GenderForce: why didn't we do this before?

"As an 18 year old woman I wanted to join what I saw as the coolest and toughest force - not the Air Force, not the Navy, but the Army. I was the first woman to join, and arrived full of ideas of what life would be like as a woman in the army. Things were not as I had imagined at all...."

Charlotte Isaksson
29 November 2012

I have the best job in the world! At least that is what I think. Let me tell you what I do.

When I was 12 years old I decided to become a military officer. Joining the Swedish military had just become a possibility for women, and I admired those women signing up to serve. I decided then to become one of them myself! As an 18 year old woman I wanted to join what I saw as the coolest and toughest force - not the Air Force, not the Navy, but the Army. The infantry was still closed to women, so on June 9th, 1988, I joined the artillery. I was the first woman to join, and arrived full of ideas of what life would be like as a woman in the army. I quickly learnt that most of my ideas were wrong. Things were not as I had imagined at all. That early period of experiencing gender inequalities and discrimination led directly to my true engagement with the army: wanting to set up mechanisms to end gender discrimination in the military - something which I believe is possible as long as I never give up!

My early experiences led me to where I am today, working as the Senior Gender Advisor (SGA) in the Swedish Armed Forces HQ to the Director of Operations, Lieutenant General Anders Lindström, and to the Supreme Commander General, Sverker Göransson and his staff. I have been in this job for nearly five years; having been deployed in 2006 as the Gender Advisor to the European Union Operations to DRC, and worked on gender issues since 1998. In 2003 the Swedish Armed Forces established a national project called 'Genderforce' designed to integrate UNSCR 1325 into all project partners’ international activities. One of the strengths of Genderforce is that it collaborates closely with sectors and organisations which do not usually  work together at all - such as the Swedish Police and the Swedish Armed Forces, the Swedish Voluntarily Women’s Foundation and the National Service and Rescue Agency, and women’s activists like the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

Our comprehensive approach includes employing Gender Field Advisors to work with military commanders who are not trained how to implement  UNSCR 1325 into operations. Based in the command group, the advisors make sure that commanding officers invite female leaders and women's organisations in the area to meetings, and that they listen to what the women have to say about how best to improve security in their region. Women are consulted about where the security threats are for women and children and where army patrols are needed. In one case the women said it was difficult for them to approach our soldiers at patrols on main roads, so some of the patrolling areas were changed to smaller streets and markets where the women found it easier to talk to soldiers with  questions and information. Another example of how a gender perspective is applied in house searches when the gender field advisor and legal advisor advise the soldiers on how to address the women in the house, conduct search operations, and how to treat belongings. 

We know that by working with the whole population, rather than just the men,  the military personnel are more likely to succeed in their mission to bring peace and security to the area and its people. These practices have been applied with some success in the DRC, Chad and Afghanistan.

My mission is to integrate UN SCR 1325 and 1820 into the military so that all soldiers and officers deployed are trained to work in order to strengthen women’s human rights, security and participation. The training is performed prior to deployment not by external actors or by gender experts, but by our military instructors who in turn have been through a “train the trainer gender course”. The instructor may train soldiers on the shooting range on Monday and teach gender training on Tuesday.

Gender Field Advisors are deployed in our operations to advise on how to make sure that women – their needs, concerns and solutions - are equally addressed. Creating opportunities for local women to have an income is often a first step. The overall strategic work has been, and is still, conducted in close cooperation and collaboration with actors from civil society. For example during the European Union operation to Congo in 2006 we knew that sexual violence was a huge problem, but at the same time it was not in our mandate and Rules of Engagement under which we operate. So what we did was to ask women’s organisations to create a list with contacts for NGOs on medical, legal and psychosocial support for victims of sexual violence. This list was placed in the most central place frequented by the staff, in the Joint Operation Centre, which meant that if any soldier met a victim of sexual violence, and did not have the mandate to act, he or she could tell who to contact and support them in making that contact.

A third of those in the army who apply to do the gender training course are men. So far the Swedish Armed Forces has deployed 16 Gender Field Advisors to different operations run mainly by the EU and NATO. The Swedish Armed Forces has a code of conduct which includes a paragraph on 'sexual exploitation and abuse', and all soldiers and officers sign the code of conduct to ensure that the message and intention is understood. The code is strictly followed up and soldiers who breach it,  for example by exploiting local women or having sexual relations with them, are sent home.

The Nordic countries (NORDEFCO) gender work has resulted in a study that clearly shows that there is a huge need for building capacity and capability in the Nordic countries defence organizations about how to implement UNSCR 1325 and 1820, and as a result there is now a gender centre at the Swedish International Training Centre, SWEDINT.

After completing gender training and returning to operations, many colleagues have said to me “but why didn’t we do this before?”

The work I do is about changing the way of working and the mindset throughout the whole organization. This is not done in a week. It tells us that creating change is not only about competence on gender and women’s perspectives; it requires skill in change management too. We learnt that the integration of gender perspectives is made mainly on the organization's own terms, and of the importance of ownership in the organization.

If someone had told me five years ago how much we would have accomplished to date in the Swedish Armed Forces, I would have not believed it. When we started the work gender was not even on the agenda, and we were not invited anywhere. Now it is the total opposite and “everyone” wants to bring gender perspectives to bear in their work.

This tells us that change is possible if the rights instruments are in place. If Swedish Armed Forces has done it; any armed forces can do the same!

The Nobel Women's Initiative conference on ending sexual violence in conflict is a way for us to reach more understanding and knowledge on what is needed in the field, and I am very much looking forward to that learning process. There is definitely a military responsibility to respond to and handle sexual violence. We all have different pieces of the puzzle and only together we can finalise it and have the beautiful picture clear:  No more sexual violence.    

To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the conference on Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict click here

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This article was first published in 2011. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series on 16 Days Activism Against Gender Violence 2012


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