A new law should kickstart long-overdue efforts to include more women in peace and security leadership roles.
Ivanka Trump went to Congress earlier this month to launch a new White House strategy supporting a proven but overlooked approach to ending wars: the participation of women. The Trump administration’s embrace of this approach underscores its broad bipartisan support: the strategy follows Congress’s 2017 passage of the most comprehensive law in the world in support of women’s contributions to security and reinforces U.S. commitments first instituted by the Obama administration in 2011.
I saw the potential for this policy while serving at the White House and the U.S. Departments of State and of Defense, where I helped draft and implement the first-ever U.S. strategy for promoting women’s contributions to peace. But previous administrations and the now nearly 80 nations with similar promises have struggled to make the inclusion of women standard practice in security efforts. Is the Trump administration’s new strategy a sign that the United States will finally make its own security work more effective by including women? Only time will tell: the real assessment will occur in conflicts around the world, from Afghanistan to Colombia to Yemen.
Ample evidence demonstrates that including women in peace and security efforts is not just a matter of fairness—it is a strategic imperative. When women and civil society groups participate in a peace process, the resulting agreement is 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years. As security and peacekeeping officials, women provide insights and information that can be critical to stability efforts. Because of their distinctive access and influence, women are crucial antiterrorism messengers in their communities.
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Despite their contributions, women are often excluded from peace and security efforts. They are generally absent from peace talks, comprising less than 5 percent of mediators and 10 percent of negotiators between 1992 and 2017, and routinely underrepresented in security forces. U.S. policymakers rarely enlist women’s participation in efforts to combat radicalization—an omission that forfeits their potential contributions as mitigators against extremism.
Those women who find ways to contribute to peace in their countries often face systematic harassment and violence. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Somalia to Yemen, activists promoting security are themselves under growing attack. Take Sudan’s recent protests: with women accounting up to 70 percent of protestors, both the regime and the military used sexual violence as one of their deliberate tactics to terrorize civilians and push women out of the movement.
Yet, women around the world overcome these difficult odds and their broader political marginalization to advance stability efforts on the ground. From Colombia to Syria to Yemen, women have mediated local cease-fires, facilitated access past roadblocks, and secured the release of detainees. They have done the work local governments should do, from staffing field hospitals and schools to forming all-female police brigades, and they improve post-conflict recovery efforts.
Still, only a fraction of aid money in fragile states supports women’s groups, leaving their work chronically underfunded. Meanwhile, their priorities are often ignored. Take humanitarian assistance; while one in five women who have fled from their homes experience sexual violence, only 0.1 percent of emergency funding addresses violence against women and girls.
Now is the time to scale successful women-led initiatives: their contributions before, during, and after conflict would be enhanced with greater U.S. investment. Plus, the U.S. government will need to count women’s groups among its security partners if it is to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the new strategy.
The first test of the Trump administration’s strategy will be in Afghanistan, where women warn that their hard-won rights are on the line as the United States negotiates with the Taliban. Since the Bush administration, support for the women of Afghanistan has been a core tenant of American policy in the region. It reflects Afghanistan’s long history of women leading peace and reconciliation—from their bridging of tribal divides at the inception of the Afghan modern state to their participation on the Afghan peace council. Now, Afghan women are calling on the United States to insist women participate in bilateral talks with the Taliban—a promise Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to make when pressed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Other U.S. policymakers remain steadfast: “If any deal does not have protections from Afghan women, it’s not a real deal,” Sen.Marco Rubio has argued.
The same argument holds for other ongoing peace efforts: in Syria, the U.S. government should call for 30 percent representation of women at the next constitutional committee meeting, and the same for Yemen’s next negotiation (only one Yemeni woman participated in the December 2018 talks in Stockholm). To strengthen its own teams and to lead by example, the U.S. government should likewise ensure that its delegations have at least 30 percent women, a threshold that research suggests affords a critical mass to enable women’s influence.
As agencies develop implementation plans for the administration’s new strategy, now is also the time to set ambitious targets for how broader U.S. security initiatives will better draw on women’s contributions, as I outlined in my testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week on women in conflict. The U.S. government should, for example, address the barriers that limit the pipeline and deployment of female peacekeepers; increase U.S. security training opportunities for female officials from the world; and produce a National Intelligence Estimate on the relationship between women, violent extremism, and terrorism. The rising generation of American diplomats and security professionals needs better training and tools. In a welcome step, the new strategy commits to develop a government-wide framework to evaluate its progress. This should improve accountability, combined with Congress’s commitment to track the administration’s efforts to promote women’s participation and their protection from violence.
The Trump administration’s embrace—at least on paper—of inclusive conflict prevention and resolution is welcome. U.S. security officials should take notice: supporting women’s contributions is not just the right thing to do, it could also lead to a safer and more secure world.
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