Women and security policy: Representation rising, but parity far off | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.02.2020
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Women and security policy: Representation rising, but parity far off

Wherever war, fighting and conflicts are discussed, women are usually in the minority. This is also the case at the Munich Security Conference, but women's networks are working to ensure their voices are represented.

Dark suits and uniforms decorated with medals dominate the scene again at the start of what is probably the most important security conference in the world. But although the conference participants in Munich are still overwhelmingly male, more and more women are joining them in the meeting rooms, halls and corridors of the Bayrischer Hof conference hotel. Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), is delighted that this year, for the first time, more than 20% of the conference participants are women. "We have made great efforts to improve the gender balance, and we've succeeded," he said.

MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Ke)

MSC Chair Ischinger is delighted at increased participation of women at the event

Recent changes

If a gender ratio of four or five to one is being celebrated as a success, it's apparent that the MSC has had a lot of ground to make up. For a long time, more than in other policy areas, security policy was purely a male domain. In the 1960s and 70s, when the MSC was still called the "Military Science Conference," if women were present at all, it was either as wives accompanying their husbands or as service personnel. Even in the early 2000s, women in security policy were very much the exception, in Germany at least. This has only changed over the past ten years.

However, gender parity in security policy is still very far from reality. Particularly with regard to actual negotiations, to crisis and conflict resolution, the men usually keep things among themselves. Statistically speaking, only one in nine chairs at negotiating tables is occupied by a woman. And yet, peace processes in which women are involved have been proven to work better, Agnieska Brugger, a member of German Parliament for the Green party, told DW.

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A female perspective — for half of humanity

As Brugger, an expert in defense and security policy, says: "It's not a question of counting the women — it's a question of women's perspectives and potential." She gives an example: "When I look at conflicts through the lens of traditional politics, I'm not seeing that sexualized violence is systematically used as a weapon in many crises around the world." That means you won't find the right solution, either, Brugger criticizes.

Women at negotiating tables are more likely to consider the needs of women in crisis regions. For example, UN soldiers on peace missions to crisis regions in Africa secure the main roads. But women use different routes. In order to get water and food, they often have to cross untracked terrain, steppe and bushes — where they are at risk of rape. We also know that women in crisis regions feel safer when female members of the security forces are around.

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Structural change necessary

This is why Armgard von Reden is demanding that "women must have a say in the decision-making, so that their perspective is taken into account." Von Reden is the chair of the German section of the worldwide women's network Women in International Security, or WIIS. "We're committed to ensuring that important bodies are represented by a sufficient number of women and that the closed groups of men who make important decisions in foreign and security policy are a thing of the past," von Reden argues forcefully, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Political scientist Constanze Stelzenmüller also works with WIIS, and was previously the chair of its German section. She cites her experience as a young editor trying to gain a foothold in security policy as the reason for her involvement. As a woman working in this field in the 1990s, Stelzenmüller recalls, she was mostly on her own. She experienced so much condescension and humiliation that she came to believe that "you have to create structures where women become more visible, and can talk to each other, exchange experiences."

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Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E. Contini)

Two of Europe's top leaders are also key players in security policy — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

20 years of UN Resolution 1325

Given the way things used to be, Stelzenmüller rates it as a success that the proportion of female participants in the Munich Security Conference is now at more than 20%. "Military sociologists have always said that the critical mass for women in the armed forces is between eight and 14%. If that also applies to security policy, then we actually have achieved something."

There has also been political backup from the United Nations. The UN has had the issue on its agenda since the year 2000, when Namibia held one of the seats on the UN Security Council. Namibia launched an initiative to increase the participation of women in crisis and conflict management. The country's then-minister for women's affairs, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, ensured that the international community made it one of their official goals, and the corresponding Resolution 1325 was later passed unanimously by the UN Security Council.

Agnieszka Brugger sees that as a historic milestone. "It opened the door for considering things from the women's perspective," she says. Since then, Brugger believes, the issue of gender has become firmly established at the United Nations.

Agnieszka Brugger, member of the German Bundestag (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Gateau)

German MP Brugger on representation of women in security policy: "You can't just leave it at nice words"

Gender balance as a German UN priority

However, it took Germany a full 13 years to sign up to the resolution. Germany currently holds one of the two-year rotating seats on the Security Council, and it has declared gender balance in foreign and security policy as of its focus issues. The successor Resolution 2467 has been adopted, at Germany's initiative. This new resolution goes even further in putting the victims of sexual violence at the center of things — and not just women and girls, but boys and men, too.

German MP Brugger said that is still too little. "You can't just leave it at nice words or hip Instagram stories coming out of the Foreign Office," she complains. "You have to be prepared to use your political influence to ensure that women are represented in the relevant political processes, and that their issues aren't just smiled away but do actually receive attention," the politician says.

Women's networks such as WIIS, Women Political Leaders, or the Women Experts' Network WoX are now exerting pressure to make this happen. They too are all represented at this year's Munich Security Conference.

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