Deep Dive Recap: Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence and the Gender Perspective

  • 12 Jul. 2023 -
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  • Last updated: 17 Jul. 2023 14:38

On the 12 July 2023, the NATO International Military Staff Office of the Gender Advisor hosted its twelfth Deep Dive Session focused on Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence and the Gender Perspective. The session discussed how CBRN threats affect men, women, boys and girls differently while highlighting how NATO is considering the gender perspective in force protection and protection of civilians to increase military readiness and support national resilience against CBRN threats.

Deep Dive Recap: Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence and the Gender Perspective

Subject matter expertise was provided by Major Adelheid Obwaller (PhD), the Gender Advisor for NATO Mission in Kosovo (KFOR) and an expert on Infectious Diseases, Mr Paul Rushton, Policy Officer for CBRN Defence NATO’s Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre, and Major Stijn Van Den Bosch, the Deputy Gender Advisor for NATO Allied Command Operations (ACO).

Major Obwaller opened the session with an explanation of gender and its broader socio-cultural context as an imperative for the effective provision of security. She emphasised the need to account the differing needs of the entire population in order to develop a stable environment for all. Looking at CBRN threats in particular, Major Obwaller discussed the security risks of bioterrorism agents and diseases. Using Ebola as a case study, due to its high potential to be weaponised, Major Obwaller explained how the gender perspective can help us understand the nature of a disease, its prevalence, distribution, determinants and consequences. She explained the heightened risks in women contracting Ebola due to their social roles for example as frontline healthcare workers, involvement in cultural funeral practices that lead to intensive interaction with contaminated bodies, and potential financial barriers and stigma they face in accessing healthcare. Additionally, risk perception and communication for infectious diseases are affected by culture, values, attitudes and social organisation. For example with Ebola the fear and mistrust of health services, the fear of stigmatization and social exclusion lead to individuals refusing to seek care.

Major Obwaller compared the spread of misinformation surrounding Ebola and similar narratives seen during the COVID-19 pandemic to show how actors can also use targeted disinformation campaigns to reduce social trust in institutions and undermine policy and responses. While there are significant similarities between different disease outbreaks, Major Obwaller stressed that each outbreak is highly complex and must be considered individually including the gender perspective. Gender and levels of education can cause differing individual risk perception and can undermine the ability to rapidly respond to outbreaks. Although NATO is not a first responder for such outbreaks, it is essential for NATO to anticipate and be prepared to respond in order to maintain stability, support cooperative security and provide crisis management.

Following Major Obwaller, Mr Rushton presented a broad overview of the current CBRN security environment and what it means for NATO. Mr Rushton identified two dominant CBRN threats: state threats and CBRN-enabled terrorism. He further highlighted the use of new hostile techniques including cyber and hybrid attacks and echoed Major Obwaller’s comments on the use of misinformation as a constant feature of CBRN threats. With NATO’s CBRN Defence policy, Mr Rushton explained how the gender perspective could be further integrated to make NATO more secure and resilient in the current and future CBRN security environment.

Figure 1. NATO’s CBRN defence policy: 2 Core Principles and Commitments underpinned by 6 Strategic Enablers

He highlighted gender as “a strategically important emerging issue, alongside climate change and emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs)”, which must be taken into consideration to strengthen NATO’s capabilities. He explained that mainstreaming gender is core to CBRN defence, especially when viewed as a capabilities issue, and he identified specific areas where the gender perspective could identify and address potential gaps in capabilities, such as in personal protective equipment, medical countermeasures, force protection, and training and capacity building. “The need to account for the gender perspective when developing technology for military use is crucial. We don’t yet know what we don’t know, and we need to build our understanding of any possible gaps,” Mr Rushton explained. He highlighted that every aspect of CBRN defence capabilities needs to ensure that every person who wants to contribute to NATO CBRN defence is appropriately equipped and empowered to do so. Lastly, Mr Rushton gave considerations for where NATO can further incorporate effective gender approaches into its work.

Finally, Major Van Den Bosch stressed the need for the gender perspective to be considered in all three Key Components of fighting power: Conceptual, Moral and Physical, explaining that the gender perspective has a force multiplying effect when integrated in the three key components. Major Van Den Bosch explained the need to mainstream the gender perspective in more conceptual documents at NATO to inform the practical integration, to account for the gendered physical determinants of warfare so that forces are appropriately prepared and lastly, to integrate the gender perspective into morale to maintain the confidence of forces in their preparedness and equipment. He highlighted challenges in integrating the gender perspective appropriately, including the lack of investment in adapted kits for women due to their low numbers but stressed that design requirements must be considered in advance of a crisis, citing current challenges to outfit female soldier in Ukraine. He further discussed the need to be forward looking and consider the long-term gendered impacts of CBRN threats, using the post-conflict reconstruction for areas where weapons containing depleted uranium have been used, such as in the Ukraine conflict. He explained how depleted uranium could continue to contaminate and affect air, soil, water and vegetation and how the gender perspective in these environments must be considered to understand who may be involved in the agricultural or other use of the land and thus will be at risk.

The gender perspective and CBRN must be considered beyond the initial issues of equipment.  While the risk for women is heightened when their protective equipment does not fit, the nexus between CBRN and gender is much more complex.  Hostile actors can exploit a pandemic with disinformation to reduce societal resilience and undermine the response efforts, which directly impacts all genders.  If the research between CBRN and gender specific vulnerabilities is not further analysed, it may lead NATO to miss opportunities for ensuring a more secure and more resilient alliance.