Remember to Remember the Women

by Emilia Dungel, SEESAC Junior Communications and Research Consultant


The armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. We commemorate this armistice by marking Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and Veterans Day. We talk of the brave, the heroic, and often the young, who gave their lives in war for achieving peace. We use this day to remember also those who served in battle but survived.


Pictures flood the news streams of solemn men in uniform, and we read stories – past and present – of fallen sons and husbands. But what about the women?


Women have played significant roles in war efforts. In World War I, women carried out nursing duties and took on civilian jobs normally reserved for men. But some also challenged social norms by dressing up as men in order to fight or provide on the front lines, or gathering intelligence to help combat the enemy. Women like Milunka Savić; Marie Marvingt; Flora Sandes; Émilienne Moreau-Evrard; Louise de Bettignies; Maria Bochkareva; and Dorothy Lawrence are noteworthy examples of citizens who had to struggle in order to be able to protect.


However, many of those who had taken on men’s roles were faced with suspicion, and even ridicule, after the war had ended. Dr. Alison Fell posits that these women did not fit into “a post-war world eager for a return to the status quo”. Marie Marvingt, for example, could not persuade the French Army to employ her in an official capacity in peacetime, despite her achievements as a pilot during the war – including being the first woman in the world to fly combat missions and receiving the Croix de Guerre for her military success.


And today?


Women serve in militaries in increasing numbers. However, in the majority of countries worldwide, women are still not allowed to serve in close combat. In UN Peacekeeping operations, women make up only 3% of military personnel, and 10% of police personnel. Many are the calls for more women in uniform, including from Major General Kristin Lund – the first female UN force commander – and Major General Adrian Foster, Deputy Military Adviser, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  Maj Gen Lund stressed the need to see women as resources as opposed to victims, especially because they can reach 100% of the civilian population.


But security institutions are still mostly made up of men. And women in the US Army are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than be killed by enemy fire in Iraq. The oft-cited sexual assaults that take place in the military have long-lasting effects on veterans, which – much like their female WWI predecessors – affect the ease with which they reintegrate into society after active service.


Do we talk about this on Remembrance Day? Do we remember not only those who have fallen, but those who have been knocked down and can’t get up? Who is protecting those trying to protect us?


UNSCR 1325, and subsequent Resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2016, and 2122, have begun to set out mechanisms for recognizing the role of women in peacebuilding; but more needs to be done. The work continues.


On this day of remembrance, when we think of those who put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect civilians and the values in which they believe, let us remember all of them – especially those who had to fight to fight. And let us remember that until men and women are allowed to work within security mechanisms on equal footing, the protection society receives will remain unbalanced.


You can read about SEESAC’s work on improving the role of women in the military in the Western  Balkans here.