The Gender Advisor | Empowering Women in Fragile States Through Social Media

By now, we all understand the promise of social media to give voice to the voiceless—especially in crisis situations. New uses of social media tools in disaster response and humanitarian assistance  notably increase ordinary people’s ability to engage in a two-way dialogue with policy and decision-makers, effectively narrowing the gap between the powerful and the powerless.

Yet, examination of who is using the technology—men or women—and how they are using it, has been largely missing from this emerging field.   Like any tool of power and self-expression, new media tools like text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook, are only going to be as good and as useful as the people who use them.

In fact, women in conflict situations and fragile states are using social media tools in many ways. Though there are few sources that specifically focus on women’s use of social media in conflict situations, humanitarian disasters or in fragile states, the Dubai School of Government’s  (DSG) fourth social media report focuses on Arab women and their use of new media. Based on data collected in the second and third quarters of 2011, this report analyzes data on Twitter and Facebook users in all 22 Arab countries, in addition to Iran, Israel and Turkey. The report explores the role of social media in Arab women’s empowerment. See more here

Some highlights: In Egypt, women are using social media as an advocacy and awareness tool to combat violence and inequality. HarassMap is a website that allows women to report sexual harassment via email, text or Twitter to track where assaults are taking place throughout the country. Facebook and other media websites continue to promote dialogue about women’s issues with on-the-ground updates. For example, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights produces blogs in English and Arabic in an attempt to bridge the movement’s generation gap and appeal to a more international constituency. In Saudi Arabia women used twitter in the Women2Drive campaign as a means of spreading awareness of their fight against laws that prevent women from driving.

Surprisingly, according to the DSG study, more men (65%) than women (62%) across the region believed that social media can be used for the political empowerment of women. This is critically important. Men should be an integral part of any new media engagement strategy to empower women.

But first, new media tools need to get into the hands of women—and women need to be trained and skilled in using them.   These challenges point to the fundamental aspects of power that women across the world continue to lag behind in: lack of access and control of resources, in this case new media technologies, the knowledge and skills to use them, and barriers to women’s participation and decision-making positions, and the ability to freely express themselves.

In short, while social media is an area of tremendous innovation, both men and women still face the old battles with power. A way to address these challenges to is address the differences in men and women’s access and usage of social media tools.

Here is a short checklist to use when designing a social media campaign or program that is accessible to both men and women:

  • Do men and women use social media to reach out to public news outlets, parliamentarians, other decision-makers, in equal numbers?
  • Is there a greater proportion of men or women using a particular tool? Why is that?
  • Do certain themes attract a higher proportion of interaction from men or women?
  • Which themes are they?
  • Is there anything preventing men or women from using social media tools? Why?


A perspective from Afghanistan

NATO Bi-Strategic Command (SC) Directive 40-1 mandates the integration of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security into the NATO Command Structure and NATO Operations.  Although this directive has been in effect since September 2009 (and revised in August 2012), it appeared to be virtually unheard of and consequently, rarely operationalized in Afghanistan. One of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Commands (RCs) in southern Afghanistan — arguably the main NATO-led Regional Command during the 2011 fighting season –- provides a rather typical example of how this mandate was addressed.  While this Command did little to fulfill its obligations under Directive 40-1, based on discussions with others serving in Afghanistan, this Command was not an exception, but unfortunately, the rule.

Walking the talk

In 2011 this Regional Command was the first in Afghanistan to develop a Gender Strategy as part of its Operational Order.  This act was significant in terms of officially acknowledging the importance of gender considerations and women’s issues when conducting lethal and non-lethal operations.  More importantly, it also provided much-needed guidance to military members and civilians working in the area of operations who, with the exception of a handful of people, were woefully uninformed when it came to understanding the meaning of gender considerations and women’s role in creating stability and building peace.

While the Gender Strategy was a good first step in the process of integrating UNSCR 1325 into the Command, little substantive action followed.  One of the critical elements of Directive 40-1, for instance, is education and training.  It requires all personnel in NATO-led operations to be provided with education and training concerning, among other topics, gender mainstreaming, international law concerning the rights and protection of women, the importance of involving women in operations and missions, and cultural awareness training that provides specifics concerning the gender context in the area of operations. In this Command, training and education of this sort was only provided to female soldiers who were part of Female Engagement Teams (FETs). Battlefield commanders were not required to attend the training. This was a tremendous oversight since commanders had little to no idea how to utilize the FETs, which are designed to be force multipliers.  Consequently, most commanders, to the frustration of those serving on FETs as well as others who understood the value of FETs, ignored a significant battlefield asset.

Another problem associated with operationalizing Resolution 1325 was the quality of FET training. While FET training was offered regularly thereby increasing the number of soldiers being trained, the content was often lacking. When addressing Afghan women and the law, for instance, military lawyers without any background in women’s or gender issues, no less particular expertise concerning these issues in the context of Afghanistan and its laws, were recruited as trainers.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, the majority of trainers had no tactical experience dealing with these issues.  Given that FETs conduct tactical operations, it is imperative that their training address the “how to” of dealing with gender considerations and women’s roles when conducting patrols and meeting with Afghans in their home environments.  Having trainers who are knowledgeable not only in specific laws, history, and culture, but who understand how to turn this knowledge into action is vital to achieving operational success.  The FET training generally missed the mark in this regard.

In addition to providing training and education, Directive 40-1 also calls for the establishment of Gender Advisor positions that meet NATO standards.  The RC did nothing to institute this position.  A female civilian served as a “Gender Coordinator” for approximately one year and was the impetus behind the FET training.  However, because she had virtually no experience working on gender or women’s issues before taking on this role and, moreover, had no background in tactical operations, she commanded little respect from her military and civilian colleagues.  Assigning a novice to lead beginners is not a recipe for success.

What was missing?

Why wasn’t NATO Bi-SC Directive 40-1 executed in a constructive manner?  There appeared to be sufficient resources  — the Command’s headquarters staff was approximately 800 strong — and operationalizing UNSCR 1325 isn’t rocket science.  In fact, Directive 40-1 provides a definitive mandate and clear guidance on how to integrate UNSCR 1325 into the planning and conduct of NATO-led operations.  Further, the Command had its own Gender Strategy that also provided specific guidance.  The Command did not have a Gender Advisor to provide the necessary on-site expertise, but locating someone capable shouldn’t have constituted an insurmountable obstacle.  After considerable reflection and analysis, the answer to why the Command did not implement UNSCR 1325 as required by Directive 40-1 appears to be a dearth of political will and effective leadership. (NB: This statement is by no means a commentary on the overall effectiveness of Command operations. This particular Command did many things right and had numerous successes.  However, fulfilling its obligations under Directive 40-1 wasn’t one of them.)

As is often the case, the lack of political will was directly related to the lack of leadership. Because most ISAF senior leaders do not possess a solid understanding of gender and women’s issues, they failed to grasp the value of implementing Resolution 1325 for the mission, no less the Afghan population. When an issue isn’t valued, there is no political will to stand behind it or leadership to move it forward.  As a consequence, the Command’s Gender Strategy was little more than ink on a page. Senior leaders’ lack of operational follow through also sent a clear, though unfortunate, message to all mission members that gender and women’s issues were not a priority. It is no surprise that battlefield commanders and their subordinates had little regard for these issues.


The execution of NATO Bi-SC Directive 40-1 in Afghanistan has been flawed and uneven primarily because senior leaders remain largely unaware of two key points: 1) how conflict affects women differently than men and 2) women’s role in improving security, promoting stability, and building peace – all issues specifically addressed in UNSCR 1325.  Although this Resolution was passed in 2000, most ISAF commanders still cannot adequately define the term gender and incorrectly equate it with women’s issues — something they deem unrelated to mission objectives.  This unfortunate and unacceptable lack of knowledge precludes them from fulfilling their official obligations under NATO.  More importantly, senior leaders’ ignorance in this regard has resulted in countless missed opportunities to improve the lives of Afghans and promote stability through inclusive governance, security and development.  It’s time for senior leaders to take NATO Bi-SC Directive 40-1 seriously.

The Gender Advisor Guest Expert Brenda OppermanBrenda Oppermann is an International Development and Stability Advisor – Serving as an advisor and senior program manager for assorted organizations including: USAID, UN, US Institute of Peace, US Army, OSCE and assorted NGOs. Areas of expertise: rule of law, gender, democracy building, civil society, capacity development, counterinsurgency, and stabilization.