Project: Feminist Security Politics


For the last several decades, conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) has been a major emphasis of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, of which the UK has been a prominent champion. However, there is presently little guidance for national militaries on how best to contribute to prevent and respond to CRSV. This report assesses progress to date, explores available good practice elsewhere, and identifies key risks for future Defence engagement. It highlights some strengths: training of partner forces in gender and CRSV, some targeted training of UK personnel, revisions to government policy and evidence of take-up of WPS in Defence. More significant are the areas for improvement. Inclusion of CRSV is piecemeal and fragmented, with inadequate staffing, inconsistent training and a failure to act on prior needs assessments. There are also intrinsic risks in a Defence approach to CRSV, and the report highlights concerns around Do No Harm, the scope of mandates and how to act on evidence of abuse by partner forces. It concludes with ten recommendations for action. 

Key Findings

The current UK approach has several strengths. Over the last decade some Defence leaders have mandated training and policy development, and CRSV is now somewhat incorporated into doctrine. The UK has funded significant training of partner forces in gender and CRSV, and on select UK deployments and for select UK personnel CRSV has been a meaningful element of training. UK personnel have advanced CRSV and gender-mainstreaming measures when deployed on UN missions, and government work is currently underway on how to improve action on WPS and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) issues. Finally, the recent move to a human security framework appears to have improved ownership of CRSV issues within Defence.

Despite these welcome initiatives, current Defence staffing, training and operational application remain in need of improvement. The inclusion of CRSV is inconsistent and often fragmented, with a greater emphasis on external training than internal development. A preoccupation with kinetics and a narrow war-fighting role continues to limit the inclusion of WPS and CRSV issues, and staffing does not yet appear to reflect previous internal needs assessments or the levels of gender expertise found among some major allies and WPS champion partners.

There are opportunities for Defence to adopt good practice from other contexts. Most guidance emerges from the experience of UN peacekeeping missions, requiring care in direct replication. Informants were only able to offer general impressions of other military practice, and there is a clear need for more thorough research beyond rapid review reports; for example, through focus groups or discussions with partner military gender advisors or equivalent experts. Nevertheless, Defence could enhance its contribution in each of the four stages of engagement identified below – prevention, pre-emption, response, and analysis and consolidation – as well as in cross-cutting training and resourcing. On prevention, Defence should work more closely with partner forces and other agencies specialising in CRSV to develop consistent policy, encourage good practice, establish early-warning systems, and build a referral network in anticipation of violations. On pre-emption, UK operations should consult with women and other at-risk groups to maximise deterrence and protection, for example through changes to patrol use. On response, Defence should integrate CRSV into medical rules of eligibility, provide necessary care where no other options exist, take action to secure crime scenes and deter perpetrators, and ensure appropriate tools and mechanisms for reporting. In the analysis and consolidation stage, Defence should improve its understanding of local institutions, develop a pathway for action following reporting, establish confidential information sharing protocols, and develop proper monitoring and learning systems that integrate external experts and stakeholders. These actions should be supported by a review and reconsideration of training at all levels, the use of scenario as well as awareness training to embed understanding, active efforts to adopt good practice from elsewhere, a willingness to conduct research where clear practice does not exist, and the consolidation of internal expertise and training capacity.

In engaging on CRSV, Defence faces three major risks. First, there is the risk of inadvertent harm created by engagement in inappropriate ways or beyond existing capacities. Training must emphasise the Do No Harm principle and produce clear and reliable guidance on the likely narrow range of scenarios where personnel will interact directly with survivors. Second, Defence must remain conscious of, and actively work to plan for, the differences between peacekeeping and other mandates. Good practice will have to be adapted after consideration of variations in mission, but without abandoning the duty to prevent and respond to CRSV. Third, Defence should give much more consideration to a likely more common scenario where UK personnel become aware of CRSV or related abuses by partner forces. Significant concerns around mission legitimacy, cultural sensitivity and the opportunity to improve partner practices will have to be addressed. To enhance its work on CRSV, Defence should therefore resource and maintain internal structures; promote leadership and accountability for CRSV tasks; articulate a theory of change and clear strategy; review current doctrine as a priority; ensure appropriate staffing and expertise in all future missions; review training and strongly consider mainstreamed CRSV scenarios for all; develop active partnerships with other specialist agencies; work more closely with partner militaries and others to develop appropriate reporting and referral tools; commission further studies on challenges, including how best to adopt a survivor-centred approach; and create a system for monitoring its own progress than includes external experts and stakeholders.


  1. Defence should immediately develop, resource and maintain dedicated internal structures for learning on military action against CRSV. These should ensure that prior learning is consistently integrated, that institutional memory is preserved, and that there is capacity to adapt and adopt the best available practice from international organisations, partner militaries and humanitarian and civil society CRSV response.
  2. As an immediate priority, Defence should nominate high-level leads for the tasks set out in these recommendations to ensure that delivery is prioritised and that there is clear accountability for progress.
  3. Defence should articulate a Theory of Change or equivalent to set clear outputs, outcomes and pathways for what it will achieve on CRSV, aligned with PSVI pledges, NAP commitments and practice on CRSV, and cognisant of risks and the role of other actors. 
  4. Defence should review current doctrine at the earliest opportunity, with attention to its comprehensiveness and suitability for personnel of various levels and for multiple CRSV contexts and tasks, including addressing violations by partner forces. Consideration should be given to whether and how doctrine should be enhanced.
  5. In future planning, structures and doctrine should be supported by appropriate staffing at all levels, in light of existing Defence needs analysis and the implications of a CRSV component in many, if not all, missions.
  6. Defence should review internal training provision and strongly consider measures to mainstream CRSV-related scenarios in training for all, enhanced with greater detail for specialist units or relevant mandates. Training should be subject to monitoring, evaluation and learning with clear reporting and robust accountability mechanisms for delivery.
  7. Defence should begin work to develop active partnerships with partner militaries, international organisations and the wider CRSV sector to study and improve good practice on military action on CRSV, including by learning from the experiences of militaries that may not have codified their approach in doctrine, clarifying the division of responsibility in conflict settings, and preparing for proper referral and holistic response under different future conflict scenarios.
  8. Defence should work closely with partner militaries, international organisations and the wider CRSV sector to develop appropriate reporting and referral tools, with special attention to maintaining confidentiality, informed consent and the safety of survivors. This may result in a standard operating procedure for reporting, while acknowledging that new international protocols should only be issued where there is adequate commitment to implement them.
  9. Defence should commission further studies on areas of challenge, such as survivor perspectives on military engagement; implications of CRSV-responsive mandates; and future CRSV-sensitive agreements with partner forces.
  10. Defence should create a system for monitoring progress on its CRSV engagement, drawing appropriately on outside expertise from international organisations, survivors’ groups, academia and civil society.

Image credit: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (CC BY 2.0)