Top Gender and Security Moments of 2015

Looking back on the last year, there were a number of hallmark moments at the intersection of gender and security in the international community, some more positive than others. We saw a rise in attention being paid to issues that disproportionately impact women and girls, but some methods of warfare that target those same groups continued to be employed. Here is a selection of key gender and security moments in 2015, in no particular order:

(1) On December 3, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter unexpectedly announced that the Pentagon would open all combat positions in the United States military to women. He explicitly asserted that “there will be no exceptions.”

(2) In contrast to the general pattern of female exclusion from high level security negotiations worldwide, the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations concluded in July 2015 as a unique showcase for high-profile female security negotiation leadership. Principle female leads included Helga Maria Schmid, Deputy Secretary General for the EU External Action Service; Wendy Sherman, US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs; and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief diplomat and former Italian foreign minister. Mogherini took over her role from Baroness Catherine Ashton of the UK, who had previously laid substantial ground work in the nuclear negotiations.

(3) The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2242 on October 13, 2015 marked the 15th anniversary of the launch of the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in 2000. Last year’s resolution addresses the need to deliver on the promises of the WPS agenda and in particular addresses the role of women in countering violent extremism. The resolution was distinguished by a couple of extraordinary statistics. A record number of states (68) gave statements to the Security Council debate, as did NATO, the League of Arab States, the Organization of American States, the African Union, and the OSCE. The Security Council meeting lasted a marathon nine hours, there were 111 registered speakers at the Open Debate, and 72 countries co-sponsored the resolution.

(4) The launch of the Global Study on Women, Peace and Security on October 14, 2015 marked the culmination of a High-Level Review of the WPS agenda in 2015. The Global Study’s lead author was Radhika Coomaraswamy, and the Study was supported extensively by UN Women. The Global Study was informed by numerous briefings, consultations, and research papers, as well as a High-Level Advisory Group. It sets out an ambitious agenda to deliver equality and inclusion for women in situations of conflict, post-conflict, and insecurity.

(5) On August 20, 2015 the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) held its first open session briefing member states on the role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism. The stated goal of the session was to report on how the CTC is encouraging states to integrate gender in to the UN’s programming on counterterrorism. The briefing addressed the use of sexual violence by terrorist groups, and the relationship between sex trafficking, slave trading, ransoms, and women’s safety. In parallel, it also identified the role that women, particularly mothers, might play in preventing radicalization of their children. While increased attention to women across a range of security arenas is welcome, as I have reported (here) gender essentialism by the CTC does little to address the underlying causalities of extremist violence and fails to bring about the kind of holistic societal responses that might address radicalism successfully. Ultimately, the CTC contributions must be measured by state willingness to deal with the issues of inequality and autonomy, and to ensure the meaningful participation of women in the making of peace and security policy nationally and internationally.

(6) April 2015 saw the exposure and recognition of ongoing exploitation of women, girls and boys by UN peacekeepers, triggered by a whistleblowing account of rape and indiscriminate killing in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers. UN Headquarters issued a strong condemnation and Ban Ki Moon apologized.

(7) In September 2015, 193 states reached an agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” The negotiating process took more than two years and was notable for the unprecedented participation of civil society across the North-South divide. States agreed to an ambitious agenda that identify 17 new sustainable development goals that aim to end poverty, promote prosperity, equality, and sustainability by 2030.

(8) Women continue to be targeted by sexual violence as a method and means of warfare, including by the terrorist group ISIL whose attacks against civilians with increased frequency include gender-based violence. Targeted violence against minority groups like the Yazidi community underscores the sustained challenges faced by women in situations of extremity and state collapse.

(9) One low point of the year was the initiation of trial proceedings proceeding in the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal against former Chadian Head of state Hissène Habré without any charges of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) being included, notwithstanding statutory authority. The Habré proceedings began in earnest in July 2015, and despite a range of testimony evidencing the sustained nature of rape and sexual slavery committed during his regime, no formal charges on these violations have been included in the indictment. A group of lawyers, including Just Security’s own Beth Van Schaack, has urged the Chambers to consider adding sexual violence charges in light of the facts in the record and the statutory framework. An international criminal law counterpoint included the final International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) conviction of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko et al. She was first tried for genocide and incitement to rape as part of the “Butare Group.” She is the first woman convicted of genocide by the ICTR and the first to be convicted of rape (under a superior responsibility theory).

(10) Finally, after decades of advocacy, as the year closed the Japanese and South Korean governments reached a landmark agreement in December to resolve their dispute over Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army. The agreement requires Japan to make an apology which comes directly from the government and promises $8.3 million in payment to support and provide care for a highly vulnerable group of elderly women. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).