Mainstreaming gender in the military to improve security and development

Guest post by Ally Pregulman

The United States’ perspective on gender in the military and the security sector as a whole is substantially different from how many other countries, particularly African countries, view their security. On January 19th, the US Institute for Peace (USIP) held a panel on mainstreaming gender in the military and the security sector, which lead to a broader discussion of perceptions and reform of the security sector.

Alpha Company
Alpha Company. Credit: Anneh632, Creative Commons, Flickr

According to Lt. Colonel Shannon Beebe, many Africans view their security in terms of human security: poverty alleviation, health, environmental shock / natural disasters, and reforms, instead of the traditional United States view of security as physical security: types of force and real threats. This perspective provides an opening for women to enter into the military; integrating gender in African militaries allows women to help with many of these alternate types of security concerns, including water and sanitation, health, and infrastructure.

The evolution of security perspectives stems from integrating women in the military. As the military becomes more gendered and diverse, it can focus more on issues of human security. In Senegal, studies show that having a president interested in gender issues helps move this issue forward. National strategies on equity and equality, cooperation with the Senegalese Ministry of Gender, and involving women in the process of integration all contributed to the success of mainstreaming gender in the military.

Panelists from the United States offered a different perspective. Although women participate in many roles of the armed forces in the United States, there are some areas, such as the Special Forces, that remain closed to women. Colonel David Walton, an instructor from the special warfare school, conceded that gender mainstreaming is not really taught to Special Forces trainees because of time constraints that require prioritizing the curriculum. Gender needs to be incorporated into the military from the ground up, in order to emphasize its importance and ensure its incorporation into every aspect of military training and daily life. All of the panelists echoed the sentiment that making gender a separate issue would be inefficient and ineffective.

Col. Birame Diop from the Senegalese Air Force emphasized, “Society will respect you more if you respect women in the military.”  He believes that preventing women from being mainstreamed in the military precludes a country from fully realizing its economic capacity, especially in countries where women make up 50% or more of the population. Mainstreaming gender in the military is still an ongoing debate, but the United States has a lot to learn from countries such as Senegal. Experts in the field argue that security sector reforms are required in order to mainstream gender in the military. Although these changes will take time, events such as this prove that people in the military are starting to think about reforms, which is a very positive sign.

Widely mainstreaming gender in the military would have positive implications for security and development in any country in which it happens. The panelists agree that gender in the military is important and it has far-reaching effects. Women would play a larger role in their country’s security and positively impact development by involving more women in the workforce, normalizing gender relations in the country, and allowing women to take a larger stake in their future.

Ally Pregulman graduated from George Washington University in May 2010 with a BA in International Development and African Studies. Her research interests include the linkages between development and security in African countries.

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