.

[2] Jennifer Pulliam, “Women in Peacekeeping: A Key to Peace – and a U.S. Priority,” DipNote: Military and Security (blog), May 29, 2020,̶-and-a-u-s-priority/.

[3] Charles Kenny, “The Elsie Fund: Good News for UN Peacekeeping,” Center For Global Development (blog), March 28, 2019,

[4] “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations,” Government of Canada, February 21, 2017,

[5] “Female Military,” United Nations Peacekeeping, accessed February 9, 2023,

[6] Renee Coulouris, “Why We Need More Women in Peacekeeping,” Foreign Policy Rising (blog), March 27, 2019,

[7] “Female Military.”

[8] Kacie Candela, “Women’s Roles as UN Peacekeepers: A Status Report,” PassBlue, August 7, 2018,

[9] Alexandria Ivanovic, “Why the United Nations Needs More Female Peacekeepers” (United Nations University, July 9, 2014), 11 “Female Military.”

[10] “Female Military.”

[11] Ivanovic, “Why the United Nations Needs More Female Peacekeepers.”

[12] Arabella Phillimore, “We Need More Female Peacekeepers in War Zones,” Financial Times, October 16, 2019,

[13] Candela, “Women’s Roles as UN Peacekeepers.”

[14] Jamille Bigio and Rachel B. Vogelstein, “Increasing Female Participation in Peacekeeping Operations,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2018,

[15] Jamille Bigio and Rachel B. Vogelstein, “CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum Advocates for More Female Peacekeepers,” Council on Foreign Relations (blog), September 27, 2018,

[16] Charles Kenny, “Wanted: More Women Peacekeepers,” Center For Global Development (blog), October 11, 2016,

[17] “Where We Operate,” United Nations Peacekeeping, accessed February 9, 2023,

[18] “Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender” (United Nations Peacekeeping, 31 Oct 22),

[19] Kleopatra Moditsi and Aditi Gorur, “Overcoming Hurdles for Women Peacekeepers in the Field,” Stimson Center (blog), May 29, 2020,

[20] “Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015)” (New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, October 13, 2015), 5,

[21] Daniel de Torres, “The UN Wants to Deploy More Women in Peacekeeping, so Why Are There so Few?,” Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (blog), September 10, 2018, /un-wants-deploy-more-women-peacekeepingso-why-are-there-so-few.

[22] “Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028” (New York: Department of Peace Operations, January 2019), 4,

[23] “Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender.”

[24] “Women Peacekeepers: Gender Imbalance” (United Nations Peacekeeping, October 2022), 4–5,

[25] “Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender.”

[26] “Reducing Barriers for Uniformed Women in Peace Operations: DCAF’s Contribution to the Elsie Initiative” (Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance), 5, accessed February 9, 2023,

[27] Candela, “Women’s Roles as UN Peacekeepers.”

[28] Caron E. Gentry, Laura J. Shepherd, and Laura Sjoberg, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Security (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019), 342.

[29] Melanne Verveer, “Championing Gender – Sensitive Security Sector Reform” (Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, October 13, 2020),

[30] Lotte Vermeij, “Addressing Taboos and Stigmas Military Women in UN Peace Operations Experience,” IPI Global Observatory (blog), February 9, 2023,

[31] Marta Ghittoni, Léa Lehouck, and Callum Watson, “Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations: Baseline Study” (Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, July 2018), 47,

[32] Solene Brabant, “Assessing Barriers and Opportunities for Women’s Participation in Peacekeeping,” A Propos 162 (September 2019): 16, .

[33] Gentry, Shepherd, and Sjoberg, The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Security, 342.

[34] “Ghana Attains UN Target of Women Deployment in Peacekeeping Missions,” Ghana Web, October 13, 2020,

[35] “Women Peacekeepers: Gender Imbalance,” 4.

[36] Ivanovic, “Why the United Nations Needs More Female Peacekeepers.”

[37] “Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000)” (New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, October 31, 2000), 1,

[38] “Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations,” August 16, 2018, 1,

[39] “Action for Peacekeeping (A4P),” United Nations Peacekeeping, accessed February 9, 2023,

[40] “Security Council Resolution 2538 (2020)” (New York, NY: United Nations Security Council, August 28, 2020), 1,

[41] “New Security Council Resolution on Women and Peacekeeping Announced,” Security Women, September 7, 2020,

By Joan Johnson-Freese & Alexandra Nicole Islas

The answer to this question is: not likely. The 118th Congress, extending from January 3, 2023 – January 3, 2025 includes 149 women (107D, 42R), two more than the previous record of 147, set in 2022, thereby constituting 27.9% of Congressional seats. However, beyond hyper-partisanship, differing views among Congresswomen regarding the meaning of “agency” is a neglected factor in the larger debate about women legislators and bipartisanship. Women have stepped forward in a bipartisan fashion on issues where there is no logical counterargument, such as the military needing to provide body armor appropriate to women soldier’s physiques or the need to keep the government open. But differing views on agency can be divisive. Understanding what agency is, differing views of how it is obtained and suppressed, as well as how agency affects gender relations and even violence provides a more granular view of what might be expected from the growing number of women legislators.

In 2013, a U.S. government shutdown seemed inevitable until a bipartisan group of 20 women senators saved the day. Time magazine heralded them as “the only adults left in Washington” for their willingness to reach across the aisle and find a compromise that avoided a costly shutdown. In that article Senator John McCain said, “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them,” inferring that women lawmakers would act more cooperatively than their male counterparts.

Research indicates that men and women tend to act differently regarding how they approach conflict resolution. Of the five types of conflict resolution approaches—competing, avoidance, accommodating, compromise and collaboration—men favor the first two, and women the last three. But women are not always and inherently peacemakers. The 2013 example of bipartisanship may have been a one-off because the Senators saw it in everyone’s interest to keep the U.S. government open as both parties get blamed when the government shuts down.

The Importance of Personal Agency

Agency is an often overlooked and little understood concept of significant importance. Social science researchers have found that personal agency, simply stated as the ability to take meaningful action in your own interest, correlates with feelings of happiness and life satisfaction because it allows individuals to feel in control of their own lives. For example, a 2011 study found that conservatives were happier than liberals, in part because of their strong sense of personal agency. Recently, however, conservative—typically Republicans—have been described and describe themselves as angry, some even supportive of political violence, with many feeling a loss of agency (e.g. control over their personal circumstances) they once felt. A recent Secret Service report on mass violence in the U.S. cites men facing “major life stressors” as a key component in the dramatic rise in mass violence.

Feelings of loss of control among white, often poor, American men have given rise to the Great Replacement Theory, a racist, sexist, anti-immigration theory that blames negative circumstances on others and pushes authoritarian responses to address their woes. Men who believe this theory feel angry at women, believing they are among those “stealing their jobs” and robbing them of their masculinity, and control. Given the traditional dominance of men, including in writing and interpreting laws, they have been allowed to suppress women’s agency. Now, the shifting sands of who is gaining and losing personal agency has affected both men and women.

Agency can be suppressed through personal experience as well. In environments where “the system” isn’t trusted, and where women have seen others report harassment or assault and nothing was done or the woman suffered backlash, women who should have agency based on legal principles nevertheless often do not exercise it. In the United States, an estimated one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetime, but only 28% of sexual assault victims report their assault to the police. In the workplace specifically, the well-publicized U.S. example of sexual harassment at Fox News by CEO Roger Ailes was exposed only after years of fear-based toleration.

Agency Among Women Lawmakers

Regarding shaping and voting on legislation, important differences exist among women regarding how one “gets” and maintains agency.  Generally, liberal women support policies and laws advancing women’s rights and thereby seek to grant agency to women as a group. Conservative women, however, tend to support traditionally held conservative tenets of gender blindness, limited government, individualism and traditionalism, thereby making agency an individual issue and placing emphasis on personal tenacity and self-reliance. Conservatives believe that most people get ahead if they work hard. Conservative women often associate feminism with “victimization” and adamantly reject any such association, focusing instead on positive personal achievement. Rather than #MeToo, “moving on” is the mantra of conservative women, as a superior vision of female empowerment.

These differing views on agency shapes legislation. Liberals, for example, see reproductive health as a group issue and support legislation to require employers and insurance companies to cover contraception costs as part of health care. Conservatives, on the other hand, including conservative women, will more likely see cost coverage as a personal responsibility and vote against government intervention requiring employers or insurance carriers to provide such.

Regarding women in the workforce, views on agency can also intercede, evidenced in a 2020 fight in California over “gig work” at places like Uber and Lyft. All of the 21 women that voted yes on the bill were Democrat, while both of the two women that voted no were Republican. Whereas liberal women there supported efforts to mandate that gig work  pay benefits that help women as a group long-term, conservative women argued against such efforts as hindering individual women’s near-term opportunities to earn (flexible gig work often being attractive to women) if businesses pay workers less due to having to pay benefits.

Another aspect of workforce disagreement is found regarding the gender pay gap. Many Republican women see the gap as attributable to choices women freely make about professions and jobs that result in lower pay, part of what is frequently referred to as choice feminism. When the House voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act in December 2022 not one Republican woman voted in favor, arguing the bill would spur more litigation against employers and therefore hurt women in the workforce. The bill required employers to prove why pay disparities between sexes existed, banned employers from asking employees about their salary history and built in avenues for employee recourse if they thought they were being paid unfairly.  Republican Representative Elise Stefanik offered an alternative bill, the Wage Equity Act, that would encourage but not require employers to conduct voluntary pay analyses and protect workers who discuss their pay with colleagues, but under employer-set parameters.

Marginal Bipartisanship

Following a “Golden Age” of bipartisanship between 1969-79, U.S. Congressional bipartisanship has dropped significantly overall. The Lugar Center – McCourt School Bipartisan Index provides scores and rankings for Members of Congress that measure bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship data based on the degree to which members of opposite parties agree on the same issue with their votes. Looking at the data from 2021, of the 435 Members of Congress total, 24% had a positive bipartisan score, with women making up only 26% within that number. Women operating in a still male-dominated environment often feel especially bound to uphold the positions of their designated political party, thereby suppressing their agency as legislators.

Navigating voter and partisan constraints on agency has been an issue for women in both political parties.  Republican women lawmakers and 2022 candidates, for example, found reproductive rights a difficult minefield to navigate after the Republican-supported 2022 Supreme Court reversal of Roe v Wade and the subsequent landslide win for reproductive rights in Kansas. On the Democratic side, progressive women have found themselves at odds with their more conservative party leadership, which is largely motivated by a drive for party consensus, thus inhibiting their agency. Further, women frequently have less power than men to combat the backlash that is commonly present when straying across party lines, especially on highly polarized issues; witness Liz Cheney’s fall from grace in the Republican party.

But all is not lost. There are a number of issues of concern to all women ripe for addressing through legislation. A recent study found women politicians are more than three times as likely to be targeted by harassment or threats than their male counterparts. The anger and violence among white men spurred by their feelings of lost agency has been a trigger for women being targeted. With their numbers growing, Republican women politicians are finding themselves targets of misogynist colleagues and pundits much as Democratic women politicians long have experienced, giving both a vested interest in addressing the doxxing, trolling, sexual deepfakes, harassment, and violence that all women politicians suffer.

Mid-term elections evidenced many voters stepping away from extremism, which perhaps will open the door for cooperation or compromise among more women on more issues. And, as the number of women legislators increase, the pressures for them to conform to the masculine competitive ethos of their still-dominant male counterparts will wane. When that happens, the full extent of Senator McCain’s 2013 statement will be put to the test.  Sometimes, reframing issues away from ones of contention like correcting the gender wage gap towards those likely to get more women into non-traditional workforces, which both parties support, provides space for bipartisanship. A willingness to consider reframing issues to ones where cooperation can occur might prove the bipartisan difference women can make.

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


Joan Johnson-Freese is a Senior Fellow with Women in International Security and the author of multiple books and articles on women and politics, her latest is Women vs Women, The Case for Cooperation (2022).

Alexandra Nicole Islas is pursuing a degree in the field of International Relations at Harvard Extension School, and is a Research Assistant for Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese on issues related to Women, Peace & Security. She is also an accomplished dancer, writer, and human rights advocate focusing on increased security through the development of arts and education programs internationally.

By Liliya Khasanova

The protests in Iran in the name of Mahsa Amini are one of many examples of how the advancement of technology enables us to speak up, spread the word, and learn about human rights violations. Online anonymity and, therefore, reduced accountability for gender-based violence affects the vulnerability of individuals. There is no doubt now that the internet has become the most consequential communication technology of the human rights era.

Despite the technical universalism that technology grants us, there is a strong pushback on conceptual universalism in human rights in cyberspace, including gender issues. In multilateral settings, the efforts of states to regulate malicious state operations have been underpinned by cybersecurity concerns, with little attention paid to human rights protection. The gender dimension, if at all represented, is mainly in the norms of capacity-building and gender parity, avoiding direct referrals to gender equality and women’s rights.

Multilateral Forums under UN Auspices

Until 2021, two main forums had a mandate to discuss norms and rules on cybersecurity: the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) (work completed in May 2021) and the UN Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) (mandate renewed 2021-2025). One of the main achievements of the GGE was an adoption of a consensus that international law applies to cyber operations (2013). However, how it applies is still very much contested. The complexity of cyberspace as a domain raises several contested issues among states on the definition of sovereignty, attribution of cyber-attacks, the applicability of international humanitarian law, due diligence, etc. The differences between the GGE and OEWG process lay in the nature and number of stakeholders included in the discussion: the latter includes all the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) members as well as non-governmental actors, as compared to experts from 25 states working in their personal capacity in the GGE. In a certain sense, continuing the mandate of the OEWG was a step intended to mitigate the risk of functional and geographical fragmentation of international law. In 2022, negotiations also began in the new UN ad hoc committee on cybercrime that is tasked with drafting a new cybercrime convention.

(Anti)gender Discourse in Cybersecurity Negotiations 

After analysing all the reports adopted by GGE and OEWG, documents of the preparatory process, and official commentaries of states, several observations can be made regarding the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and gender discourse in cyber security negotiations.

Firstly, openness and “multistakeholderism”, i.e. bringing multiple stakeholders together to participate in dialogue and implementation of responses, of the OEWG (as opposed to GGE) resulted in more gender-related remarks in preparatory work and, consequently, in the reports. As an example, an introduction to the latest 2021 OEWG report states:

“The OEWG welcomes the high level of participation of women delegates in its sessions and the prominence of gender perspectives in its discussions. The OEWG underscores the importance of narrowing the “gender digital divide” and of promoting the effective and meaningful participation and leadership of women in decision-making processes related to the use of ICTs in the context of international security.”

To be fair, the gender parity of delegates, both within the teams and among delegation leaders, is improving yearly. Around 38% of all the delegates to the last OEWG sessions were women, which is relatively high compared to other forums.

However, when it comes to gender mainstreaming in the sense of assessing and addressing the implications of information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) for girls, boys, men, women, and non-binary people, the multilateral forums lack consensus. For instance, out of four paragraphs that contained gender issues in the initial draft reports, only one (paragraph 56) that touches upon gender-sensitive capacity building could survive the opposition and was included in the final text of the 2021 OEWG report. Two others–the reference to gender-centred implications of malicious use of ICT and the concluding statement on the need to mainstream gender considerations in the implementation of norm–were cut out from the final text.

Despite the outstanding advocacy work by international human rights and women organizations represented at the negotiation forums, the pushback against gender discourse is persistent and strong. Today, in 2022, in a multilateral setting where states are the main decision-makers, there are still official positions that follow the mantra of a traditional, state-centric, and non-inclusive understanding of international peace and security. Russia, which is playing an active role in OEWG deliberations, affirmed in one of its official statements that “references to the problems of sustainable development, human rights and gender equality, which fall under the competence of other UN bodies, look inappropriate and are not directly related to the problem of ensuring international peace and security” [emphasis added]. To be fair, Russia formulated a position that is shared with most of the countries in the Middle East and some Asian, African and Latin American countries.

Cybersecurity multilateral negotiations are not unique in this sense. The issue is rooted in deep opposition to ‘gender ideology’ –the discourse(s) on gender equality and women’s rights, and especially the discourse(s) on sexual orientation and gender identity. It cannot be seen separately from the policy and governance narratives that became dominant in several countries in the past years: the rollback of women’s rights, gender equality, and perception of gender. For example, in Russia the state-sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ campaign culminated in the 2013 “anti-propaganda law” banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children and to the general public starting from December 1, 2022.[1] Eventually, the amendments to the Russian constitution in 2020 added a definition of marriage as “a relationship between one man and one woman,” which explicitly outlawed same-sex marriage.[2] Most of the Middle Eastern nations recently outlawed same-sex intimacy directly, punishing it with everything from fines to prison and, in Saudi Arabia, to the death penalty. Thus, this pushback on gender ideology, originating from national discourses, can be seen in rule-making procedures internationally.

The multilateral cyber negotiation scene under UN auspices is complicated nowadays with geopolitical tensions and competing interests and reflects the general crisis penetrating the international legal orderThe rise in recent years of civilizational, cultural, and ideological confrontation set within the human rights agenda is reflected not only in official positions and approaches, but also in normative proposals in the OEWG and UNGA on cyber matters.

In such circumstances, the role of civil society and its contribution is critical in using a “humanitarian” agenda to persistently push back against an archaeal understanding of international security. Amidst geopolitical disputes, the deepening cleavages between western countries and Russia and China heavily influence the participation of certain stakeholders in meetings. In July 2022, during the first OEWG meeting, 27 NGOs were blocked from participation by Russia, after which some of the Russian NGOs were blocked by Ukraine in retaliation.[3] Harmonizing and aligning strategies and enhancing cooperation between stakeholders could help overcome the increasing geopolitical pressure that civil society organizations experience nowadays in cyber negotiation forums.

To work against the effects of these and other efforts to repress international attempts at advancing a gender equality agenda, effective gender mainstreaming is possible only when gender research is less fragmented and supported by rigorous data collection practices. Partially, the strong transnational opposition against “gender ideology” comes from the misconception of the notion of “gender (identity).” This leads to a broad delegitimization of scientific knowledge on gender as such. “Gender” becomes a red flag even where it is not necessarily a contested concept. Acknowledging and defining this disagreement might help avoid the broad hostility toward everything related to gender. Highlighting and respecting cultural and religious traditions and perceptions while conducting detailed and concise research on gender and cyber can help focus on the “humane” component rather than ideological confrontation.

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] Russian Federation, Federal Law No. 135-FZ of 2013, on Amendments to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development;” Russian Federation, Federal Law No. 478-FZ of 05.12. 2022. on Amendments to the Federal Law on “Information, information technologies and security of information” and other legislative acts of Russian Federation.”

[2] Constitution of the Russian Federation as amended and approved by the All-Russian vote on July 1, 2020 [working translation]

[3] Hurel, Louise Marie, “The Rocky Road to Cyber Norms at the United Nations”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 6, 2022,

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.

Ann–Kathrin 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

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,

By Chantal de Jonge Oudraat & Michael E. Brown

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

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.

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.