by Laura Nacyte 

Recently, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Angelina Jolie, a co-founder of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, wrote an open-ed for the Guardian, calling for the NATO’s leadership in protecting women’s rights. It emphasises that the organisation can become the ‘global military leader’ in preventing sexual violence in conflict.

In enhancing women’s status, NATO seeks to strengthen the culture of integration within the alliance, incorporate gender issues in training, including that for partner militaries, mainstream gender issues in the field, and establish a reporting system to record instances of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Yet NATO’s ambition to be an exemplary force for gender equality appears a contradiction in terms. As the remainder of the post demonstrates, there is a lack of commitment to gender mainstreaming within the alliance and across its nations, manifest through gender representation as well as organisational cultures and key policies. NATO and armies of its member states are heavily male-dominated. Sexual misdeeds in armed forces are quite common. Moreover, NATO falls short of implementing UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda—guided by the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 and related resolutions—due to the insufficient support among NATO officials and allies.

Photo credit: Soldiersmediacentre

Representation of women: it’s the glass ceiling

Jens Stoltenberg and Angelina Jolie pledged to increase women’s presence—throughout the organisation and armed forces. There is certainly room for improvement. While female representation in the militaries of NATO member states has been on an upward trend over the last eighteen years, the progress is far from satisfactory. In 2016, the overall share of active-duty female personnel constituted 10.9%, compared to 7.1% in 1999. Hungary leads the way: a fifth of its active duty enlistees are women. It is followed by Slovenia, where the corresponding share of women is 16.1%. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Italy and Turkey, accounting for 4.3% and 1.3% of servicewomen, respectively.

Gender disparities occur not only across countries, but also within the organisation. Those most pronounced are at the top level: appointed in 2016, Rose Gottemoeller is the first women to be the Deputy Secretary General. Only two women served as the Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy and the Director of NATO Office of Security. According to Svanhvit Adalsteinsdottir, the advisor to the NATO Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security, fewer than 20% of the senior international civilian personnel were female in 2015. In contrast, if we were to rely on the sole available 2012 data regarding gender balance of the international staff at NATO headquarters, women tend to be concentrated in linguistic, technical and clerical occupations.

Insufficient institutionalisation of the WPS agenda

Thanks to feminist activists, there have been significant women-specific advancements in NATO since the latter and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) adopted a policy on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2007. Aligned with the latter, NATO recognised the disproportionate effect of armed conflict on women and children as well as women’s vital role in conflict prevention and resolution. The policy has been supported by result-orientated action plans, which incorporate gender aspects in the alliance’s policies, activities and partnerships. In 2012, the Secretary General appointed a Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security.

But organisational commitment is lacking. NATO officials, interviewed by Katharine Wright, argued that even though it was difficult to object to the WPS agenda—comprised of UNSCR 1325 and seven follow-up resolutions—it was seen as a ‘personal agenda’. Framing it as exclusive to women is partly to blame. Notwithstanding the official stance that ‘gender does not exclusively refer to women’, NATO’s policy on the WPS agenda does not address men’s concerns. Another interviewee argued that women were overrepresented in posts associated with UNSCR 1325—and some of them happened not to possess relevant expertise. As a result, Svanhvit Adalsteinsdottir reckons, the WPS agenda may be overshadowed by new security matters.

Financial contributions reflect limited support. In 2016, three out of fifty-five nations—partner states included—provided resources to the WPS Financial Mechanism, which assists the implementation of the NATO/EAPC action plan. Mere three out of forty-eight gender-related initiatives were featured in the Science for Peace and Security Programme in 2015, a key policy tool for cooperation based on research, innovation and knowledge exchange.

Finally, Svanhvit Adalsteinsdottir notes, the Protection of Civilians and Children and Armed Conflict file was  recently reallocated to the WPS office, with only one administrative assistant assigned to it. It may indeed signify a lesser attention being paid to women’s needs consequent to the subsumption of women with other vulnerable groups.

Engendering NATO military forces: it’s a hard road

NATO should be complimented for the adopted measures tackling conflict-related SGBV. In the military domain in particular, the adopted Bi-Strategic Command Directive 40-1 (Bi-SCD 40-1) foresees educational programmes on power differentials between men and women, and the latter’s consequential susceptibility to SGBV. It also introduced a relevant pre-deployment training for NATO-led operations which the troop-contributing nations are responsible to provide. In addition, Bi-SCD 40-1 applies the Standards of Behaviour—a zero tolerance policy against any form of abuse, exploitation and harassment—both externally and internally.

The alliance’s authority is nonetheless undermined by the unequal treatment of female soldiers across member states and the inadequate implementation of Bi-SCD 40-1. In particular, Women in International Security reported that many countries remained unfamiliar with Bi-SCD 40-1. There is a lack of consistency as to the military personnel training: for instance, gender training is not available for Dutch junior-level personnel, whereas in the United Kingdom, only a one-day or annual training is offered. Regarding NATO-led operations, gender training should not be limited to pre-deployment; it is crucial to integrate gender perspectives into military operations in order to effectively manage contextual security challenges and their gendered implications.

Nevertheless, even gender training sometimes is not a solution to sexual misconduct. Take an example of Poland, where all the personnel were instructed on sexual harassment in the military, yet 30-45% of servicewomen reported sexual trauma. The case is not isolated; sexual harassment in militaries was reported in 37% NATO countries. Furthermore, the figure is likely to be underestimated since gender complaints tend to be dismissed as frivolous.

Diverse though gender mainstreaming policies are, NATO member states share a commonality: gender perspectives are frequently deemed of secondary importance. Although the alliance has avoided allegations of sexual abuse since its operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, it should not shy away from discriminatory practices in the militaries of its member countries. The aspiration to dominate the field of women’s rights should be put on hold in order to deal with the sources of women’s insecurity within NATO and its allies. The words of Charlotte Isaksson, former Gender Advisor to Supreme Allied Commander Europe & Allied Command Operations (SACEUR), might be a useful starting point for reflection:

The internal aspects matter in relation to the execution of operations and missions—if there is no respect and protection within a unit, the ability to foster and develop respect and protection for the local populations has to be questioned.


Laura Nacyte
is an MSc graduate of Global Security from the University of Glasgow where she wrote the dissertation ‘The Copenhagen School Meets International Law: Has the International Criminal Court Impeded the Securitisation of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence?’. Laura is currently based at Glasgow
 & Clyde Rape Crisis. She can be contacted at