Gender issues are ridiculed and sabotaged in the military

The masculine culture in the Norwegian Armed Forces is a democratic problem. This makes it difficult to work with issues related to gender, according to researcher.
Norway is supposed to be in the lead when it comes to women, peace and security in armed conflicts internationally. This photo shows soldiers from Guard and Security team 1 of the NORTAD II force in the UN operation MINUSMA in Mali. The people depicted in the photo have no connection to the content in this case. Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret.

Women and girls are affected particularly hard in armed conflicts. They sometimes become targets in themselves, and are exposed to sexualised violence and abuse.

This topic – that war has a gender dimension – was first recognised by the UN Security Council in year 2000. The recognition was manifested as Resolution 1325, which was created in order to ensure that all nations are committed to protect women’s rights during war, both behind and on the frontline. The resolution was passed unanimously.

Six years later, in 2006, the Norwegian government issued a plan for the implementation of the resolution, and declared Norway as an internationally leading country with regard to women, peace and security. Thirteen years later, the resolution is still not implemented in accordance with its intention in the Norwegian Armed Forces.

Questions related to gender have no status within the organisation.

“Many assignments are still not solved,” says Lena P. Kvarving. 

She is lieutenant colonel in the Armed Forces, and works with equality, diversity and gender. Last August, she defended her PhD thesis on gender perspectives in the Armed Forces. In her thesis, she studied her own work place and its challenges with regard to the implementation of the resolution. She also looked at possible reasons for why the implementation process has been so slow.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg claimed that Norway is in the lead when it comes to women, peace and security when she spoke at the UN’s principal assembly on September 27. But Kvarving’s thesis paints a different picture.  .

“Questions related to gender have no status within the organisation. The fact that the implementation of the resolution has stagnated is not considered a problem,” she says.

Ridiculed and sabotaged

In her PhD thesis, Kvarving describes a masculine culture within the Armed Forces that allows for obstruction of any attempt to promote the women, peace and security agenda. Employees who try to endorse gender perspectives are met with jokes, laughter and sexualised language.

“If we want to achieve change in the organisation, we need a system that rewards and disciplines,” says Kvarving. Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret.

“Some find it funny to put people out. This makes it difficult to work with gender issues, and you have to be tough in such situations to handle it. You have either to render them harmless or to set them right. And not everybody has the energy to do that all the time.”  

Some people have found the situation so understressing that they decided to quit.

“They contribute professionally, but encounter immature attitudes. It is no surprise they get tired of it.”

According to Kvarving, several, herself included, have been recommended to stop working with gender related questions because of the low status that such issues hold.

“I have heard things like, ‘Lena, you are super, but you should stop working with this gender stuff. Career wise, it leads nowhere.’ This is indicative of the lack of status related to work on gender equality.”  

In her research, she recommends to take a closer look at matters related to masculine privileges. There are privileges connected to being part of a dominating, masculine culture, she argues. Thus, opening up for gender balance and other disciplines, and letting in people with a different gender and with a different competence is often perceived as threatening to the dominant masculinity culture. Those who are part of this culture may lose their privileges as a consequence, and they therefore sabotage instead.

Serious outcomes

At the same time, recent reports have shown that the Armed Forces have major problems in terms of securing their own employees and their conscripts within the organisation. Last February, the Armed Forces published the results from a survey mapping bullying and sexual harassment in the organisation. In this survey, seventy-eight per cent of the women responded that they had experienced sexual harassment in one way or another. Twenty-three per cent of the women said that they had experienced rape. 

In the Armed Forces, we face challenges when it comes to gender, sexuality and matters related to women and security.

“There are challenges. Everything from inappropriate language to criminal behaviour. And it is a problem, because we have a special role in society,” says Kvarving.

“In my opinion, the survey supports the findings in my study. In the Armed Forces, we face challenges when it comes to gender, sexuality and matters related to women and security,” says Kvarving.

Alibi in Afghanistan

It is not only within the organisation that the responsibilities laid out in Resolution 1325 are not met. It also happens out in the field. In her thesis, Kvarving uses the way in which gender perspectives are addressed during Norwegian forces’ participation in Afghanistan as an example. During the operation, so-called gender advisors were appointed, but her findings show that these positions had no real function.  

“The Minister of Defence has said in the media that we are ahead internationally because we have had gender advisors in Afghanistan. But the people who have held these positions often feel that they are being used as alibies. They were sent out with hardly any training, the management did not know how to make use them, and their work served no concrete purpose,” she says.

According to Kvarving, no proper gender analyses were made of the area, such as identifying the forces’ possibilities for acting and what activities they should choose in order to have an effect. Neither did the gender advisors have anyone to report back to at home.

“When none of these things are in place, the advisors are assigned to fill a role that is there just for the sake of appearances,” she says.

When the work was due to be reported, better protection and participation for women, which is the goal of the women, peace and security agenda, were not even assessed.

“We can brag about ourselves and say that we have gender advisors in the field. But why do we have them, and what are they for? This was very unclear. One of the previous advisors that I spoke to said it felt like defending Oslo all by herself.”


‘Would you like a report, or do you want the truth?’ One of Kvarving’s sources in NATO asked her this question in the beginning of an interview for her PhD thesis. She thought it was a conspicuous comment on the connection between reports and reality.

“We all probably have a tendency to embellish somewhat when we report; we want it to look as if we do more than we actually do. And if we say that we are in the middle of a process or that we are working on it, it gives the impression that we are in fact doing something although this might not necessarily be the case.”

We can brag about ourselves and say that we have gender advisors in the field. But why do we have them, and what are they for?

Kvarving has found that misleading reports concerning the implementation of Resolution 1325 in the Armed Forces have been submitted. The next level, which is the Ministry of Defence and its Minister of Defence, therefore receive flawed information upon which they are supposed to base their decisions, she argues.

“The public is presented with speeches that depict an idealised version of reality rather than the actual situation.”

Calls for consequences

It is soon twenty years since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325. All Norwegian governments have clearly expressed their ambitions to be internationally leading when it comes to promoting the women, peace and security agenda since the first plan of action saw the light of day in 2006. But things are moving slowly in the Armed Forces. Kvarving calls for better follow-up from the Ministry of Defence. One of the reasons why the Armed Forces do not carry out their assignments is that it has no repercussions, she claims.

“If we want to achieve change in the organisation, we need a system that rewards and disciplines. Performing a task should be rewarded. And if you fail to perform a task it should have repercussions,” says Kvarving.

“As long as the management is not held accountable, they can just carry on the way they always have. I think of it as a democratic problem. It is as if you gain political capital by being given an assignment and not by implementing it, and therefore there is no need to follow it through? Or does the Ministry of Defence lack the ability or the will to lead the Armed Forces as an organisation, when it fails to hold them accountable? Or perhaps the politicians are not as engaged in the matter as they say they are and do not mind that the Armed Forces make political strategic decisions themselves and choose which assignments to perform and not – like an à la carte approach?”

Kvarving, who has worked with the topic for years, believes that it is possible to turn this tendency around if the management in the Armed Forces are held accountable when they fail to carry out their assignments. But it presupposes a closer follow-up from the Ministry of Defence.

“We have what it takes within the organisation; we can do it if we want to. The ability is there, it is all about management, prioritisations and the will to enhance our own competence on the topic. If the gender equality work is given the priority it needs, it is possible to make changes,” she says.

“Need for improvement”

The findings from Kvarving’s PhD research have been presented to the Ministry of Defence. In an email to Kilden, the Ministry has the following response:

‘The Ministry of Defence places women, peace and security high on the agenda. For years, the government has worked systematically in order to enhance the implementation of UN resolutions by identifying concrete measures in the Armed Forces. Last January, the government launched the fourth action plan on women, peace and security.

The Ministry of Defence designates to the Armed Forces a number of concrete assignments dealing with the implementation and operationalisation of gender perspectives. The Armed Forces report back on the performance of these assignments three times every year. Reported deviations are followed up by individual measures. Based on the Armed Forces’ reports from the period in question, the Ministry of Defence has concluded that the assignments related to women, peace and security have been properly safeguarded.  

At the same time, we acknowledge that there might be a need for further improvement in the implementation of this work in certain cases. The Ministry has received the PhD thesis with great interest, and will take a close look at its content in order to assess whether there are issues that may need improvement. A successful performance of the assignments commissioned to the sector is decisive for the Government’s success in implementing the action plan.’

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro. 

  • Resolution 1325 was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council on October 31, 2000
  • It recognises, for the first time within the UN system, that women and girls are particularly affected by war
  • The Resolution commits warring parties to prevent the violation of women’s rights in armed conflicts
  • Additionally, a gender perspective is required as a part of the process when it comes to re-integration, rehabilitation and reconstruction following a conflict
  • The Resolution is also intended to strengthen women’s participation in peace negotiations and internally within military forces

Defended her PhD thesis at the Norwegian Defence University College and Department of Political Science at University of Oslo on August 12, 2019. Her thesis is titled ‘Gender Perspectives in the Armed Forces and Military Operations: An uphill battle. Cultural, structural and functional factors that prevent or promote implementation of UNSCR 1325 in the Norwegian Armed Forces and NATO’. 

Kvarving gave her first lecture on gender issues in the Armed Forces in 1991. Since then, she has worked with gender perspectives on several arenas.

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