Twenty years ago this month the U.N. Security Council urged countries to involve more women in preventing conflict and building peace. Resolution 1325 was hailed as a landmark. It was based on a growing recognition that women and children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict and that women in roles from foot soldier to negotiator are critical in preventing it.
Progress toward that goal has been slow. Yet the idea has taken hold as shown in debates this month at the United Nations among diplomats and interest groups. In an open letter, 558 civil society organizations from 102 countries wrote that the architects of Resolution 1325 created history by focusing on “equal participation” of women in all aspects of security.
That need for equal participation is shown in the scope of modern conflicts. Every year since 1990, between 40 and 68 countries, home to 46% to 79% of the world’s population, have been involved in armed conflict, according to estimates published in The Lancet. At the start of the 20th century, 90% of people killed in conflict were combatants. By the start of the 21st century, that number had flipped: 90% of war casualties were civilians.
One sign of progress comes from the American military. Ambassador Jean Manes and Adm. Craig Faller, the civilian and military heads of U.S. Southern Command, note that peace negotiations are significantly more likely to succeed when women are involved. “Hard-won experience tells us that women are key to preventing conflict before it breaks out, and that their participation enables communities to curb escalating violence and defuse tensions between groups,” they write in Americas Quarterly.
Since 2000, the U.N. Security Council has approved nine more measures promoting the integration of women in peace strategies. Despite that, countries have not responded with much financial or political support. One example is the slow rise in the number of women in uniform. In 1993, women made up 1% of deployed troops. This year, they account for about 4.8% of military contingents and 10.9% of police units in U.N. peacekeeping missions. That is well below the pace needed to meet U.N. targets of women contributing 15% of deployed personnel, 30% of police units, and 25% of military observers and staff officers.
Outside the West, Latin America has seen perhaps the most significant advances for women in military and strategic roles. In the past decade, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala have adopted plans to integrate women into their armed forces. Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador now have women flying combat aircraft. Female soldiers from Latin America are serving in peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Central African Republic.
In many countries, however, the role of women in combat remains contested. Skeptics point to a 2015 U.S. Marine Corps study that found all-male units outperformed gender-integrated units in physical and skills-based drills. Yet there is broad consensus that women bring a perspective to military planning and peacekeeping operations that engender trust and defuse conflict. They help open greater access to civilian populations in conflict zones, enabling better intelligence gathering. Their presence in uniform has been shown to decrease the use of excessive force and reduce the risk of sexual exploitation.
As the U.N. again looks at women’s role in preventing and ending conflict, the evidence keeps piling up that gender equality is a tool for peace, especially in reducing the killing of innocent civilians in war.