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Female soldiers are changing how armed forces work

RACHEL GRIMES served three tours of Northern Ireland as an officer in the British army. Her colleagues in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the region’s erstwhile police force, noticed that things were different when she—the only woman present—joined police and army patrols. The team’s behaviour changed. Fellow soldiers behaved with more restraint. At checkpoints, locals stopped to talk for longer. She did not notice these things at the time.

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Her epiphany came years later, when she deployed as a gender adviser to United Nations forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She recalls seeing women and children gathered on the edge of a village—victims of rape cast out by their communities. “The last thing a Congolese woman wants to see is a man in uniform,” she recalls, unsurprisingly, in a place where soldiers commit a lot of rape. “But a woman in uniform is different.” At one meeting with women in Eringeti, on the edge of Virunga National Park, the information they shared about when and where attacks might occur was far more useful than other intelligence gleaned by the UN.

Between 1957 and 1989 only 20 women ever served as UN peacekeepers, anywhere. But the number of female soldiers has been growing of late. Women now make up a fifth of officers in the US Army, for example. In 16 countries, including Britain and France, as well as America, they are allowed to serve in combat roles once reserved for men. The growth has prompted new thinking about what female soldiers can bring to soldiering. It is also forcing commanders to confront the impact war has on women more generally. But progress is not always as fast as it should be, and without more radical change, some ideas about what women soldiers can achieve seem overblown.

In many respects, the UN has played a leading role in championing female soldiers. It has pledged to increase the share of women in military forces from 1% in 1993 to 15% by 2028, and to 20% in police units (see chart). “This is not just a question of numbers,” claimed Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary general, in 2019, “but also of our effectiveness in fulfilling our mandates.” Among the pioneers were 103 Indian women sent to Liberia in 2007 as the first all-female police unit. Subsequently, all-female police units from Bangladesh were deployed to Haiti and Congo.

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Such ideas are spreading more widely. Canada’s chief of defence staff, the country’s most senior officer, has a gender adviser. So too do the chiefs of Canada’s army, navy and air force. NATO, where Lieutenant-Colonel Grimes now works, has also made the issue a priority. General Curtis Scaparrotti, who was NATO’s top commander until 2019, points to America’s use of all-female units, or Female Engagement Teams, in Iraq, where they were called Lioness teams, and later in Afghanistan. “Women had a great deal of influence in those families and societies,” he recalls. Yet conservative norms and cultural taboos often prevented male troops from interacting with them.

In modern wars, soldiers do more than just inflict violence on enemies. They also build trust and gather intelligence. And when predominantly male forces interact with women, too often it goes badly. In 2011 the US Army conducted a study to ask why so many Afghan soldiers had attempted to murder their Western colleagues. One recurrent complaint was Western troops “violating female privacy during searches”, particularly on night raids. “They take photos of women even when we tell them not to,” complained an Afghan soldier. Female American soldiers, noted the study, “were viewed as having better attitudes and being more respectful and respected.”

Women often find that they can navigate the battlefield in unique ways. “Being a female soldier means that you’re almost like a third gender,” says Captain Lizzy Millwater, a British officer who advises the UN mission in Mali. “You can engage the male population on patrol, but you are also then able to engage with the women and children without being seen as a threat.” Western armed forces were not the only ones who have learnt this lesson. Jacqueline O’Neill, Canada’s ambassador for women, peace and security, notes that most suicide-bombers for Boko Haram, a Nigerian jihadist group, are women. “They know women can have more access in markets, and are less likely to be searched at checkpoints,” she says.

Yet many armies have been slow to make use of this experience. “We do a fairly good job at promoting this in other places, like Africa and Latin America,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. “But in the United States it is entirely possible to graduate from a professional military education institution and never hear of it.” She points out that the $4m allocated by the Trump administration for women, peace and security issues in the 2018-19 defence budget—the first time it had received any money at all—was dwarfed by the sums spent on Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction medicine by the Pentagon, some $84m in 2014.

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On International Women’s Day on March 8th the UN published videos of female peacekeepers in action, challenging viewers’ possible prejudices with banners asking “Think we play a supporting role?” and “Think we’re bystanders?”. But in practice, they often are. Studies of UN missions have shown that female peacekeepers are more likely to be sent on missions later in a conflict, when fewer bullets are flying. They are particularly underrepresented in conflicts where pre-existing rates of sexual violence are higher. When they are deployed, they are often kept on base and away from the front lines more than men.

Sabrina Karim of Cornell University has found that women are held back because commanders still feel the need to protect them from danger, even if that prevents them from doing their job. The assumption that the loss of a woman in battle would cause uproar in the media is part of that calculation. “They are time and again barred from making meaningful contributions to the places where they are needed most,” says Dr Karim.

Ma’am yes ma’am

Pushing for more female peacekeepers without dealing with the things that stop them from doing their jobs well carries risks both to the women and to the mission, says Gretchen Baldwin from the International Peace Institute, a think-tank in New York. If they are seen to be there only to fill quotas, the men with whom they are deployed will continue to treat them as mere tokens, not fit to engage in combat.

If, in their haste, countries send women who are ill-prepared, that could make matters even worse. In the early days of all-female units in Afghanistan, for instance, many female troops were in effect ordered to serve in such units regardless of their interest in doing so. “This resulted in [all-female units] that lacked motivation and members with little or no formal training,” noted a US Army study in 2014, “both of which can have serious consequences for mission success and personnel security.” Georgina Holmes of King’s College London found that female peacekeepers from Rwanda sent to Darfur said afterwards that they had been overwhelmed and had not received enough training to deal with the many victims of sexual violence they encountered. Military trainers in Rwanda told Dr Holmes that they thought female peacekeepers inherently possessed the skills required to support victims.

Ms Baldwin also points to the hypocrisy of military leaders’ refusal to deploy women to “dangerous areas”—for which they are well trained—while not considering the risk of harassment and worse they face from fellow soldiers. “It’s not at all uncommon for women to say they feel far less safe on base with colleagues than when they are on patrol,” she says. Unsurprisingly, then, progress in meeting the UN’s own target for women peacekeepers has been slow. Today the count for female peacekeeping troops stands just above 5%, though the UN has said it is “advocating consistently” for troop-contributing countries to speed up.

The UN is trying to get to grips with these problems. Peacekeepers are getting more training on gender issues. Pre-deployment training now includes a module on preventing sexual exploitation by UN personnel and a module on preventing and responding to sexual violence suffered by civilians. As part of the Elsie Initiative, a Canadian-backed project, UN officials are redesigning camp layouts to have better facilities for women. Separately, some women with young children are being offered the option of shorter deployments.

Women are also being deployed in new, more effective ways. The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo has 15 female engagement teams, each with 10-15 female soldiers commanded by one or two officers. But when Moroccan peacekeepers in that country went out in all-female patrols, they were not taken seriously until they deployed alongside men, says Major Helen Bryan, the British gender adviser to the mission. “The Congolese men are less accepting of female teams. If it’s a mixed team, they can see that the ladies are doing exactly the same jobs as men—they’re not just doing ladies’ things.”

Yet some of the claims made for the special benefits of having female peacekeepers are a little implausible. The UN, for example, does not just argue that women will be more sensitive in dealing with other women. It also argues that female peacekeepers are “critical” for “empowering women in the host country”—that their mere presence helps to promote the idea that a woman can aspire to do any job. In Liberia, for example, the example of India’s female police contingent and other all-female units has been credited with increasing the share of girls going to school, and even with inspiring local women to join the national police force. Such claims, naturally, are extremely difficult to prove.

The presence of women soldiers can only go so far. In Beni, a city in eastern Congo, on April 8th local police fired live rounds into a crowd of people who were protesting against the peacekeepers’ failure to do anything to prevent massacres that have afflicted the city since 2014. There and elsewhere, peacekeeping missions are often criticised for failing to protect civilians when it would put peacekeepers’ lives at risk, or upset host governments. For all the talk of female peacekeepers paving the way for better relations with the locals, limits persist.

By the same token, having women in uniform does not prevent the men in uniform from behaving badly. In recent years UN peacekeepers in Congo, Haiti and Liberia have been accused of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. The UN set up a unit to assess soldiers’ conduct only in 2005; not until 2015, under pressure from the American government, did it begin revealing which countries’ troops had been accused of abuse. Mr Guterres claims that the presence of more female soldiers may lead to more reporting of sexual violence by peacekeepers. But in reality it seems that women find it as hard as men to report on their fellow peacekeepers.

The debate over female peacekeepers reflects wider issues with the role of women in national armed forces. On the surface, women are more accepted than ever, even in combat roles. A poll of American troops and veterans in January 2019 found that 70% approved of women serving in combat roles; 30% disapproved. But in reality, many remain sceptical. One European officer recalls male colleagues expressing widespread distrust of efforts to up the number of female peacekeepers: “The sense was that women should not serve in patrol, so why should they be deployed? And if 15 women go, then 15 men don’t get their medals.”

Efforts to bring change can often become hostage to wider culture wars. Last autumn, for instance, the Pentagon delayed the promotion of two female generals for fear that Donald Trump would veto it. In March, shortly after their promotion was secured under Joe Biden, Tucker Carlson, a host on Fox News, mocked the idea that “pregnant women are going to fight our wars…It’s a mockery of the US military.” China’s army, he said, was “more masculine”. He was rebuked by the Pentagon, but many viewers agreed with him.

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Take cover

Some armed forces are doing better. NATO’s training scenarios now test soldiers with gender “injects”—checking they do not overlook a civilian woman who may have critical information, for example. One country that has done especially well is Canada. The same US Army study which pointed to American troops’ missteps with Afghan women noted that Canadian troops “were often said to be more respectful and respected”. That may have reflected a broader military culture in which gender issues have been taken seriously.

For over a decade Canada’s government has used a method with the ungainly name “gender-based analysis plus”. It requires assessing how any policy or initiative—whether directed at troops on the ground or civilians at home—would affect men and women differently. It has led to a number of changes, says Lisa Vandehei, who leads a “directorate of gender equality and intersectional analysis” in Canada’s department of defence.

Land, air and she

Canada’s navy, for instance, recently redesigned its working uniform to ensure it would not only fit women better, but could also be tailored to provide modesty for those who wanted it. The air force is looking at how to modify ejection seats on training aircraft to lower the minimum body weight required for safe use. And other aircraft are now being designed with female anthropometry in mind. Even obscure bits of military kit are not spared scrutiny. Ms Vandehei points out that even chemical-weapon detectors, configured forheavier male bodies, are being examined to see if the threshold at which they activate needs to change.

One problem is that gender is not a routine part of military education for the next generation of commanders. Since 2018 Britain’s defence academy has run a twice-yearly course for “human security” advisers, which has trained 130 British staff and 30 foreign ones, but it tends to attract those already interested in the topic. At the Naval War College, Professor Johnson-Freese says that, after six years of effort, she succeeded in including a single text on women, peace and security on the syllabus for the first time this year. None of the other war colleges—for the army, air force and marines—includes the subject in compulsory classes at all. “It is fundamental to military operations but still people feel it is part of diversity and inclusion or a niche subject,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Grimes.

Changing the ethos of conservative and male-dominated institutions, as armed forces tend to be, is not easy. Kristin Lund, who has served as head of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation and commander of its mission in Cyprus, has pointed to a culture where “posters with half-naked women” hang in mission gyms as a key reason why armed forces struggle to retain women. “How many women do gym in bikinis?” she asked in a speech in 2019, noting dryly that, under her command in Cyprus, posters of scantily clothed women “vanished.”

As the number of female soldiers rises, more countries will have to tackle this sort of institutional sexism. Modern armies no longer rely on physical brawn alone; they require troops savvy with technology and capable of navigating complex battlefields. They need to change so that women can serve on equal terms. As Ms O’Neill, the Canadian ambassador, says: “We never want to lose sight of the fact that women shouldn’t have to prove their added value to militaries… The vast majority of women just want to do the job.” After all, as she points out, “when was the last time we had a public event on the value-added of men in a military organisation?”

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Officers and gentlewomen”

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.