In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and International Security

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Gender
  • Military Masculinities
  • Race and Colonialism
  • Transnational Feminisms
  • Victim and Agency
  • Health
  • Technology
  • Disability
  • International Humanitarian Law
  • Collective Security
  • Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism
  • Women, Peace, and Security
  • Post-conflict
  • Feminist Protest and Feminist Activism
  • Everyday Security

International Law Gender and International Security
Gina Heathcote
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0231


Thinking about security as a feminist international lawyer is necessarily complex and invites multiple layers of inquiry. Gender analysis commences with seeing the gendered consequences of security discourse and practice. That is, understanding women’s different experiences of insecurity in conflict, peace, and post-conflict spaces as well as different women’s experiences of those same spaces. Simultaneously, gender analysis questions the prevalence of military masculinities, the dynamics of hegemonic masculinity in the perpetuation of insecurity, and the continuum of gendered insecurity from the local to the international. Gender is thus an important conceptual and analytical tool for understanding traditional (state-centric) forms of international security, including collective security, the law of armed conflict, and post-conflict structures. However, feminist understandings of international security extend beyond traditional approaches to security, engaging everyday insecurity as a means to understand gendered insecurities from the local to the international, while centering the relationship between law and violence, challenging military masculinities, identifying the perpetuation of power and intersection of gender with race and colonialism, and asserting the value of knowledge production from transnational feminist networks. Contemporary feminist approaches have placed significant emphasis on the hypervisibility of conflict-related sexual violence and women’s access to political participation, however contemporary cutting-edge contributions call for deeper engagement with issues, including the recognition of intersectional, critical race, and transnational feminist interventions, the role of technology in international security, the need for a feminist, queer-antiracist politics within international security discourse, and the gendered and embodied reality of disability as a consequence of security threats. Much of the international legal scholarship, and the wider field of international relations where many of the pivotal texts emerge, centers the women, peace, and security agenda developed by the United Nations Security Council that was drafted after the shift toward human security in the 1990s. Yet this ignores the complex theorizations of gender from non-mainstream feminist contexts and risks the reproduction of modes of agents and victims that are aligned with the history of international law’s civilizing mission. International security, when viewed from a gender lens, thus offers the scholar a series of mechanisms for understanding the deep structures of international law while simultaneously challenging the mainstream production of gender as shorthand for women. The article includes a section on health that reflects the fact that it was prepared during the COVID-19 pandemic and the extended attention to the gendered elements of health insecurity that emerged at this time.

General Overview

Cohn 1987 remains a crucial starting point for understanding gender and international security. Written after a period of working among US defense officials, Cohn’s account of the gendered language and culture of military actors sheds light on the layers in which a gender analysis needs to be undertaken. The reflections on the symbolic role of gender in the language and methods of defense officials in Cohn 1987 interlocks usefully with Charlesworth 2002, a response to the emergence of humanitarian intervention as tool for responding to insecurity within states. Charlesworth’s identification of crisis as a mode of reducing complexity and ignoring the gender security of everyday practices is an important structural intervention into the discourse on international security and international institutions, which is also explored in Mibenge 2013. Written in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, Wright 2002 delves deeper into the legacy of Enlightenment thought paradigms and offers a mechanism for holding gender analysis in focus alongside the role of knowledge production in producing, and reproducing, intersectional harms. Excellent anthologies and collected works, including Ni Aoláin, et al. 2018; Dingli and Purewal 2018; and Heathcote and Otto 2014, provide an entry into understanding the discipline as well as the interrogation of the gendered binaries that underpin mainstream approaches to security. Bertotti, et al. 2021 offers an account of international laws on war and peace via a gender analysis. Written by international relations scholars, Davies and True 2019 is an edited collection on the women, peace, and security agenda that is of significant value.

  • Bertotti, Sara, Gina Heathcote, Emily Jones, and Sheri Labenski. The Law of War and Peace: A Gender Analysis, Volume One. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755637836

    This text considers key areas of international law, including the use of force, collective security, international criminal law, international humanitarian law, and laws on counterterrorism in providing a gender analysis of security and its legal dimensions.

  • Charlesworth, Hilary. “International Law: A Discipline of Crisis.” Modern Law Review 65.3 (2002): 377–392.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2230.00385

    Seminal international law article that critiques the use of humanitarianism to justify military force through the production of crisis. Charlesworth uses the analysis to identify the insecurity of everyday life and its gendered dimensions.

  • Cohn, Carol. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12.4 (1987): 687–718.

    DOI: 10.1086/494362

    This article, written in 1987, holds it own within the discipline and continues to hold “aha” moments for anyone that reads (or indeed rereads) it. Cohn demonstrates the deeply gendered agenda of security (defense) officials and shows how gender is not a noun, while offering a self-reflexive account of the allure and power that surrounds military cultures/knowledge frames.

  • Davies, Sara E., and Jacqui True, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security. New York: Oxford University Press 2019.

    Excellent collection of scholarship on the different aspects of women, peace and security with attention to legal scholarship, diverse regions and adjunct institutional spaces, while providing in depth accounts of key issues of relevance to the women, peace and security agenda.

  • Dingli, Sophie, and Navtej Purewal, eds. Special Issue: Gendering (In)Security. Third World Thematics 3.2 (2018).

    Journal collection that challenges the persistence of the war/peace and security/insecurity binary through a study of states of exception, while identifying the limitations of liberal feminist agendas. The special issue includes studies on Kashmir, Kenya, Palestine, and from South and Central America.

  • Heathcote, Gina, and Dianne Otto, eds. Rethinking Peacekeeping, Gender Equality and Collective Security. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    Drawing in an interdisciplinary group of scholars as well as activists and practitioners, this edited collection organizes itself around the themes of “Shame,” “Hope,” “Danger,” and “Silences” while offering insights from a range of contexts and perspectives.

  • Mibenge, Chiseche Salome. Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812208429

    An analysis of the production of gender in the Rwandan and Sierra Leone transitional justice spaces, drawing on in-country research and detailed analysis of the production of gender in legal narratives to evidence the construction of an essentialized African woman through legal processes.

  • Ni Aoláin, Fionnuala, Naomi R. Cahn, Dina Francesca Haynes, and Nahla Valji, eds. The Oxford Handbook on Gender and Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Impressive volume that provides dedicated case studies and cross-disciplinary perspectives as well as giving attention to key issues, with an important introductory chapter and an impressive profile of contributors. Offers key chapters on gendered violence against men and masculinities and on women, peace and security and gives both political and legal analysis.

  • Wright, Shelley. “The Horizon of Becoming: Culture, Gender and History after September 11.” Nordic Journal of International Law 71 (2002): 215–253.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1021756304797

    An engagement with both time and history, promoted by a feminist analysis of the events of 11 September 2001 that engages postcolonial and indigenous knowledge as central to feminist accounts that take serious the relationship between law and violence, enlightenment histories and insecurity.

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