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The 3rd Sex: Gender and Contemporary Conflict

MARCH 2010, U.S media headlines heralded the introduction of Female Engagement Teams (FET) to Afghanistan and a new chapter in the ’War on Terror’. Military focus turned from the ‘masculine’ pursuit of Taliban fighters, to counterinsurgency (COIN) and a more feminist war frame aimed at winning hearts and minds.  The ‘Third Sex’ became a term applied to female soldiers, perceptually located between male and female, which allowed local men to engage beyond their socio-cultural constraints, thereby enabling greater military access to, understanding, and inclusion of the whole community.   This article briefly explores, within the broader context of Female Engagement (FE), cultural perceptions of servicewomen and how their utility could be better operationalised to enhance UK Defence Strategy.  It specifically looks at historical lessons from Afghanistan but touches on recent access to the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) peace support training for Somalia, and outlines three areas where the British Army could improve its delivery on gender perspectives in military operations, where gender is defined as ‘the state of being male or female with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.’ 

 Where are the women?

The character of conflict in a global context is changing; from conventional interstate warfare; through the Cold War era of espionage and deterrence; to the complexities of intra-state asymmetric and hybrid warfare, and non-state extremism. In January 2017 the United States National Intelligence Council (U.S NIC) report focused on how ‘the changing nature of power is vexing shared transnational issues’.  It highlighted a chronically young population in Africa and Asia with marked gender imbalance, and the key role that women fulfil in the workforce.  The NIC report coincides with a growing awareness of gender issues within the Defence and Security sector including the need for improved progress in Gender Mainstreaming and military coordination of effort for FE in contemporary conflict.

The UN Deputy Military Adviser in the Office of Military Affairs recently briefed an audience for the Commission on the Status of Women that it will trial FET in UN peacekeeping missions.  Recent research refers to a stealthy gender revolution impacting the world’s militaries where 17 countries, approximately 9% of all the armed forces, have policies in place that allow women into all combat roles.  The research indicates increasing numbers of servicewomen globally being defined and empowered as ‘warriors’ but concludes with the statement “yet, for all this progress, cultural and sexual stereotypes persist.”  There is evidence for this in the UK Armed Forces where progress on Women in Ground Close Combat (WGCC) and the development of a FE capability has been slow with all roles for women finally opened up in October 2018.

The British Army has set a goal of 15% female personnel by 2020 but the figure stubbornly sits around 10% for Regular servicewomen despite 5 years of a major recruitment campaign.  This suggests that the cultural perception of female soldiers needs to be addressed, internally and publicly if the 2020 goal is to be achieved.  Doctrinally AJP-5, the UK Armed Forces planning guide, advocates ‘Gender Perspectives’ to be incorporated into operational mission analysis and concept of operations.  However, the campaign execution guide JDP-3 has no reference to this principle, does not list the role of Gender Advisor under key staff, and lacks guidance on gender issues or FE.  This creates a disconnect between considering gender in conflict and conducting gender aware campaigns.  JDN 4/13 Culture and Human Terrain states ‘The advantages of acknowledging and implementing a gender perspective in operations, is increasingly understood as contributing to the achievement of an enduring peace,’ but the doctrine note does not provide content or direction on how implementation can be achieved.  JSP1325 Human Security and Military Operations Part 1 has just been released (Jan 19) which begins to address that disconnect between strategy and operations.  It provides direction to UK Armed Forces on the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 and its associated Resolutions alongside protection of civilians in armed conflict.  But provision of security goes beyond addressing victimisation or participation of women.

From my research on gender dynamics and the role of FE in countering violent extremism, three recurring feminist themes have emerged from the initial literature review:  

1.  The ‘silence’ of women in conflict, whether they are victims, enablers, or participants.  International Relations and Security Studies literature indicates that the female experience is often missing or narrated by a man.  This is particularly evident in post conflict reconstruction where women are marginalised or excluded from the politically negotiated peace1.

2.  The persistent portrayal of women as victims.  This narrative is ingrained in UNSCR 1325 that states the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction.  UNSCR 1325 is the source document for the global Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, but its soft image of women as victims or peacekeepers places a perceptional constraint on the role of female soldiers.  Alexis Henshaw in an article for the London School of Economics Centre for Women, Peace and Security outlined the negative impact on long term stability caused by focusing on women as victims.  Her research concluded that ‘women are frequently agents of political violence, acting as supporters or combatants in the majority of contemporary armed groups’2

3.  The concept of female soldiers as the ‘Third Sex’with all the gender complexity that this identity entails in an already complex and dynamic security environment.  There is a body of academic work on the ‘militarisation of women’, most prominently by Cynthia Enloe3 stated:”Women in the military has never been an easy topic. It shouldn’t be. Sexism, patriotism, violence, and the state – it is a heady brew.” This is a theme that is worth analysing further to understand how the cultural perception of female soldiers could be operationalised for DE activities and contemporary conflict – mining that seam between peace and war that General Sir Nick Carter spoke of at the CGS conference, 2018.

Historical Context – The Role of FETs in Afghanistan

JUNE 2010.  On the outskirts of Paind Kalay, a small village in central Helmand, a joint patrol of Afghan security forces and Ghurkha soldiers was resting mid-way through its task and I was sitting on the ground, chatting with some of the Afghan soldiers.  The conversation was light-hearted. 

They were interested in how I, a married woman, was in Helmand as a soldier and who was looking after my children.  In return I inquired about their families.  I did not realise at the time what an unusual personal exchange this was, though I realised that being in uniform had made it culturally possible. Later in the deployment during a firefight near Checkpoint Talaanda, the (female) Cultural Advisor and I were invited to the inner sanctum of a compound by the male head of the family.  We spent over two hours sitting with the women and children drinking tea, sharing stories, and gaining a better understanding of local issues, hopes and fears.  It was evident from this brief experience that the women ran the compound and I was struck by how little we had considered the influence of women as part of the military campaign.

Similar stories have been shared by U.S, Danish and UK servicewomen who were engaged with local communities and Afghan security personnel. In the context of rural Afghanistan, being a soldier is not a woman’s role therefore servicewomen are neither female (because we are soldiers), nor male (because biologically we are women).  The ‘Third Sex’ or ‘Third Gender’ was used as a coping mechanism to enable direct collaboration with men who had constraints on conversing with women who are not related (non-mahram), but it also enabled access to women who are forbidden from interacting in any way with a man outside their family network.  This implies an operational imperative in similar socio-cultural contexts to deploy female personnel or lose the ability to interact with approximately fifty percent of the population.

The activities of U.S FETs have been more widely documented than their UK counterparts, although the true measurement of their success has been questioned.  Lack of a coordinated training and preparation package, poor integration into military planning, and low priority for commanders on the ground are all cited. However, the stories from the FET soldiers themselves provide evidence that the concept, if implemented correctly, is tactically sound.  In February 2009, female U.S Marines first set out to meet with Afghan women in 

Farah province to find out what their concerns and needs might be4  The female Marines were ‘to meet with Pashtun women over tea in their homes, assess their need for aid, gather intelligence, and help open schools and clinics’.  The reality was that the majority of FET tasks involved security searches or biometric testing of women and basic intelligence gathering but the account of FET experiences over the next few years provides an interesting insight.

‘‘Many Pashtun men, far from shunning American women, show a preference for interacting with them over U.S men. Pashtun men tend to view foreign women troops as a kind of ‘third gender.’  As a result, female servicewomen are accorded the advantages, rather than the disadvantages, of both genders: they are extended the respect shown to men, but are granted the access to home and family normally reserved to women.’’

Anna Crossley, a UK FET officer commented, “I was hot, dirty and dressed like a man but when I was invited inside a home I was always welcomed by Afghan women. It was a privilege to speak to them in their own language and experience their culture.”

Danish FET officers documented that patrols with female soldiers occasionally led to the men allowing women to listen and take part in conversations with International Stabilisation and Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel.  They added that local men supported income-generating projects for women when they could see that these opportunities benefited the whole family. In a recent panel discussion on FE in Hostile Environments at King’s College London, Major (Ret’d)Nicki Bass, who developed a FET programme for Herrick 11 posed the question ‘Who was listening to the female voices?  We included female engagement and focused on the non-kinetic environment right from the beginning, before deployment.’  Looking to future operations she emphasised that we should not expect FE by default.  “Just because we have female soldiers does not mean we have a ready-made FET.”

What Next?

It has been identified that the character of conflict is becoming more geo-politically complex and that gender is a key but often overlooked factor in defence strategy.  Considerhow extreme gender dynamics, and the targeted application of FE was used by ISIS as it expanded its pronounced caliphate.  From creating an online woman’s magazine and attracting ‘jihadi brides’ via social media, to the capture and rape of Yazidi women and girls, ISIS implemented a ruthless FE strategy to meet its needs.  As the caliphate began to crumble in late 2017 its strategy changed from prohibiting women from fighting, to calling on them to become ‘mujahidat’, female holy warriors.  Kathleen Kuehnast, Senior Gender Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace,has stated that gender roles can be instrumentalised and used to break down community very rapidly.  She recommends ‘Charting a New Course’ in how we approach gender and conflict with respect to policy shapers, processes, and the extreme notions of men and women that are perpetuated through the media.  Therefore, in contemporary conflict and for long-term stability, it is vital that the marginalised or silent voices of women are heard.  The key to unlocking this narrative is FE and the effective deployment of female soldiers, particularly in cultural contexts where, as the ‘Third Sex’, they are essential in gaining access to the whole community.  

The UK Government 2018 5-year National Action Plan (NAP) on the WPS agenda should be used to inform the role of FE in UK defence strategy, and its four pillars of Prevention, Protection, Participation, Relief & Recovery is a useful framework to employ. The NAP received MOD input coordinated by the office of the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff which is responsible for military focus on gender and policy development, with a caveat that current military doctrine and policy is not comprehensive enough with respect to WPS.   It is therefore recommended that as the British Army continues its transformation under Army 2020 (Refine) there are 3 key areas to consider in operationalising gender perspectives, the role of FE and the future utility of female soldiers.

1.  Gender Policy and Implementation.  Gender perspectives must be considered as an important operational Line of Activity and definitively linked by doctrine and policy from the strategic to the tactical level.  They should be included early in the planning cycle and properly integrated throughout a military campaign or DE task.  It is disappointing to note that whilst the UN and an increasing number of national armies are developing or maintaining a FET capability5 the UK dissolved the FET initiative post Afghanistan.  We now rely on a small number of Regular and Reserve Gender Advisors across a broad range of overseas commitments.  In contrast, the UPDF is a relatively positive case study on gender policy, operationalising FE, and the deployment of FET.  Interviews with male and female soldiers as they prepared for deployment to Somalia identified: 

a)   The UPDF adheres to the African Union Gender Policy.  As a defence organisation it has fully implemented Gender Mainstreaming, with female soldiers serving in all combat roles and a Women’s Directorate that; encourages female recruitment; provides reassurance of respect (with reference to issues around sexual abuse); and ensure equality and fair treatment of servicewomen. On operations FE is a recognised part of the campaign plan which focuses on outreach through medical support, force security (female searchers), and intelligence.  

b)   The UPDF cultural perception of female soldiers is that they are equal and vital enablers in countering the regional threat of violent extremism.  Every soldier understands how important it is for female soldiers to be trained in specific engagement and intelligence tasks and deployed into all areas alongside their male counterparts. The aim is to deploy a FET to each Ugandan run Forward Operating Base in Somalia.

c)   FET capability has been an integral element of each Battle Group deployment to Somalia since its commitment to AMISOM in 2007.   FET socio-cultural utility is applied beyond military service as [female] soldiers are encouraged to act as role models using their training and experience to help improve their own communities at home in Uganda.  This has led to a rise in recruitment of women with approximately 20% of UPDF female.

2.   Training and Development.  Understanding gender perspectives and the impact of FE requires long-term investment in individual socio-cultural training and team development.  It has been identified that cultural perception of servicewomen as a ‘Third Sex’ can be operationally advantageous, but as we learnt in Afghanistan there is a fine line between success, ‘doing no harm’, and failure.  The British Army should examine good practise from; Scandinavian countries that are recognised as leaders in gender awareness; U.S Cultural Support Teams; and regional organisations such as the UPDF that have relevant operational experience.  Good practise should then be used to create a career path with training and development that contributes to an agile Defence capability and helps to attract and retain female soldiers.

3.   Collaboration.  The UPDF case study reveals that there is greater gender and cultural awareness which exists beyond the experience of western military organisations.  Formalised collaboration in the UK with non-government and cross government organisations should be nurtured through networks, training events and joint overseas deployments.  Global working partnerships that produce integrated multi-national and multi-agency FETs should also be considered alongside the UN trial of FETs in peacekeeping missions.  

In summary, if a UK Defence force is operating in regions where women are present or involved in any or all of the guises discussed in this article, then the proposed key areas, as outlined above, need to be considered carefully and taken seriously. There needs to be more attention paid to the ongoing development of effective gender policies and the implementation of FE initiatives that are successfully employed in other defence forces, such as the UPDF. This will highlight a need for a more formal focus on future recruitment, training and development of women in UK Defence. There may then need to be a reflective period when our current cultural norms and our institutional practices can be analysed as we adjust to the social complexities of current, more collaborative, operational environments.

Rosie Stone

Rosie Stone is Deputy Commander (Reserve) at 11 Signal & West Midlands Brigade.  Operational experience includes Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Op Unified Protector (Libya) as Assistant Head of Strategic Communications in NATO Operational HQ, Italy.  She commanded the specialist Media Operations Group prior to leading the Civil Engagement team for North West England.  Her Cranfield University Masters Degree is on “Gender Dynamics:  The Role of Female Engagement in Countering Violent Extremism”.


  1. Women and Militant Wars: The Politics of Injury by Swati Parashar 2014.  Swati conducted research with female combatants in Sri Lanka and Kashmir.  She identified that the female fighters were ‘silenced’ on their contribution to the military campaign in preference to the narrative of women as victims requiring militant protection.  This subsequently led to their exclusion from peace negotiations.
  2.    Making Violent Women Visible in the WPS Agenda by Alexis Leanna Henshaw, LSE Centre for Women Peace and Security July 2017.  Alexis focuses on the role of female combatants and post conflict transition. Her work supports Swati Parashar’s research where she states that “In some cases, there are documented instances of insurgent groups actively attempting to conceal the inclusion of women within their ranks.”
  3. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarising Women’s Lives by Cynthia Enloe, University of California Press 2000.
  4. The Gendering of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan by McBride & Wibben, 2012.
  5. FET Capability.  Norway has created the first all-female Special Forces unit ‘Hunter Troop’ in order to implement FE as early as possible in a campaign and several UN Peace Support contributing nations have now created FET capability.  The Norwegian Centre for Gender in Military Operations (NCGM) runs NATO courses in Sweden to develop skills and knowledge from senior command to FET deployment at tactical level on the ground. https://www.forsvarsmakten.se/en/swedint/nordic-centre-for-gender-in-military-operations/

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