The Securitization of Gender: A Primer

Demonstrations in front of the San Diego police station in Bogotá, Colombia on September 11, 2020, ended with clashes between feminist groups and police. The protests took place following the rape by two police officers of three women who had been arrested at previous demonstrations against a police killing. (Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via AP)

In recent years, advocates for the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda have taken issue with the securitization and militarization of the agenda, and of gender more broadly. The WPS agenda has to some extent moved away from its feminist demilitarization and anti-war roots to instead focus on “making war safe for women.” It likewise advances an outsized focus on increasing women’s participation in militaries, police forces, and uniformed peacekeeping worldwide, rather than opposing and transforming the conditions that lead to violence. This includes the increasing securitization and militarization of responses to global issues such as climate change, migration, and countering violent extremism.

Securitization refers to the process of political issues, identities, and other factors being framed as “security threats,” thereby justifying the use of military or other extraordinary means to address those threats. In recent decades, the number of “thematic issues” on the agenda of the United Nations (UN) Security Council has increased significantly, suggesting a trend toward more securitization. “New” global or transnational threats to be addressed through the logic of security include everything from terrorism, piracy, and organized crime, to the spread of disease, environmental destruction, poverty, food security, and the security of marginalized people. Many of these issues are at the forefront of the people-centered “human security” approach.

The process of securitization typically begins when an issue is politicized and framed as an existential threat to the (often unjust) status quo, which subsequently leads too often to state overreach. Militarization is a specific subset of securitization, referring to the use of and support for military means to respond to issues being securitized. As Azedeh Moaveni recently wrote, “war-making in the modern world is often linked to gender equality” as a justification to escalate violent action rather than advance peaceful outcomes.

Securitization has a different effect on communities and individuals depending on gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, nationality, and religion. It often produces and reproduces uneven power relations, deepening insecurity and injustice affecting already vulnerable populations globally. Gender is just one lens through which we can consider this problem, but it is an important (and accessible) one. This is particularly true as security institutions and governments worldwide increasingly push for gender equity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, often drawing accusations that they are coopting feminism and identity politics to obfuscate human rights violations or oppression.

Gender identity on its own can be securitized or viewed as a security threat. This is most obvious where the gender identity or expression of transgender and gender non-conforming people is treated as an unsubstantiated threat to others, which can lead to their harassment, discrimination, and criminalization. However, gender is more often securitized hand-in-hand with other issues; for example, the abstract threat of “terrorism” has made certain men and boys (on the basis of their gender identity and its intersection with other factors including ethnicity, age, and religion) targets of state violence and oppression. Gender-based militarization can include the forced conscription of men to armies or the perpetuation of hyper-masculine cultures within militaries. In Ukraine, for example, gender was recently militarized when men over 18 were barred from leaving the country because they are expected to fulfill a masculine norm of taking up arms against an invading force; while in Russia, men are fleeing the country to avoid conscription.

Securitized responses to conflict—by both state and non-state actors—often frame women as victims, going so far as to justify transnational violence to protect them. As such, gender itself is often used as a catalyst for securitization within state-level and multilateral policies. It is an understatement to say more sensitivity and research are needed to address this, as it impacts everyone.

Climate Change and Resource Extraction

The nexus of environmental issues, gender, and securitized violence is of particular interest in this era of climate change. Of the issues recognized today as global threats, climate change is increasingly seen as the gravest. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has long called it an “existential threat” to humanity, and recent IPCC reports have made clear the scale of the risk, with half of the global population classed as “extremely vulnerable” to its impacts.

But there are risks to climate change being securitized. Concerns from environmental and human rights advocates typically encompass obfuscation of the causes of climate change, diversion of resources, and reinforcement of corporate interests. The added rationale for militarized borders and austere immigration laws in the name of climate security is especially dangerous for migrants globally. Neglecting communal protections against extreme heat, droughts, and other disasters taking lives and ruining crops is a form of broader, longer-term political violence against communities lacking the resources to insulate them from these immediate impacts. The prioritization of attention and funding to the state security apparatus over basic human security and safety is made even more egregious by the worsening economic impacts the warming planet is unequally dispensing. Women and sexual and gender minorities—particularly where those identities intersect with race and socioeconomic status—are disproportionately affected by disasters, so state violence of neglect is only further exacerbated through securitization.

Looking at environmental issues, gender, and securitized violence together across the globe, one can see local implications everywhere. For example, oil acquisition is an oft-understated goal of many military campaigns which has far-reaching consequences for men, women, and youth. The violence surrounding oil extraction sites broadly—especially toward Indigenous women—is often responded to with complicity by local police. Increased military activity and poor government control in certain conflict zones, such as Kashmir and Colombia, lead to environmental degradation and disproportionate, horrific ramifications for the women in the community. In the United States, the failures of the security responses during Hurricane Katrina created unique threats for transgender people.

The UN estimates that by 2050, there could be as many as one billion internal and international migrants displaced due to harsh climate conditions. Whether migrants are moving from areas experiencing rapid-onset disasters or other economic or personal challenges, they are increasingly met with movement restrictions related to ostensible national climate security, including populationism and fears of resource scarcity. These two misguided concerns have specifically led to gendered and racialized restrictions to both reproduction and movement.

Focusing on military responses to climate change or the effects of climate change on the military creates a vicious cycle in which funding is directed to security institutions rather than to positive climate solutions. For example, US government funding that could potentially be used for climate mitigation is instead funneled to combat the threats global warming presents to military infrastructure, while the US military itself is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. A report by the Transnational Institute showed the richest countries collectively spending at least twice as much on borders and immigration enforcement than on providing climate finance. This increased global militarization of climate change and seriously imbalanced funding has a domino effect for myriad communities and other security issues, but especially migration.


Migrants are often viewed as an economic or security threat, especially in the context of movement from Global South to Global North countries. Borders are rife with securitization concerns because they are innately militarized spaces in most of the world. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, militarized borders which today include the deployment of troops, ships, aircraft, and drones to patrol land, sea, and air, as well as digital surveillance and physical walls, abound.

Politicians often vilify the “wrong” type of migrants as a threat to society requiring harsh control. While the right to asylum is supposed to guarantee the ability of those whose lives are threatened by conflict or violent extremism to flee, the association with violence can be weaponized against them. This is particularly the case for men, while “women and children” are still painted as innocent victims (though, importantly, even when women are seen as more immediately as at-risk in their home countries, they are not necessarily allowed to cross borders easily). Religion, skin tone, ethnicity, and nationality are also weaponized against migrants.

Refugee camps—many at securitized borders—are sites of violence for all refugees, but often present heightened levels of violence against women from humanitarian workers, security forces, and other refugees. Shelters without gender-segregated bathing facilities present issues of privacy and safety, particularly when they lack adequate lighting. These risks are also exacerbated for gender and sexual minorities, who are at risk of discrimination inside camps by humanitarian workers as well as other camp residents, have a unique set of vulnerabilities as they journey toward asylum, and are sometimes driven out of camps entirely due to safety concerns or lack of community.

Securitization and militarization of borders and migration affect people in material, gendered ways, often manifesting as immigrants portrayed as a “masculinized threat” or with “feminized vulnerability.” In situations where they are expected to be the primary wage earner, men who migrate to find alternative livelihoods due to reduced access to land and water at home must often pass through areas with higher levels of violence from travelers and police or face exploitative labor practices. Women, gender non-conforming people, and transgender people migrating often have fewer personal resources and face unique social and political barriers, such as a lack of identification documents.

The harsh environments enabled by border securitization take a toll on all migrants, though climate change is adding to the hardship with the stress of water deprivation during desert crossings, which is felt most acutely by pregnant women and children. With global insecurity ever on the rise, issues driving migration such as climate change and violent extremism will persist, and securitization is likely to become even more severe if states refuse to consider different approaches.

Responses to Violent Extremism

Violent extremism is evidently a threat to the communities in proximity to it who suffer its consequences, as well as to the society more broadly. However, over-securitization or militarization in response to violent conflict can occur when military solutions are seen to be the best, preferable, or only response. Normatively, military responses which inevitably prioritize elite and state security are framed as being a “last resort,” yet states rarely consider more compassionate responses which prioritize human security and widespread peace.  They also fail to meaningfully consider the role of state-sponsored violence as a driver of violent extremism.

Securitization of violent extremism via counterterrorism (CT) and the supposedly more benign countering violent extremism (CVE) has led to a global undermining of human rights. The lack of a common definition for concepts like terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalization allows governments and their respective security institutions to use the terms broadly and militantly. 

As recent IPI and CTED research has shown, the ways states engage on violent extremism are highly gendered (as are the ways violent extremist groups operate). Women’s rights and protection are cited on a regular basis by both extremist groups and states alike. These groups and institutions use gender tropes like the responsibility to protect women or stereotyping gendered combatant profiles. States cite women’s rights as a justification for the militarization of domestic policies as well as invasion and occupation in foreign policy decisions, which ultimately destabilize and over-securitize, paradoxically making women’s lives more dangerous over time and linking their rights to war and militarism.

Likewise, states have securitized certain identities in the so-called Global War on Terror, particularly Muslim men of a certain age. These stereotypes ultimately make everyone less safe by increasing military power and surveillance, including at borders, and the pervasiveness of weapons in civilian populations, as well as driving migration due to perpetual instability in many parts of the world.

Efforts to address this through greater participation of women in or collaboration with security institutions responsible for CT and CVE can also lead to the instrumentalization of women’s roles as mothers, where they are “viewed as tools to address the problem of male radicalization.”

The myriad ways governments have weaponized the term “terrorist” to describe political opponents, activists, and other opposition figures have also been deployed against human rights and environmental defenders globally and falsely make them out to be security risks (which thus require securitized responses). Indigenous women are especially vulnerable to this distorted power dynamic of grassroots against authoritarian states. Indeed, “more than half of all acts of violence [against women environmental defenders] recorded by Global Witness are perpetrated by police, military, or security personnel.”

Moreover, the securitization of climate change relates directly to responses to violent extremism. If mitigation and adaptation to the worst effects of climate change continue to go underfunded, and resources like water become more scarce in vulnerable regions, we might expect this scarcity to be weaponized or lead to violent extremism, which, in turn, will likely be responded to through further securitization and militarization.

The gendered dynamics of securitization in state-led responses to violent extremism require more attention from policymakers. Acknowledging the complexity of these dynamics can help reduce profiling as well as amplify effective peacemaking efforts at the community level, many of which are women-led or promote positive masculinities. Gendered narratives about VE must shift, giving voice to the diverse perspectives of women as well as looking at its impacts on men and boys. By challenging securitized responses through a gender lens, feminist and WPS research can lead us to more nuanced understandings of violent extremism.


Securitization and militarization cannot continue as the dominant response to issues like climate change, migration, and even violent conflict. Nor can compassionate responses prioritizing human security be framed as “concessions,” rather than viable instruments for diplomacy or peaceful solutions to conflict.

While implementation of the WPS agenda has been criticized for its movement away from the central feminist principle of opposition to war and militarism, many advocates nevertheless demand the inclusion of gender and human security perspectives in peace and security. These demands must not allow gender to be instrumentalized within hypermasculine, hypermilitarized, and over-securitized approaches to security, but rather must explicitly link to de-militarization and de-securitization.

Gretchen Baldwin is a Researcher on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Peace Operations and Conflict Management team. She tweets at @gretchenbaldwin. Taylor Hynes is a Senior Consultant working on FEMA flood risk analysis for Guidehouse. She tweets at @infinitetabs.