Dr Ava Patricia Avila is a research professional with over 10 years’ experience performing policy data analysis on the intersections of gender, peace and security. Currently a Strategic Fellow at Verve Research and an Assistant Project Director at SMS Research & Marketing Services based in Hawaii, Dr Avila’s research interests include gender, civil-military relations and countering terrorism/violent extremism. She completed her PhD in Defence and Security at Cranfield in 2017, with her thesis on Defence ‘and’ Development: A Case Study of the Philippines.

In this interview, Ava shares her insights on the integration of gender perspectives in civil-military relations and peacekeeping, the challenges when it comes to translating agendas such as the Women, Peace and Security resolution into policy and implementation, and the importance of female mentors and the visibility of women in leadership roles when it comes to addressing gender imbalance.

“I wake up each day knowing that the data we gather and impart contributes to creating better policies.”

What inspired your interest in gender, peace and security?

My first job out of university was with a non-government organisation that worked on peace and gender issues. I travelled around Mindanao, where I had the opportunity to meet with women working in different fields, listen to their stories, and understand local and national issues. Those experiences made me realise that security does not just involve the physical and military - I learnt that security encompasses social justice and access to basic services, such as education and health.

Could you tell us a bit about what your research is currently focusing on?

In March, I presented a paper at the 2021 ISA conference, where I examined how, where, and why gender identities become visible (or invisible) in the discourses and practices related to countering/preventing violent extremism agenda in the Philippines. By analysing policy documents and security reports from 2000 to the present, I tried to define the roles and themes that gender has been most emphasised in and their implications to policy and practice.

I am in the process of finishing a research project with Australia Awards that focuses on civil-military relations in relation to the Philippines’ Covid-19 response. It examines the degree to which military officers are in positions of influence with regard to both policy decision-making and implementation of a public health emergency.

What do you like best about your work?
I recently started a new job at a research firm based in Hawaii. The projects I am currently involved in are focused on health care, work where you live programmes, and K-12 to career readiness initiatives. What I like best about my work is that I am learning something new every day and that I wake up each day knowing that the data we gather and impart contributes to creating better policies. As the newest member of the team, I also find that my colleagues are good teachers.

What led you to pursue your PhD at Cranfield and what was the most significant lesson you learned from the experience?

I had always known that if I was ever going to pursue a PhD, it would be a nexus of my development experience in the Philippines and my research work on terrorism issues while based in Singapore. This idea was supported by my supervisor Professor Ron Matthews, who at the onset believed in the potential of the project and my ability to conduct independent research. This supervisor-PhD candidate relationship built on respect and trust is probably the most significant lesson I learned from the whole experience.

What is your favourite memory from your time at Cranfield?

My PhD at Cranfield was conducted part-time and long distance. But whenever I was at the Shrivenham campus, I made sure to visit the Barrington library. As an alumna, I am grateful that I can access resources through the Alumni Library Online.

If I have to pick one favourite memory at Cranfield, it will have to be when I received my diploma and walked across the stage with my father and husband watching from the audience. My dad flew from the Philippines and it was a joy taking him around and introducing him to some people who were a part of this journey.

“A gender perspective has the potential to provide competencies and perspectives that can help improve the conduct of operations… I believe that gender is an essential factor in crafting and implementing policy.”

How important is it to integrate a gender perspective on civil-military relations and peacekeeping? What key skills and competencies do women bring to conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding?

Integrating gender into civil-military relations and peacekeeping ensures a critical examination and understanding of social, economic, political, and religious practices; of how equality and inequality manifest themselves in the distribution of and access to resources and of decision-making authority. A gender perspective has the potential to provide competencies and perspectives that can help improve the conduct of operations.

In an article for Analyzing War you mention that the Philippines has deployed more female peacekeepers compared to South East Asian neighbours and has a strong history of support and female participation in UN peacekeeping missions – why is this and what could other SEA countries potentially learn from the Philippines’ approach?

I believe that gender is an essential factor in crafting and implementing policy. The signing of the Magna Carta of Women Act of 2009 established the Philippines’ commitment to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) treaty. The Act mandated to eliminate policies that restrict women from participating in both combat and non-combat training as well as asserting no wage discrimination between women and men in the military and police forces. Since then, there has been an increasing number of women in the Philippines military and police services, including more female participation in the peacekeeping missions.

What are the challenges of mainstreaming the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) resolution and what key actions do you feel we need to see in order to address the gender imbalance of women in peacekeeping/civil-military operations?

The WPS agenda has been commended as a remarkable achievement in recognising and impeding the gendered impacts of conflict. However, there have been shortcomings when translating this to policy and implementation. In peacekeeping operations, for example, one challenge is the failure of senior leadership to prioritise WPS in their missions and hold staff accountable for integrating gender into their work. Likewise, many security policy decisions practice a top-down approach put together by a highly military-centric and masculinised structure, and usually frame women and girls as “victims” – which is why intersecting gender identities need to be acknowledged and local communities should be involved in decision-making. Another challenge that has been observed is the obsession with achieving numerical parity to address gender imbalance. While more women participants in peace and security structures is a welcome opportunity, inclusivity and diversity must be upheld.

“When women are exposed to females in leadership roles, there is high probability that they will subscribe to the view that women are well suited in higher positions.  Having a female mentor is a wonderful way to build skills and knowledge.”

How important do you feel access to female mentors and the visibility of women in leadership roles is to help to continue to address gender imbalances and break down perceived barriers for future leaders?

Women make up nearly half of the workforce today, but data shows women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide. In a study by Margaret Linehan and Hugh Scullion, they found that “female managers can miss out on global appointments because they lack mentors, role models, sponsorship, or access to appropriate networks – all of which are commonly available to their male counterparts”. Indeed, access to female mentors, especially with those who are aware of the unique gender differences in career management, is important.

Who has been your most influential role model or mentor and how did their advice/actions inspire your own career choices?

I have been fortunate to have had some amazing mentors in my life. One of these is Patricia Sarenas, who has been a pivotal role model in both my professional and personal development. “Mama Pat”, as I lovingly call her, is a consummate mentor. When I met her, I was a new college graduate – keen to learn – and she was eager to spend time with me. She was always happy to share her insights on peace and gender issues based on her experiences as a feminist activist and as a public servant. While it was essential for me to learn the ropes of office support work, she made sure that I got to travel with the team on the field. Before realising it myself, she saw my potential and became my champion when I decided to pursue research work in Singapore. She wanted me to experience new things to boost my confidence and enhance my interpersonal skills. Even now that we live thousands of miles apart, I can count on Mama Pat’s wisdom. Whether it is a video call or a lunch date (a must if I travel to the Philippines), I know I am going to come away with something valuable for my growth because she is faithful to her values and principles.

What would your advice be to women looking to progress within what might be typically male-dominated sectors?

Research shows that when women are exposed to female in leadership roles, there is high probability that they will subscribe to the view that women are well suited in higher positions.  Having a female mentor is a wonderful way to build skills and knowledge. I also would advise cultivating confidence by being assertive - share your thoughts/ideas and ask questions. It is also important to cultivate friendships and support fellow workers, especially other women.

“The Women, Peace and Security resolution has become an instrument in raising women’s voices and leadership…”

How has Covid-19 changed the landscape of civil-military relations? Could there be some positive outcomes that arise out of such widespread global disruption to the status quo?

Events such as natural disasters and pandemics have often generated demand for civil-military cooperation. In some countries, the military has extensive experience in responding to typhoons, earthquakes, and landslides. At the most basic level, the military has a national command network with personnel as well as reserves that can be mobilized to supplement civilian frontline services. Most militaries can offer logistical support, including transport, as well as medical staff and infrastructure. However, such additional requirements on the armed forces come with an opportunity cost as these resources and units cannot be tasked to traditional missions and defence readiness. In response to Covid-19, militaries have generally remained in a supporting role, except in countries where weak civilian institutions, heightened by poor political leadership, have failed to control the spread of the virus. In a democratic society like the Philippines, the use of the military and militarised language in campaigns against Covid-19 speaks volumes about the state of the country’s civil-military relations, which appears to be more heavily towards the military than the civil.

Cranfield is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year – what do you think has been the biggest change or advancement in civilian-military relations and peacekeeping over the last 75 years?

I think the biggest advancement in civilian-military relations and peacekeeping was the adoption of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) in October 2000. The agenda has become an instrument in raising women’s voices and leadership, increasing their participation in peace processes and leadership in security institutions, and bringing grassroots strategies for peacebuilding. While there have been significant challenges as it evolved over the years, there have been efforts across sectors to examine what WPS means for the future.

Thank you to Dr Ava Patricia Avila for sharing her insights. Don’t forget to check out the alumni content hub for more thought-leadership content – from articles and on-demand webinars to podcasts.