Gavin Williamson is Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for South Staffordshire.
Something significant will happen at the Cenotaph today. Home from operations around the world, members of our Armed Forces and representatives from a hundred other nations will honour the United Nations peacekeepers who have experienced hell on earth over 70 years of service – and in many cases paid the ultimate price.
As we honour these peacekeepers, my focus will be on our mission to combat the inequalities suffered by women in warzones. While all citizens can be victims of terrible crimes such as murder and rape in these conflicts’ areas, women’s demands for justice are often ignored by a broken system.
In 2000, Britain played a leading role in the passing of the first UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) on Women, Peace and Security, and we’ve made major strides since then. We’ve increased the number of women on our contribution to UN peacekeeping missions to seven per cent – more than twice the UN average – and we have partnered with Canada and Bangladesh to launch the international Women, Peace and Security Chiefs of Defence network, ensuring that gender is factored into military planning, operations and culture.
But we can and must do more – and this is one of my priorities as Defence Secretary.
We are establishing a centre of excellence to promote understanding of women’s roles in conflicts, for our personnel and our international partners. We’re encouraging our partners to send more women to our prestigious military leadership programmes, and next year we’re launching our first national and international Military Gender and Protection Advisors course.
All of this builds upon the great work we are already doing with people like Lieutenant Colonel Katie Hislop, who will be speaking at the Royal United Service Institute today about her role in South Sudan. This month marks a year since UK engineers and medics were deployed to the UK’s largest UN mission there. Katie will speak as one of the first female officers to lead a UK operation with the UN. She knows more than most about the importance of such work for countries caught in the grip of humanitarian disaster, and embodies the importance of having female personnel serve on operations, ensuring that missions can reach out to different groups and improve local relations in communities which are deeply traumatised.
Since November 2016, all of our people on major overseas missions have received training on Women, Peace and Security and preventing sexual violence in conflict. By the end of this year, all roles in our Armed Forces will be opened up to women, even those in close combat positions, such as the Royal Marines, for the first time ever. That parity is important because it sends a message that we believe in the equality that our women and men are working to protect in conflict zones.
We’re also continuing to work closely with international partners, delivering gender-sensitive training to more than 7,000 African peacekeepers and more than 7,500 Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, as well as sending specialist Military Gender and Protection advisors to work alongside UN forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When I visited Afghanistan in March I was delighted to see the prominence of female officers. One of them was Somaiya Haidari. She won the “Duntroon Sword” for best overall Officer cadet at the Afghan National Officer Academy, and this year became the first Afghan female officer to experience our world-famous training at Sandhurst.
So at the Cenotaph today, we focus on two themes. We pay tribute to the peacekeepers who help bring stability and peace and shift the direction of whole communities. That’s why I’m so proud Britain has 670 people serving in seven UN missions in six countries. But I will also ensure the crucial role we have in preventing terrible crimes is never forgotten, along with the powerful contribution women are making as they lead this struggle.