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Gender Equal Militaries – Evolution or a Continuation of Existing Patriarchal Structures?

17 June 2015

On 4 June, WILPF attended a public discussion hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), in collaboration with the Maison de la Paix Gender and Diversity Hub. The theme of the event was Modern Militaries and Capability: The Importance of Women. Chaired by Ambassador Christian Dussey, Director of GCSP, the discussion addressed the issue of women in the military and capability, with Australia’s military as a focal case study.

Only around five per cent of states allow women to hold combat roles. Countries, where women have made some progress towards achieving gender equality, are ahead in opening up equal opportunities within their militaries. These include Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and Sweden had implemented such policies as early as the 1980s. Australia and Mexico followed suit almost two decades later.

However, with their entrenched masculine norms and patriarchal attitudes, militaries do not enhance security or gender equality. Even if militaries were gender equal, they would still promote a culture of violence and maintain existing structures that foster conflict.

“structural and cultural deficiencies”

Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, presented the Commission’s Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. Spanning 2011 to 2014, and consisting of four separate reports, the Review is the largest of its kind in Australia to date.

The Review found that women represented only five per cent of senior officer positions and only eight per cent of senior non-commissioned officers. However, modern defence forces include roles that require both men and women to be effective. Mrs Broderick emphasised this point, stating that “If our military does not have a culture where both men and women can strive, then it will not be operationally effective.”

She highlighted that, as in all militaries, the issue of sexual assault is a significant one for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Review claims that the rate of sexual assault occurring in the ADF was almost identical to the rate in other Australian workplaces, but generally of a greater severity and reported less often.

The Commission outlined five principles for cultural change that formed the framework for their recommendations to the ADF: strong leadership drives reform; diversity of leadership increases capability; increasing numbers of personnel requires increasing opportunities; greater flexibility will strengthen the ADF; and gender-based harassment and violence ruins lives, divides teams, and damages operational effectiveness. Mrs Broderick concluded by emphasising that the ADF will have greater operational strength if both men and women have the opportunity to strive.

Panel discussion

Following the presentation of the Commission’s review Mrs Broderick, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Orchard, Liaison Officer to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and Alexandra Shehadie, the Director of Defence Cultural Reform, AHRC discussed a range of issues, such as: the culture of violent masculinities within militaries, particularly the “warrior culture”; the ADF’s openness to greater diversity throughout its ranks, especially in leadership positions; the need for sensitivity training for both men and women; ways to measure such cultural changes; and the benefits and disadvantages of the military’s current command and control structure, when implementing cultural change in the organisation.

In closing, the panellists emphasised that “gender diversity is a capability multiplier” for militaries, and Colonel Orchard highlighted that military organisations are not static and “current cultures are not written in stone.”

However, despite decades of official attention, women in militaries all over the world face pervasive sexism and shockingly frequent sexual assault from within the ranks. Also, since the military is generally stereotyped as a man’s world, there are many inaccessible positions that have “boys’ club exclusivity.”

WILPF’s take

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security clearly highlights the importance of women’s participation in all levels of decision-making in the sphere of peace and security, as well as the need for an integrated gender perspective. However, this cannot be oversimplified as including a great number of women in the military. On the contrary, it means more women participating in democratic decision making, and more democratic control over decisions regarding peace and security.

Firstly, the problems women are facing in the military are a distillation of other parts of society. Secondly, militaries do not enhance security or gender equality – they bring forth a militaristic culture of violence which permeates through society, and entrenches masculine norms and patriarchal attitudes.

Maintaining militaries, even if they were gender equal, would continue to maintain existing structures that foster conflict. Instead, states should shift from a national security focus, one dominated by militarism, to focusing on human security, human rights concerns, and the overall goal of peace.

WILPF strives to challenge militarism, and encourages states to invest in peace and strengthen multilateralism. Our vision is a world free from violence and armed conflict, in which human rights are protected, and women and men are equally empowered and involved in positions of leadership at the local, national, and international levels.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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