IHSG International Conference 2021 on Gender Security and Global Politics: 25/26 February 2021: Inaugural Address by Dr Juliet Colman

Indian Institute of Human Security and Governance
March 2, 2021

Good morning, I am Juliet Colman, Director of SecurityWomen, an NGO advocating for a gender-balanced security sector. I am currently based in the UK, locked down by the coronavirus pandemic, as I guess many people in different places are. Before I start, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to be part of this really significant event and I am looking forward to an interesting couple of days. I would especially like to thank Dr Nandini Basistha from the Indian Institute of Human Security & Governance, and also SOAS and the University of Chittagong for being part of the organising of this conference.

1.Security is highly gendered and so is politics

 I will talk today about the importance of women being equal partners in security across the board, and how such little progress has been made in this regard. I will explore the barriers to women’s participation and leadership, and the changing nature of conflict, and the threats to human well-being: firstly, women in decision-making and at peace talks, I discuss women in cyber-security, then women in policing, in armed forces, and lastly, women in peacekeeping. 

As I said, security is highly gendered. Estimated to be 97% male dominated worldwide, women have been largely invisible as security professionals. You’ll forgive me for talking about ‘men’ and ‘women’ and not so much on the spectrum of genders or intersectionality, because the absence of any women from the sphere of security is stark (that is, roughly 50% of the population). The origins for this come from traditional norms of social hierarchy and polarising of attitudes in which men are seen as protectors and women as needing to be protected, and of course, men are on average physically stronger. Men are also seen as breadwinners for the family which pushes women further into domestic, more home-based roles. This is particularly obvious today in India where only 20% of women are in paid work down from 33% in 1991. Occupation segregation is high, pushing women into lower-paying, precarious jobs. The coronavirus pandemic has led to more women than men losing their jobs, women rather than men are pulling out of jobs to look after children at home, and, according to this week’s Economist magazine, young women unable to study, train or work, are being married off instead. I quote: ‘whereas women in other countries often withdraw from the workforce when burdened with a child, women in India drop out when burdened with a husband.’ 

We see the durability and pervasiveness of patriarchy across the world. There is a general lack of acceptance of the importance of women’s roles in decision-making. Often this is due to the weight of tradition, the economic dependence of women on men, the unequal share of family responsibilities, and the influence of religious extremism on society. The effort to bring about gender equality concerns every aspect of human life, and security is no exception. 

Research empirically points to the fact that the state of gender dynamics impacts peace and security, and that broadly, where a society is more gender equal, it is likely to be peaceful, and the converse to this, gender inequality is likely to lead to micro and macro violence and conflict. Nowhere is gender inequality more evident than in the security sector. The importance of a security sector that is responsive to all, diverse and inclusive and above all, gender equal, based on the principles of human rights, ethical, professional and properly trained, cannot be over-emphasised. The rule of law and a democratic justice system is vital for a peaceful society.

The NGO that I founded and direct, called SecurityWomen, aims to break down the gender norms around security. Here we are talking about the spectrum of security - community policing, intelligence work, cross-border policing, the role of armed forces, peacekeeping, private security and cyber-security. We work at the nexus of gender and security.

To put the concept of security into perspective, what could be more important than human security? I refer to the narrow sense of security as protection. It is a vital element of fundamental human wellbeing. What quality of life can be enjoyed if one does not feel safe and secure? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 3 that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all countries at the UN in September 2015, SDG 16, arguably the most important goal, states, ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’. One of the indicators for this goal (16.1.4) seeks the percentage of women and men who report feeling safe walking alone in the city or area where they live. This data is collected through various surveys. It would be interesting to ask further questions based on the nature of security in that neighbourhood/country, for example, would more female police officers make a difference? Would women and girls in particular feel safer?

Another perspective on security is the changing nature of conflict. The historical dualistic nature of warfare between, and fighting over, territories has morphed into messy multi-factional civil conflict, as has been seen, for example, in Syria. Conflict is often about identity, tribal, and dislike and distrust of the other. It’s a fight for power and control in which compromise has no place…. Oh but compromise and cooperation must become the preferred option and the only way to end conflict, utilising all the patience, diplomacy and empathy that humanity can muster to talk out the differences.

2.Women have been side-lined in the majority of formal peace processes, whereas evidence has shown, that where there is women’s meaningful involvement, agreements are likely to be more comprehensive and sustainable. There is stiff resistance as can be seen, for example, in the Afghanistan peace negotiations. Women are targeted, and it seems particularly those who are educated and trained, and who disrupt traditional and patriarchal norms – two women judges were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Kabul as they travelled to their office in Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. More generally, women who express views in the public arena are threatened with violence. I put to you an idea: just as political elections around the world are monitored by independent election observers that are trained and entirely objective, so too could peace talks be monitored in a similar and objective way. And the standards to observe would include the meaningful and equitable participation of women.

We are living in an interconnected world where international crime, cyber-attacks and global terrorism know no boundaries. The changing nature of conflict means that the modern world is becoming increasingly reliant on Intelligence to keep citizens safe. The spread of disinformation has reached new levels and has been labelled as the new form of warfare. This disinformation, through various communication channels, is influential and frequently damaging. Often it is consumed in the form of conspiracy theories.  

3.Cyber-security is one of the fastest growing, rapidly evolving modern industries, and just as true for ‘digital India’ as elsewhere in the world.  Yet women are not nearly so involved as men. It is difficult to assess how involved women are because different studies come up with varying statistics. Security Magazine reports that women as a percentage of the cyber workforce ranges from 5% in the Middle East to 20% in the US and everywhere else in between, in another publication, globally, in 2019, women were said to make up 20% of cyber-security personnel. In India, Microsoft has estimated women to be only 11% of the cyber-workforce

The opportunities are there for women, but again this sphere of work is seen as male-dominated and carries its own gender perceptions and stereotypes. It is important that young women and girls are encouraged to take STEM subjects and are reminded of female pioneers, like Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Margaret Hamilton, instrumental in NASA’s moon landing. The importance of having a more gender balanced workforce is critical to prevent biases developing in such areas as Artificial Intelligence. Not only could gender discrimination become problematically embedded in IT infrastructure, but also significant drawbacks could develop in, for instance, the efficacy of facial recognition technology. Cyber-security AI requires diverse data and context to act effectively, which is only possible with diverse cyber teams who recognise subtle examples of bias in security algorithms.

In order to attract more women into cyber-security, different countries have introduced a variety of programmes, whilst also helping to develop the relevant knowledge and skills. We have had CyberGirlz Club in Israel; cyber-security summer camps in the US and Girl Scouts developing cyber-security badges; a career comeback initiative in Malaysia; Women in Security Awards in Australia; a UK National Cyber-security Centre with a Cyber First Girls competition, and in India, in 2018 the launch of the CyberShikshaa program designed to create a pool of skilled female cyber-security professionals.

We are hearing more about the significance of cyber warfare capabilities of states considered dangerous. At the beginning of the year, the US IT systems in government departments were hacked via a company called SolarWinds and Russia was thought to be behind it, supposedly in an attempt to access sensitive data. The hacking of IT systems becomes ever more creative with the potential to plant spyware that could be undiscovered until years later. 

Moving on from cyber-security, physical security can be seen on a continuum: at one end, there is local community policing, at the other, military Special Forces. 

4. To begin with policing. As mentioned earlier, the rule of law and a democratic justice system is vital for a peaceful society. This starts with a functioning police service. Note, I say ‘service’ rather than police ‘force’. Policing should be, above all, service oriented. In the UK, the originator of the concept of the police officer was Robert Peel and his dictum was, ‘The police are the public and the public are the police’, meaning that the police have to be part of the community, engaged with and accepted by the people, otherwise they don’t succeed. The faith of the public in the police is imperative for maintaining law and order. Their first duty is to prevent crime happening. To take the phrase ‘the police are the public’ literally, then, women should be 50% of the workforce. In fact, that is the argument used most frequently to justify the participation of women in policing. It is the legitimacy claim: that legitimate institutions properly represent the constituency.

In South Africa, the argument is subtly different with ‘equality of the sexes’ being seen as the driver: that is, women should have the same opportunities as men. The other arguments given for increasing women’s participation are around the very differences of women from men. There is a danger of straying into essentialism: are women more empathetic? Do they de-escalate conflicts more effectively than men? Maybe, but to operate under the myth that women are more peace-loving is a misrepresentation! What has been proved, mainly in business environments and contexts, is how the gender dynamics of mixed teams achieve more and are more successful than male-only teams.

To look again at the legitimacy claim, it is evident that a male-only police service would be under-equipped to respond to the diversity of safety and security needs of the general public. By increasing gender diversity, the police service is better able to protect all people in the community, particularly women and children, and including marginalised groups. Not only do we want to see women as equal partners in policing at all levels in and all positions, but also, as stated by DCAF in their Policing and Gender Toolkit, it is about challenging the predominant culture of security institutions which sustain power relations supporting inequality and gender-based violence. A positive policing culture is one which values diversity, equality and inclusion, and models positive masculinities. 

Security institutions are a mirror to society, and reflect the values generally held in that society. In highly patriarchal societies, we are more likely to see male-dominated and gender-biased security and justice systems. Some women policing scholars argue that all-women units are the only way to increase women police in more traditional societies – evidence exists from India, Bahrain and Korea. However, critics say these units let male police officers off the hook. They don´t have to learn to work with women, and they don´t have to change any of their (male) practices.

India overall has 9% of its policing roles held by women, according to a report by the  Indian Bureau of Police Research and Development last year, which also signalled a 16% increase in recruitment of female personnel to the police. However, the statistics regarding women in the Central Armed Police Force remained stagnant at 2.98%. These statistics are particularly alarming since the Ministry of Home Affairs, as far back as 2009, set a target for women to be 33% of policing, and this was reinforced again in 2013. A recent SecurityWomen article looking at the use of quotas found that, although they worked well in increasing parliamentary representation of women, there was not a global take-up to use them to increase the numbers of women in police. This may change as the strongly masculine nature and image of policing changes, and it is seen to be a more attractive career option for women.

In 2018, SecurityWomen highlighted a report on the work of all-female police units in Jaipur, northwest India, which tackled the sexual harassment and gender-based violence experienced by women at bus stops, colleges and parks. The female police improved the situation, however, the concern was that the underlying attitudes of senior police officials were not changing, and that this action by all-women units enabled them to say that they were addressing women’s safety whilst in fact they were shunting the responsibility to one side. This points to the importance of ensuring women are fully integrated at all levels, and particularly at the level of decision-making and leadership. 

A headline in January proclaimed ‘India needs senior female cops for safer cities’ and ‘90% women retire as police constables’. And in Delhi, women are packed into single-sex carriages on the metro to protect themselves. Could this lack of security be a significant reason for the drop in female participation in the labour market? 

There have been some horrific high profile cases of women being violently sexually assaulted, for example, only last year, a young 19 year old woman from Uttar Pradesh died of her injuries. The police tasked with protecting women, no matter what class or caste, have covered up evidence, or worse still, carried out the crimes themselves. There is a sense that women bring it on themselves - this needs to be turned on its head! Urgent police reforms, incorporating gender-sensitive institutional change, including prioritising the equal participation of women, are a necessity to meet to the basic needs of all women and girls.

Indeed, by having a more gender-balanced workforce, policing can provide role models to society which can help change societal expectations and biases around gender.

5. As mentioned, security can be seen on a continuum, and we now move along the line from policing to armed forces.

Not only do armed forces vary widely in terms of capacity and capability but, most importantly, in their relationship to the state. Militaries, with armed troops and police can visibly be paraded as an extension of state power and very obviously male state power, as can be seen in countries like Russia and Belarus. Security is not only highly gendered but highly political, and the purpose and remit for armed forces is broad. There has been a global increase in securitisation and militarisation as a response to real and perceived threats. 

It is in human nature that people tend to opt for hard security, and a government that promotes this, when perceived or obvious threats exist and anxiety levels are high. The majority of people, no matter what sex or gender, favour the ‘strong man’ especially when times are tough. Understandably so. To think otherwise is to reverse millennia of social norms and narrative which elevates strong men as protective. The language is polarising: strong versus weak, masculine versus feminine, resolute versus compromising, and so forth.

Times are certainly difficult at the moment with the impact of Covid 19, which has laid bare human vulnerability. Women have shown effective leadership in so many ways, and the strong men have not done so well. In fact, the pandemic has been used as an excuse for strong men to crack down on critics of their regimes.

In the UK, and indeed many countries around the world, the military has been called upon for support to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Military personnel have been used to build temporary hospitals, help with logistics of supply and demand in health equipment, to run testing sites and to organise and run vaccination centres. Their help has proved invaluable. And it was the same when parts of the country experienced severe flooding – the Army came to the rescue. This domestic deployment of the military can be seen in many other countries, for instance in South Africa where the military (SANDF) provides vital support for infrastructure building and crisis response. The importance of a country having a well-trained professional body of people on hand when disaster strikes and its citizens are in a life/death situation, is paramount.

The military is described by Annica Kronsell (2005, 2006:108) as the ‘institution[s] of hegemonic masculinity’. The inclusion of women in militaries, is vitally important since they act as a challenge to this culture of ‘masculinised hegemony’ and bring forth all the arguments for having more diversity and inclusion. We don’t just want to see women in the lower ranks or administrative positions; they have to be in leadership and decision-making roles. The result is better outcomes are delivered; the premise behind this being that different hinterlands, priorities and personal values mix to produce better end results. Men benefit just as much as women. Gender equality in armed forces requires a shift in institutional culture and a reorientation on how defence contributes to promoting gender equality in society.

Technological advancement has given us drones which enables warfare to be carried out remotely. Consequently, the physical strength of the ‘fighter’ or soldier is no longer of paramount importance. This however, is still used as an argument opposing the admittance of women into combat roles or the military more generally, but little by little, women are proving their resilience and tenacity. Canadian scientific research carried out in 2017 showed that women in general, although maybe not as physically strong, have more stamina and endurance than men.

We are at the very early stages of women being admitted to militaries in different countries around the world. In 1985, Norway and Israel allowed women into all roles, this was followed by Denmark in 1988 and Sweden and Canada the following year. It was only in 2015 that America opened up all positions, and the UK followed in 2016. This was having carried out extensive research into the long-term physiological effects of women being on the front line. Currently, women in the UK military make up 11% of personnel.

Norway, in 2017 introduced the draft for both sexes. In other countries, like Austria and South Korea the draft is just for men. Would true equality mean conscription for men and women? Not doing so, is this a form of discrimination? It could be argued that instituting this, not only would the number of women be increased, but it would gradually force a change in how society regards its armed forces. 

France in 2018 revealed plans to bring back national service for all 16 year olds. It may be that as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, more countries consider some form of national service for young people aged 18 – 24, not only as a means to mitigate youth unemployment, but also to build social citizenship.

India has never had mandatory military service. It has the world’s second largest army, also made up of volunteers. Little by little, women are breaking down the barriers to positions previously reserved for men, for instance, earlier this year, the Indian Army announced that women would be admitted to the Aviation Corps and train as pilots flying helicopters in conflict and peace zones.

6. Let’s now talk about Peacekeeping 

Last year was the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, a ground-breaking Resolution recognising the importance of women’s participation as active agents in peace and security. It brought to attention how conflict affects women and girls disproportionately, and called upon states to create their own national action plans within the women, peace and security agenda. To date about 85 countries have done so, providing details on their approaches to security and justice, peacekeeping and peace-building and humanitarian responses.

How much better to train and utilise soldiers to keep the peace, rather than train for war. UN peacekeeping relies on countries to commit to deploying their military personnel and police officers, as well as civilian specialists, to peacekeeping missions.

There are currently 12 peacekeeping operations with roughly 90,000 peacekeepers, and, as stated by the UN, the annual budget for UN peacekeeping is less than 0.5 percent of global military spend. The breakdown between uniformed peacekeepers is roughly 10% police to 90% military. There are other peace operations not strictly under the UN banner (eg AU, OSCE) but as military alliances, they operate under UN approval.

The current statistics on women’s participation in UN peacekeeping show women are nearly 6% of military peacekeepers and 17% of police peacekeepers. The United Nations has set the following targets for women’s inclusion to be achieved by 2028: 

25% of Staff Officers and Military Observers; 15% of military peacekeepers; 20% of Formed Police Units (FPUs); and 30% of Individual Police Officers (IPOs). These categories are currently running at 18%, 5%, 11% and 28% respectively.

The targets seem low, in particular for military peacekeepers, and progress is slow. It is now 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, and, as mentioned, 20 years since the adoption of UNSCR 1325 with its manifesto for women’s rights in peace and security. We really could have expected more progress. One bright area is an increase in the numbers of women in leadership roles, as heads or deputy heads in UN peace missions which is around 35%. 

The importance of women’s participation to the overall effectiveness of peacekeeping is seen in many ways:

Firstly, broadening the skill set of the peacekeeping mission and enabling greater access to communities where peacekeepers are engaged to protect. Female peacekeepers help empower women and girls in the host community and act as role models. Their very presence helps to reduce violence and conflict and they build a greater sense of security, particularly for women and children. They help the understanding of the vulnerability of women and girls within conflict zones, and at risk of violence, and are there to interview survivors of sexual and gender based violence. Most importantly, female peacekeepers bring different experiences, backgrounds and perceptions to decision-making positions, to the tasks in hand.

There has been a reluctance to promote the inclusion of women in peacekeeping from a feminist and women’s NGO point of view, since UNSCR 1325 was born originally from a pacifist and humanitarian standpoint. The first open debate on women in peacekeeping was only convened in 2019 by Germany in its Council presidency, 19 years since the passing of 1325.

And in August 2020, the first comprehensive resolution on Women in Peacekeeping Operations, UNSCR 2538 was passed by the UN Security Council, initiated by Indonesia, which emphasised the importance of making peacekeeping more conducive to the inclusion of female peacekeepers. There is clear direction on how to increase the deployment of uniformed women in peacekeeping: better dissemination of information and access to deployment opportunities and training; sharing of best practices for recruitment, retention, training and deployment of women in national militaries and police; the establishment of national databases of trained uniformed women interested and available to deploy; the need to provide adequate and appropriate infrastructure and facilities for women in the missions, such as accommodation, sanitation, healthcare and protective equipment. The Resolution calls for mixed engagement teams and women being included in all areas and at all levels of peacekeeping operations.

Last year, a woman peacekeeper from India, together with a Brazilian peacekeeper received the Military Gender Advocate of the Year award. Major Suman Gawani of the Indian Army, was a Military Observer deployed with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). She educated 230 UN Military Observers on conflict-related sexual violence, and ensured the presence of women military observers in each of the Mission’s team sites. She also trained South Sudanese government forces, and helped them to launch their action plan on conflict-related sexual violence. She is a real credit to India.

The Covid pandemic is a huge challenge to UN Peacekeepers. Like the armed forces helping domestically, peacekeepers are assisting governments and local communities and continuing to adapt their activities to carry out their mandates, including protecting vulnerable communities. Women peacekeepers are on the front lines and are an integral part of the response. It is to be remembered that conflict is devastating to development – and of course there can be no development without peace. 

So to end, I would like to emphasise the importance of promoting gender equality as a prerequisite to sustainable peace and security. Security, in all forms, is too important to leave only to men.

The key points I want to leave you with are these:

  • Ensure political support for change
  • Line up institutional management at the top to support the change
  • Instigate gender-targeted Recruitment, Retention and Promotion policies
  • Develop mentoring and professional associations for women
  • Instill flexible work schedules and parental leave policies
  • Set targets, quotas, and monitor accountability through gender audits
  • Ensure laws against discrimination and sexual harassment are well-implemented
  • Gather more data, and carry out more research
  • And let’s have more role models

I will now pass on to my colleague at UN Women. Thank you again for inviting me, and I look forward to the various speeches and the exciting panels that are taking place over the next two days. Thank you.


1] ‘India’s jobs market: Many hands, light work’, The Economist, 20-26 February 2021: p11-12

2 ] World Bank, 2021 Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15+) (national estimate) - India | Data (worldbank.org)

3] ‘India’s labour market: 200m jobs short’, The Economist, 20-26 February 2021: p43-44

4 ] ‘India’s labour market: 200m jobs short’, The Economist, 20-26 February 2021: p43-44 

5] Hudson, Valerie M., et al. Sex and world peace. Columbia University Press, 2012.

6]  Target 16.1: Significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere; Indicator 16.1.4: Proportion of population that feel safe walking alone around the area they live.

7]  OSCE: Inclusion of Women and Effective Peace Processes: A Toolkit (2020)

 8] BBC News, 2021 ‘Afghanistan conflict: Female judges shot dead in Kabul

9]  Security Magazine, 2020 ‘Boosting gender diversity in cybersecurity’

10] Cybercrime Magazine, 2019 ‘Women Represent 20 Percent Of The Global Cybersecurity Workforce In 2019’

11 ]Microsoft, 2021 ‘An extraordinary training program is helping women from disadvantaged backgrounds land careers in cybersecurity’ 

12] SecurityWomen, 2020 ‘Ada Lovelace: harbinger of the modern computer’

13] The Conversation, 2020 ‘The lack of women in cybersecurity leaves the online world at greater risk

14] DCAF, 2020 ‘Tool 2: Policing and Gender’

15] Republic 2020, ‘16% Jump In Women Police Personnel Registered: BPR-D Releases 2020 DoPO Report Early’

16] Republic 2020, 16% jump in Women Police personnel registered: BPR-D releases 2020 DoPO report early (republicworld.com)

17] Human Rights Initiative, 2015,’ Rough Roads to Equality’  

18 ]  SecurityWomen, 2018 ‘India's Women Police Fighting Sexual Harrassment’ 

19] The Print, 2021 ‘ India needs senior female cops for safer cities, 90% women retire as police constables’

20] The Sunday Times, 2021 ‘India is too frequently described as an assault on the senses, but it felt more like a hijacking’

21]  Financial Times, 2020  ‘A callous response to violent rape sparks outrage’

22] The Economist, 2021 ‘Inconvenient truths’, p54.

23] Kronsell, A. ,2006,  ‘Methods for Studying Silences: Gender Analysis in Institutions of Hegemonic Masculinity’, in Ackerly et al. 108-128. 

24]Kronsell, A. ,2005 ‘Gendered practices in institutions of hegemonic masculinity– reflections from feminist standpoint theory’, International Feminist Journal of Politics. 7:2, 280-298.

25 ] DACF, 2020 ‘ Tool 3: Defence and Gender’

26] The Asian Age, 2017 ‘Study says women have more stamina’

27] Swarajya, 2021 ‘Indian Army To Induct Women As Pilots Into Force's Aviation Corps From 2022, Training To Begin From July This Year’

28]  UN, 2020, United Nations Peacekeeping 

29 ] UN 2020, Gender | United Nations Peacekeeping

30] UN Uniformed Personnel Gender Parity Strategy (2018)

31] UN, 2020, Gender | United Nations Peacekeeping

32 UN, 2020, Uniformed_Women_Infographic_Upd_version4

33] MOWIP 2020, ‘Measuring opportunities for women in peace operations’’ MOWIP_Methodology_2.pdf (dcaf.ch)

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