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Contractors Are Falling Short on Women, Peace, and Security

Is the current guidance on the WPS agenda enough for private military and security companies?

Words: Anne Lauder
Pictures: Sage Friedman

In the 20 years since the adoption of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, various armed forces have worked to integrate women into their ranks and mainstream gender into their activities. While WPS is state-focused, the rise of non-state actors has created alternative avenues of enactment. Private military and security companies (PMSCs) provide a salient example of gendered guidance in the private sector.

Guidelines such as those from the International Code of Conduct Association, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, and the United Nations ask that private forces take a gender-conscious approach to providing security. Both sets of recommendations, released in 2019, include training on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, implementing grievance mechanisms for victims, and establishing national oversight authorities. The International Code of Conduct Association recommends that security contractors explicitly define and prohibit the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse in company policies. The Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance and the UN focus not only on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse but also on gender-based violence more generally and recommend integrating a gender perspective through consultations with women’s organizations.

While these guidelines provide a useful framework for contractors, they risk replicating errors of both states and UN peacekeeping operations in their current form. WPS, for instance, focuses heavily on violence during conflict, potentially overlooking catalysts that might be rooted in non-conflict circumstances. Sexual violence during conflict, while considered a distinct form of abuse, may also reflect peacetime gender relations.

Addressing gender in private security must include a holistic approach, unpacking the industry’s foundations and the ways in which contractors replicate security approaches that already put women at risk by either supplementing public forces or by contributing to the militarization of new spaces. For one, they share innate links to military structures, both in operational output and staff, with many composed of former military or law enforcement personnel. Security contractors need to respond to gendered harm but, more significantly, need to reflect on how their presence can reinforce militarization, continue pre-conflict patterns of violence, and foster other gendered abuses.


There are two major shortcomings in the security contractors’ WPS agenda implementation.

The first is related to the overall approach, where most contractors take a binary and exclusive approach to gender. Only recently has attention been paid to including LGBTQ+ individuals and gender minorities in the WPS agenda. Much of WPS also emphasizes women’s involvement without unpacking how racial, ethnic, and other identity markers affect opportunities for engagement, stunting the ability of WPS to act as a transformational policy agenda.

Security contractors need to respond to gendered harm but, more significantly, need to reflect on how their presence can reinforce militarization, continue pre-conflict patterns of violence, and foster other gendered abuses.

In a similar vein, PMSC guidance does not mention sexual orientation, transgender individuals, or gender minorities, creating a reductionist understanding of how gender presents itself and making invisible much of the harm that could occur. Current guidance neither considers the impacts of contracting companies’ activities on LGBTQ+ individuals and gender minorities nor addresses the needs of LGBTQ+ employees in PMSCs. The International Code of Conduct Association’s prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse guidance only identifies women, failing to acknowledge that risks and their associated prevention mechanisms may be unique for LGBTQ+ individuals. Recommendations by the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance and the UN, though acknowledging that the impacts of security companies vary across gender identities, states only that “men and women” should be part of gender-conscious planning.

The current guidance also ignores gender interactions with other identity markers. In a racially stratified industry, security contractors often leverage gendered frameworks to subordinate personnel along racial lines. Western contractors are valued for their expertise, while individuals from underdeveloped nations earn less and may be viewed as less qualified and, therefore, less masculine. WPS’s imposition on contractors requires a reframing that unpacks how other identities interact with gender to affect personnel’s positionality and analyzes the impacts of private operations outside of a gender binary.

Second, the implementation of the WPS agenda ignores the principal-agent issue in PMSCs. WPS’s heavy focus on implementation through government institutions overlooks the informal ways that women participate in peace processes and the relevance of nongovernmental and civil society organizations as forms of governance. Gendered guidance for security contractors also explicitly mentions state responsibility in overseeing private behavior at the cost of incorporating other clients, overlooking how these contracts influence private forces’ activities.

Based on incident data between 1990 and 2016, governments constitute the bulk of contracting companies’ client base. Still, commercial actors follow closely behind, with rebels, organizations, and individuals also outsourcing security to the private sector. The state is not unimportant, but it is not the only governor of contractor behavior either. Each client also carries with them unique gender-related concerns. The extractive industry, for instance, is notoriously linked to perpetuating gendered harm, and its contractual relations with security contractors are both unlimited and ungoverned.

Applying a framework built around the state’s interests and capabilities to non-state actors means that current guidance does not grapple with how the different interests of security contractors’ clients impact the interests of the organization and the likelihood that it will be able to meaningfully implement WPS reforms.


Despite state adoption of WPS, gender tends to remain sidelined in peace processes. In 2015, only 23% of peace operations were reported to be led by women, and the share of female uniformed personnel was below 4%. And women’s participation remains limited and performative in many cases. Parallel challenges are visible in the private sector. The share of female personnel remains low and women that are hired tend to be relegated to administrative roles, at least in private security companies.

When measurable goals for security contractors are provided, there is little in the way of clear articulations as to precisely how security contractors and governments can effectively implement guidance. Performance indicators tend to include measures such as the extent to which contractors’ documents refer to prohibiting gender-based violence and outline employees’ responsibilities. These standards represent a rhetorical shift, not a substantive one.

Checklist items relegate lived experiences and daily interactions to the minutiae, allowing for trackable measures without catalyzing transformation. Scholars and practitioners have echoed similar concerns in WPS’s application to governments. Like the same soup reheated, it’s the same agenda, just privatized.

Despite gaps, recent guidance represents notable progress in attempts to unpack PMSC operations along gendered lines. But while building a gender-oriented framework for the private security sector, the WPS agenda needs to be reformed, not reproduced.

Anne Lauder is an MA candidate in International Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in gender and security and research methods. Her research focuses on private military and security companies.

Anne Lauder

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