NATO countries should raise the number of women soldiers and improve promotion opportunities for its female security and defense chiefs, alliance officials agreed at a conference in Sofia on Tuesday.
"Whether it is ending a conflict, managing a transition or rebuilding a country, the world can no longer afford to continue ignoring half of the population," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Marie Yovanovitch said at the forum.
Over 90 top-rank defence and security officials from 21 NATO members and partners joined the conference, which highlighted the practical contributions women can make in the military, both as soldiers and as decision-makers.
Yovanovitch especially noted the unique role of women in peace negotiations and in resolving gender-related conflicts or problems linked to abuse of marginalised groups.
The U.S. official warned that as the number of women soldiers grew, it was important to open their way to decision-making positions by providing them with training and better promotion opportunities.
"Prejudices still exist among armed forces commanders about the number of women in their ranks and the positions they should be allowed to take," Bulgarian Defence Minister Anyu Angelov said, insisting that promotions should instead be based on merit.
Before starting talk about female commanders, NATO countries should first make an effort to overcome a trend for "stagnating" numbers of female soldiers in their armed forces' ranks, NATO Chief of Office on Gender Perspectives Hilde Segers said.
"It is a very, very slow evolution. Without further action I do not think it is going to change," Segers told AFP on the sidelines of the forum.
Data by her office showed that the current number of women in the armies of NATO member states ranged between 20 percent in Hungary and 2.1 percent in Poland.
"I do not want to use that dirty word 'quotas'. But we need targets and this is not the case today," Segers said, adding that gender equality was still a "very sensitive topic" in the military.