Pakistani women and national defense

The way nations wage war, make peace and protect their borders has changed immeasurably over the last fifty years, and Pakistan, at the forefront of today’s conflict zones, cannot remain immune to these changes. One of the fundamental transitions in this respect is the growing recognition by global security experts of the ways that war and conflict affect men and women, civilians and soldiers. Because of this reality, neither can war be conducted nor peace achieved without the active participation and inclusion of both women and men in all aspects of safety, security, and peacekeeping. This change presents an exciting opportunity for Pakistan’s women to participate more fully in Pakistan’s national defense system, to the benefit of the nation only.

Historically, women have been part of Pakistan’s military since 1947. At first they were only allowed to serve in the medical branch; even today the majority of Pakistan’s 4000 women officers serve either in the Army Medical Corps or the Armed Forces Nursing Services. Within these limits, there was no restriction for how high women could go; Pakistan is the only Muslim or developing nation to have had two women generals, both serving in the Army Medical Corps. In this way Pakistan has led the system for both developing countries and Muslim nations in the inclusion of women in the armed forces.

Gradually women began to serve in different non-combatant branches of the military: the Education Corps, ISPR, Signals, Engineering, and IT departments are currently the most popular avenues to military career for women. Combat roles for women is a bit controversial issue, because of social conservatism and strong opinion beliefs that women should not be on the front lines of war. While a select few have been trained as pilots in Pakistan Air Force and as paratroopers, and while Pakistani women serve in the police and in the UN peacekeeping forces, it’s unlikely that Pakistan Army will induct women in any significant numbers to fight alongside men on the conventional battlefield.

In Pakistan, the military and national defense arenas have always been dominated by men making all important decisions in strategy, logistics, peace talks, treaty negotiations, and peace-keeping efforts. However, in the year 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which recognized “the inordinate impact of war on women” and “the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.” And while this resolution applies to UN peace and security efforts, Pakistan, as a member of the United Nations, by incorporating and implementing its clauses in national security policy mechanism, it in its own national defense strategy so can become a role model for Muslim nations and developing countries in the forward march towards women’s empowerment.

The UNSC Resolution 1325 reaffirms “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building, and stressing the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.” This resolution recognizes the fact that war has changed in profound ways: it has been increasingly targeting civilians, with an upsurge in gender-based violence such as rape and sexual assault, as seen in the Syrian war or the Kashmir conflict. It also recognizes that women have been significantly left out of any peace processes, such as in the current peace negotiations taking place in Afghanistan.
The four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325 are:

• Increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making.
• The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
• Improving intervention strategies in the prevention of violence against women.
• Advancement of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered lens.

Pakistan’s women have much to offer in terms of talent, skills and capability in the all-important role of defending the country against attacks or security threats. Yet as the UN resolution illustrates, Pakistani women can help build strong institutions to maintain peace and security by offering their perspectives on the analysis of conflict, as well as their strategies on “creating ties across opposing factions and increasing the inclusiveness, transparency, and sustainability of peace processes.”

The increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making is most necessary in the case of Afghanistan’s peace-making process. Pakistan must play a guiding role in encouraging the participation of women in this process, as a successful peace treaty will not last without the inclusion of women in the negotiations. In Pakistan, treaties negotiated amongst and with warring factions have never included women negotiators, and at places women have been excluded from election process which weakens the democratic institutions of the country.

Women’s peace representatives should also be made part of any conflict resolution processes in Pakistan, such as in traditionally male-dominated jirgas. This is the only way to achieve equitable solutions to conflicts that are fair to both men and women in communities affected by war, terror, and insurrection.

Involving women and women’s networks in conflict resolution, in peace settlements, and in voting will result in increased security for women, not just in refugee population and camps in Pakistan, but also in communities and areas where lack of education and opportunity lead to instability and loss of security. The only way to create a comprehensive and empowering role for the most disenfranchised women of Pakistan is to emphasize their role as leaders, not victims, by including them in all aspects of decision-making, including national, international and regional institutions, in mediation and conflict resolution, in peace-keeping forces like the police and the Rangers.

The protection of women against gender-based violence in conflict must be one of the cornerstones of Pakistan’s national defence policy. Usually the women are perceived as “second-class” citizens, the gender-based violence is counted as a “second class” crime. The prevention of gender-based crimes should be top priority of the state, with Pakistani women involved in the creation of intervention strategies specifically designed to protect female cader. Women must also be involved in the prosecution of those who violate national and international laws and commit gender violence. Women should be given a lead role in strengthening laws for the protection of women, because they are best-placed to advocate for what women need from Pakistan’s legal system. A simple example is the tribal practice of using women as compensation for crimes; it is only when women are part of legal reform that these “solutions” – which are in fact gender-based crimes – are eliminated by gender-sensitive laws, and those laws are enforced by a gender-sensitive security and legal system. This is the way forward to a more just and equitable society, preventing destabilization and insecurity in vulnerable communities.

Addressing relief and recovery measures during times of crisis through a “gendered lens” means, very simply, including women and their perspectives in all aspects of humanitarian relief, refugee camp design and administration, and building mechanisms that respect the civil and humanitarian nature of refugee camps, refugee resettlement programmes and the special needs of girls and women in these camps. Refugee camps are places where women are extremely vulnerable to gender-based violence. Humanitarian disasters also increase women’s likelihood of experiencing sexual violence as traditional structures of security are devastated in the aftermath of earthquakes or floods. Any military or national defence response to these situations has to give special focus and measures for women’s protection in vulnerable places and situations.

There is also a need to formulate a national action plan on women, peace and security as outlined by four pillars of UNSC Resolution 1325. This plan can outline mechanisms for the inclusion of women in all areas of peacekeeping and security strategy. Existing guidelines and plans such as the ones that already exist in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom can be adapted to the Pakistani environment, and its unique needs and challenges.

In order for national defence to benefit from women’s perspectives, women need to be appointed in greater numbers in departments and organizations that oversee all aspects of security policy for Pakistan. This includes the Prime Minister’s office; those ministries and governmental departments that deal with security, such as the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Law Ministry; the Police and Rangers; any committees that deal with defence and the defence budget; all intelligence and secret services bureaus; the National Atomic Energy Commission; and any parliamentary committees that deal with any aspect of defence, security, foreign affairs, and the armed forces.

This list of organizations, departments and committees has always been assumed as the natural domain of men. The idea of including women in these corridors may seem a radical departure from conventional governance, but in line with the increasing visibility and participation of women in all walks of life, the inclusion of women in these arenas will result in a more comprehensive approach towards the national security of all citizens of Pakistan.

National defense is not just about building up military strength or possessing sophisticated equipment in order to vanquish a common enemy; the true defense of a nation means shoring it up against vulnerability. A nation cannot achieve its defense objectives without involving its female population in this process and making their needs a priority in all national defense strategies. This is a long-term investment in the future of Pakistan, for studies show that when women are empowered, nations enjoy higher rates of safety and security. Indeed, in our rapidly changing world, involving women in all aspects of Pakistan’s defense will have to be an indispensable part of protecting the country for generations to come.

First published in Hilal Magazine