Improving gender awareness in KFOR

  • Last updated: 17 May. 2011 11:46

Sat in the front row in army fatigues and desert boots and patiently listening to children giving their presentation, Lieutenant Colonel Ivette Galarza stands out. Not just because of the way she is dressed, or because she is American, but particularly because she is female. For many of the children and their mothers at the celebration of International Women’s Day at the Pristina Women’s and Children’s Centre, she is one of only a few female soldiers to come in contact with them.

As the first ever Gender Advisor in the Kosovo Force (KFOR), Lt. Col. Galarza, 46, represents a significant shift in the engagement policies of KFOR. Having  been in the role a few months, she took the opportunity of the International Women’s Day celebrations  to increase KFOR’s contact with local women and children..

“I believe, as a female soldier, I was seen in a very positive way, due to the fact that we are providing support to this community and because they view us as role models,” she says. “Some of the women and children were impressed and curious to see a woman in uniform and others demonstrated their happiness because we were there.”

Facing sexism

Lt. Col. Galarza’s new role is similar to the Gender Advisor roles recently developed in the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan. This reflects the Alliance’s commitment to United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, part of which is about promoting the role of women in NATO-led operations.

This landmark resolution, which recognizes that war and conflict have a disproportionate impact on women and children, was passed in October 2000. It called for an end to the historic inequality of male and female participation in peace-building and the protection of women in areas of war and conflict.

“Sometimes,” explains Galarza, “I have met sexist male colleagues that didn’t see me as a soldier or decision maker, but as a woman… However, it is not the norm, just a few people have treated me that way.”

Changing opinions

Changing this perception is part of her role in KFOR. Before taking up the post, Lt. Col. Ivette Galarza had been in Kosovo ten months. With a 24-year background in equal opportunities in the United States Army, she feels she is the perfect person to get KFOR’s gender commitment off the ground.

Since she started in the position as a gender advisor, she says many military and civilian personnel have come to ask what her duties are and wanted to learn about the relation between her role and NATO-led operations. “I realized that I would need to begin from zero,” she explains. “The strategy I used was to create a gender perspective briefing for the senior leadership and key personnel. I also created a gender perspectives newsletter, a brochure, flyer and cards to be published and distributed around KFOR,” she says, adding that support from senior leadership is crucial to her success.

It is the first time that the KFOR force has had a gender advisor. Therefore one of the most important aspects of the job is to enhance awareness of her position and the role gender awareness plays in NATO operations.

“Integration of gender perspectives requires a comprehensive strategy, including operational planning and execution process,” says Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Duchesne, Allied Command Operations, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). “Apart from the general principles to avoid harm to women and children, this deals with taking into account effects of operations and development programmes specifically on women.”

This is echoed in comments from Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. “Gender should be an integral part of every division’s activities, every operation, planned and current, as well as its resources, intelligence, budget and finances,” he says. “It should be part of the people’s mindset – this is mainstreaming.”

By increasing support from senior leaders, Lt. Col. Galarza said she hopes the information will be passed back into their national systems. “I know that we can only encourage nations to improve gender balance in operations at the senior level, however if we don’t encourage and promote the implementation of UNSCR 1325, it will never happen.”