On a mission for gender equality

Amplifying women’s voices for sustainable conflict prevention and resolution

Stéfanie von Hlatky on a site visit in Kosovo with the NATO Kosovo Force.

Photo: NATO

Women can play a vital role in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Recognizing this, the United Nations in 2000 introduced the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) initiative, now comprising 10 resolutions aimed at enabling the equal and meaningful participation of women and girls in peacemaking. Since then, it has been the responsibility of international organizations and individual countries to act on the principles of the WPS.

There is work to do in Canada to embody those principles, as revealed by the findings of former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour’s investigation into sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. But Stéfanie von Hlatky, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Security and the Armed Forces, is working to ensure that Canada can one day lead by example. Her research and advocacy—focused on helping militaries meet high professional standards for gender equality—have already influenced Canadian military policies and reform.

“Gender equality is a key factor in establishing peaceful, stable societies,” von Hlatky says. “My work is ultimately about helping armed forces around the world work in ways that advance both peace and gender equality.”

Inspired by NATO

Von Hlatky’s interest in gender equality in militaries goes back to 2009, when she was conducting interviews for her doctorate at the NATO headquarters in Belgium and the alliance was starting to make substantial progress on the WPS initiative.

Noticing NATO’s efforts, von Hlatky focused her research on how WPS principles translated in military operations, particularly within conflict areas. She travelled to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kosovo and Iraq. In each country, von Hlatky spent time in the field and interviewed service members to learn their perspectives on how operations can better promote gender equality while fulfilling core military tasks.

For NATO, von Hlatky’s expertise has proved invaluable. She has since briefed and presented on the WPS initiative and developed training materials for the NATO community that explain how its resolutions can be put into practice.

An awakening in Canada

In Canada, von Hlatky’s work is also making a difference. She has contributed to new policies and provided testimony to Arbour’s review of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military, with some of her recommendations being included in the final report.

Stéfanie von Hlatky conducting research interviews in Baghdad with the NATO Mission in Iraq.

Photo: Stéfanie von Hlatky

“If Canada is going to advocate for these initiatives internationally, it has to have its own house in order,” von Hlatky says.

As a Canada Research Chair, von Hlatky collaborates with a team of researchers to identify ways in which military organizational culture can be made more equitable for marginalized groups. The team also advocates for updates to Canada’s military training, education and operational planning to better reflect Canadian society and its values—with the additional goal of informing the development of international good practices.

Leading a network

At the core of von Hlatky’s research are networks of scholars with a shared interest in gender equality in the military. She’s the founder of Women in International Security–Canada, co-director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network, and co-director of the Network for Strategic Analysis (NSA), all of which mobilize Canadian knowledge and expertise on issues important to defence and security.

The NSA, for example, comprises over 80 scholars, students and seasoned practitioners. A SSHRC Insight Grant has enabled von Hlatky to expand that network into Africa and Asia, giving her broader perspective on what WPS implementation looks like from region to region, in collaboration with two colleagues from Queen’s University.

Often, von Hlatky is pleasantly surprised to witness the pace of change in military practices and operations from one year to the next, even if much work still needs to be done. Many once-male-dominated military operations have undergone cultural shifts, with more attention paid to women’s rights and social justice issues—both at home and abroad.

“There’s an openness to expertise on gender in military circles that wasn’t there a decade ago,” she said. “I feel fortunate to hold a Canada Research Chair now, when I’m knocking on ‘open doors’ to conduct research and provide policy advice.”

Want to learn more?

Follow von Hlatky on Twitter, visit the NSA website, browse her books or read her editorial in The Ottawa Citizen.