Re-conceptualizing Security: Where are the women?

By: Leanne Baumung

Leanne Baumung from the YWCA of Kauai in Hawaii, USA and World YWCA Intern 2008.


What types of images does the term conjure up for you? Locks and keys, barbed-wire fences, and metal detectors? Men with badges? Three-ounce shampoo bottles in little plastic bags, perhaps?

I myself have had to come to terms this year with my own perceptions of security. As a graduate student, I’ve been helping teach an undergraduate course in Global Security since September. As the proverb says: through teaching, you are bound to learn – and it’s true in this case; I’ve likely learned much more from this experience than I’ve actually taught.

I’ve learned that while classical conceptions of security models (i.e. those that classify the nation-state as the primary actor, the accumulation of power as the primary objective, and military capability as the primary measure of that power,) are becoming increasingly archaic, they still provide the basis for much of today’s international security policies. These Cold War era fundamentals, although highly outdated, are still the dominant ones that inform much of how governments address the gravest security issues of the day.

We are living in a time when violence among civilians now make up the majority of the world’s conflicts; unpredictable, asymmetrical power structures generate and perpetuate much of the fighting; intra-state clashes, rebel factions, military juntas, and organized criminals all play their role on the global security stage. And yet, nation-states still seem to favour a continuation of the old state- power-military charged rhetoric – rhetoric which breeds climates of destruction, deception, and distrust among neighbours while weaving threads of fear directly into our social fabrics.

Confronted with this knowledge, I can’t help but ask the question that years of working with the YWCA has taught me to never stop asking: Where are the women?

In this complex nexus of state, power and security that dominates how we perceive diverse global security threats and needs… Where are all the women?

In a sense, we know where the women are.

The women are being assaulted, tortured and brutally raped on a daily basis at the hands of armed factions in the eastern DRC. They are suffering not only from the rapes, but from the genital lesions, the traumatic fistulae, the unwanted pregnancies and the sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

The women are raising their voices in Afghanistan, pushing their way into peace building processes,   proclaiming that peace without justice and without basic human rights is no peace at all. They are struggling against being silenced, marginalized and subverted. They are struggling for the right to be heard in the debate over the future of their country.

The women are fleeing violence and volatility, subsisting scarcely in IDP and refugee camps in Pakistan, Sudan, and Sri Lanka. They are striving to hold onto fragments of hope and stability in the face of restricted movement, unsanitary conditions, disease, poverty and little reassurance of any real security.

And yet within the global security discourse, the women can be found in a tiny drawer, labeled “soft security.”  Soft security. Isn’t that nice? It sounds like a slogan for a new panty liner product. Soft security. With labels like this, is it any wonder that mechanisms to ensure women’s security (UNSCR 1325 and 1820) are still light-years away from reaching full implementation?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, focusing on women, violence and militarism. In light of the Campaign’s theme this year, it is important to remember that the YWCA has a vital resource: a critical mass of women and young women leaders that can be integral in helping bring about a re-conception of security in the international realm. We as YWCA women have not only an opportunity, but I would argue, an obligation to use this resource to help define what security really means for women worldwide. Together, we must work to deepen and broaden global perceptions of security to not only encompass but to focus specifically on human security needs, recognizing that women’s security is by no means “soft”. Women’s security is a hard, brutal, callous reality, and until major players in the field of global security recognize this, prospects for human security will remain beyond reach.

Leanne Baumung hails from the YWCA of Kauai in Hawaii, USA and was a World YWCA Intern in 2008. She is currently undertaking a Masters programme in International Development at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

This year’s theme for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign is “Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women”. Find out more and how you can take action at