As the policies and practices to establish the ADF as an unwavering advocate for women and girls are implemented, Australia’s influence can increase in the Pacific region. In purposefully building trusting relationships the ADF can be viewed as a legitimate and empowering organisation that enables Pacific Island communities to set their strategic goals based on their assessments of local needs.

The launch of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience in February 2021 provides an opportunity to support advanced thinking and meaningful discourse around strategic resilience and security through a gender, peace and security lens. For Australia, building strategic strength is much more than responding to a one-off crisis. Strategic strength is the capacity to respond before the threats to Australia's security and way of life become a reality.

Building strategic resilience requires three key elements to ensure a secure and cohesive Pacific region:

1)     Cognitive diversity to anticipate trends and risks,

2)     Connect and strengthen sovereign resources, and

3)     Capacity to support each other during times of catastrophe.  

This article discusses employing the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to build Australia's engagement in the Pacific. Applying a gender lens ensures that the ADF remains a valued and respected part of Pacific efforts to meet local community needs based on equivalence.  Australia shares a long history of cooperation with its Pacific neighbours. Australia can work with our Pacific Island partners to build a region that is strategically secure, economically stable and politically sovereign.

Australia’s history of engagement in the Pacific is built on shared interests and partnership. However, geostrategic factors, changing national interests, and a cycle of geopolitical ambiguity have resulted in the region's perception as being part of the 'arc of instability.  Through its Pacific Step-up, Australia has made significant headway in reducing instability and will continue to do more.  

Australia can continue to encourage all external parties to engage the Pacific in a way that supports the region's collective security interests and respects each country's sovereign rights. The future is clear - being a good and dependable neighbour in an increasingly complicated neighbourhood is key to national security.

To have a systematic and structural impact, Australia needs to continue to work with its Pacific 'Vuvale' (Fijian for family) to build a resilient, inclusive and sovereign region. Australia is well positioned to be a 'partner of choice' in diplomacy, economic development, military cooperation and critical foreign policy initiatives. A focus on human rights and gender equality will contribute to strategic success.

By applying a gender lens, significant effects can be achieved when forging policies and programs at local levels. Delivery can consider the perspective of all genders and how they translate in a local context. By taking a whole-of-government approach, these policies and programs can align with Australia's national interests. Australia can use its cooperation, development, humanitarian aid and more muscular military ties as instruments to enact and deliver cohesion-building initiatives.


The ADF leading gender-responsive approaches

Security is not gender-neutral. The ADF's peace building role is based on trust. The peace building role aims to overlay the protection and security of civilians in operations areas. A gender perspective is  core to understanding how groups and communities use masculinity and femininity narratives to disrupt security or apply local-level measures to prevent threats.

The ADF is at the forefront of humanitarian action and security-building in the Pacific region. The ADF is involved in social and policy programs. The ADF's capabilities are for war fighting, however the ADF can also lead the mainstreaming of gender perspectives and relationship building across the full spectrum of military operations, cooperation and commitments.  Focusing on gender perceptions and building relationships will ensure Australia's Pacific sisters and brothers perceive the ADF as a genuine part of the Vuvale.

As the Pacific region becomes more susceptible to and impacted by natural disasters, the need for gender-responsive strategic resilience initiatives will increase. The ADF's supports peace building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief and recovery missions in the Pacific. In addition, the ADF can empower and support local and grassroots gender initiatives in the Pacific region in a range of activities from promoting women's equal participation in civil society to protecting human rights.


Building a path with gender, peace and security

The priorities of Pacific Island nations drive the ADF's engagement in the Pacific region.  Australia's enduring commitment rests on the Defence Cooperation Program and the Pacific Maritime Security Program. In addition, Defence's Step-up initiatives respond to Pacific priorities identified through ongoing dialogue with its partners in the region. The Step-up initiative aligns with the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, as adopted in 2018 by Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific Islander leaders.

The UN's Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda provides a sound methodology and framework for the ADF to embrace a bottom-up approach to the who, how and why it offers human and state security. The ADF has formalised its commitment to operationalising the WPS Agenda by releasing the Defence Gender, Peace and Security Mandate 2020–2030. The mandate sets out the ADF's strategy for progressing gender equality, human rights protections, and meaningful participation in peace and security processes.

The ADF recognises that failure to apply a gender perspective across the spectrum of operations extends beyond conflict prevention, resolution and post-conflict rebuilding, disaster and crisis response. Further, failure to apply a gender perspective undermines ADF peace and security efforts. Accordingly, to enhance its national security and regional stability, the Australian government recognises and supports the ADF's role in implementing the WPS Agenda in its foreign policy initiatives across the Pacific region.


Evolving perception of the ADF as an unwavering advocate for women and girls in the Pacific

With the changing character of security threats in the Pacific region, for the ADF to demonstrate its commitment to advancing gender equality is a critical component of building legitimacy, trust and cooperation at local and regional levels.

Australia's influence in the region will increase by building trusting relationships and growing Pacific peoples' perception of the ADF as an unwavering advocate for women and girls. The objective is for all Pacific peoples to view the ADF as a legitimate and empowering organisation. An ADF that enables the Pacific community to set their strategic goals based on their local needs assessments.

The ADF can take a lead role in ensuring the WPS Agenda is a central tenet of foreign policy and defence engagement. By monitoring how women perceive ADF personnel and their involvement in communities, the ADF can present itself as protective and safe in contrast with the outdated perception of being dangerous or hyper-masculine.

A transformational change is required to evolve the perception of the ADF in the Pacific. Incorporating a gender perspective into all aspects of the organisation is essential. The ADF's approach to operationalising gender considerations previously focused on a gender strategy at the operational level. However, outcomes were emphasised at the tactical level.

Progress has been made with designing a gendered perspective into operational planning, training, exercises and operational deployments. The formation of the ADF Gender, Peace and Security (GPS) Directorate, along with a trained network of Operational Gender Advisors and Gender Focal Points has ensured progress. The GPS curriculum at the Peace Operation Training Centre (POTC) maintains a UN and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) focus within their suite of courses. In addition, the Gender, Peace and Security curriculum makes it a priority to include trainees from the Pacific to enhance and diversify the ADF's leader network.

In contrast, the Pacific Step-Up program prioritises defence and development initiatives. Whereas the Women’s Peace and Security Agenda-based initiatives and programs support 'human security, including humanitarian assistance, to protect the rights, health and prosperity of Pacific people'. An increase in WPS initiatives can provide a practical, gender-sensitive analysis of the 'who, how and what' in social and political structures. Moreover, this WPS agenda implementation prevents losing focus on further investment in fundamental social and economic rights and security, like healthcare and education.


Promote partnership with grassroots women's rights organisations

Capacity within the ADF exists to provide a diplomatic, operational and tactical tool to support organisations that take a feminist approach to fight for gender equality. A feminist approach can change harmful gender norms and address intersectional discrimination. In addition, the nature of the ADF's role within communities in the Pacific region, particularly during crisis response, places them as an effective agency to gather evidence of women's participation in formal and informal peace negotiations and peace building.

The Australian government recognises the value of autonomous women's organisations and movements in creating gender-responsive policy and legislation and gender equality progress. However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows a contradictory trend of decreased funding of women's rights organisations. Decreased funding presents an opportunity target. Women's rights organisations are pivotal in progressing towards gender equality and are highly influential contributors and monitors to peace and stability in the region. Foreign policy initiatives must target local women's organisations to reach women in marginalised communities. Local women understand the influence of transgenerational skills, complex power-plays in communities, and the degree of leverage women hold in public and private spheres of political and social action.

For example, an ABC report 'The Solomon Islands is no paradise for women' (2020) outlined measures implemented by women peace builders and activists at the grassroots level. The drive for young women to advocate for girls' education responds to high rates of sexual and gender-based violence. An ingrained culture of disrespect leads to an undervaluing of women in the Solomon Islands.

The Defence Cooperation Program focuses on engagement with military and police forces in the Pacific, connecting to sexual and gender-based violence and human security. The ADF must could consider the WPS framework to prioritise the professional opportunities of Pacific Islander individuals and groups. The ADF can influence this positive change through its personnel, gender training, gender mainstreaming in policy and doctrine, and a mission platform of gender equality.


Meeting new challenges

The ADF can support a whole-of-government approach to foreign policy initiatives at the grassroots level by reaching out and consulting with women in marginalised communities. The ADF's role can lead to enhanced engagement and influence across the breadth of capabilities offered by building trust. Trust initiatives can include protection and security for peace building. Trust initiatives can also include a gender training specialist team,a drive toward gender mainstreaming, and gender equality-focused operations.

By valuing partnerships at the grassroots level and improving Pacific Islanders’ perception of the ADF, the Australian government can continue to show itself as an equal and trusted partner of choice within the Pacific region. As a result, Australia can further enhance the Women’s Peace and Security objectives within its national interests. Australia can also meet the new challenges in building strategic resilience and create a more confident Pacific region security stance.


About the author:

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She was the Chief of Army Scholar in 2020, where she completed research on gender and conflict and is currently the Senior Instructor for the ADF's Gender, Peace and Security Courses. Lyndsay co-founded the publishing platform Propel Her - Defence Women's Leadership Series and 'Women in Future Operations' through UNSW, where Lyndsay is a Senior Visiting Fellow. In addition, Lyndsay leads the Youth Advisory Council for the National Institute of Strategic Resilience (NISR). Lyndsay seeks innovative ways to positively change and advance gender equality through her military experience, academic studies, motivation and vision. You can follow Lyndsay on Twitter@LyndsayFreeman8 or LinkedIn.

Lyndsay Freeman

Lyndsay Freeman leads the NISR Youth Advisory Council

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