In a conference room located within the heart of the Lord Nelson Hotel and Suites in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over 30 women (and two men) gathered together to kick off a weekend focused on the following theme, “Women in Security Across Military and Civilian lines.” This annual workshop, held by the Women in International Security Canada (an affiliate of WIIS Global), seeks to bring together “Canadian international security scholars, practitioners, and those invested in actively advancing female leadership…in international peace and security.”
The workshop aims to:
– Advance the position of women in the field of international affairs, defence, and security;
– Train and engage the future generation of scholars;
– Highlight the work of women in the security field;
– Grow the network of Canadian women scholars in the fields of international affairs, defence and security.
This year, the WIIS-Canada workshop featured a wide array of presentations, skill-building seminars, and roundtables headed by Dr. Maya Eichler – the Canada Research Chair in Social Innovation and Community Engagement, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Political and Canadian Studies, and the Department of Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University (Halifax). Undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students were given the opportunity to present their research, and receive feedback from experienced practitioners and scholars. Personally, I had the pleasure of responding to an eloquent, and thoughtful question from Dr. Edna Keeble – Professor of Political Science at Saint Mary’s University – following my presentation titled, “Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy – Understanding Feminism in Saudi Arabia, and Opportunities for Sweden.”
Other student presentations included recent University of Toronto graduate Claire Wilmot’s piece titled, “Women, Terror and Agency in the Boko Haram Insurgency.” Wilmot advocated utilizing a gendered lens to develop more effective countering-violent extremism policies, as well as to further unravel the radicalization process. Rebecca Jensen – a doctoral candidate at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies – discussed women in the United States Marine Corps, as well as how the differences in ‘culture,’ and socio-economic demographics between the military and civilians, often leads to a ‘gap’ between the two groups that may foster distrust and condescension. Gabrielle Bardall – a PhD candidate at the Universite de Montreal – won the essay contest held by the workshop for her paper titled, “Gender and Election Violence.” For the past few years, Bardall has researched the difference between the “political side of gender violence, and the gender side of political violence,” particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The keynote delivered by Anna Dolidze, the Deputy Minister of Defence for Georgia, in the historic student union building nestled within the idyllic confines of Mount Saint Vincent University, was definitely a highlight of the conference. Dolidze’s speech was fitting for the location, as the university – often referred to as ‘The Mount’ – was one of the first higher institutions in Canada established for women in the late 19th century. Deputy Minister Dolidze criticized the practice of “conflating feminism with individual success,” and reiterated the need for women to “weave the web of solidarity.” She ended her speech by emphasizing that women must be leaders – defined by their ability to “mobilize others.”
The final day of the conference featured skill-building exercises, and roundtables. One roundtable in particular, “Women Working in Security Across Military and Civilian Lines,” was profoundly enlightening. Chaired by Catherine Baillie Abidi (from Mount Saint Vincent University), the panelists included Jasteena Dhillon (from the University of Windsor), Kahina Bouagache (from Manaar Legal Consultancy/Women Lawyers Group), Beth Woroniuk (from the Women, Peace and Security Network – Canada), Sgt. Penny Hart (from the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative), and Shakira Weatherdon (from Dalhousie University). All of the panelists spoke about their vast array of experiences working in the field of security, peace-building, etc., and provided advice for students and WIIS members. Weatherdon in particular, pointed out the need to be conscious of how we engage minorities, and other groups that are often ‘silenced’ in peace-building processes, as well as development discussions. She highlighted the often-overlooked physical barriers that can prevent these actors from attending ‘discussions’ that are particularly imperative to their communities. For example, if a government organization aims to engage aboriginal populations in Canada, why hold the talks outside of their communities? Particularly in cities that may be difficult for these individuals to get to. Instead, Weatherdon advised, we should be conscious of people’s physical ability to engage in these important discussions by working with them to accommodate their needs.
As far as implementing a more gendered lens in the security field, Dhillon and Bougache advised that it’s best to gather relevant data, and speak to security professionals – such as military commanders – in the language of their field, as well as lay out how issues (like gender-based violence) threaten their mission. In particular, understanding military ‘cultures,’ practices, languages, and procedural structures are essential components of successful engagement across civilian and military lines.
The WIIS-Canada 9th annual workshop was incredibly beneficial to me, not only as a recent graduate and upcoming professional, but as a woman operating in a historically, male-dominated field. It offered a space for women to engage frankly with each other regarding unique, yet prominent issues, as well as develop a web of support that will only grow stronger as the role of women in security increases in the years to come. In accordance with its mission, the WIIS executive members also gave general members, and participants plenty of opportunities to provide feedback to the organization, and suggest other avenues (such as events, projects and university groups) through which WIIS-Canada could continue its work.
To find out more information about the WIIS-Canada workshop, or WIIS-Canada in general, please follow this link. To get involved with WIIS-Canada’s “16 Days of Activism” Campaign to combat gender-based violence, please follow this link.