U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, director, intelligence and knowledge development directorate, U.S. Africa Command, gives remarks during the opening ceremony for exercise Cutlass Express 2019 in Djibouti on Jan. 28, 2019..

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, director, intelligence and knowledge development directorate, U.S. Africa Command, gives remarks during the opening ceremony for exercise Cutlass Express 2019 in Djibouti on Jan. 28, 2019.. Staff Sgt. Amy Picard

Lawmakers Should Push the Pentagon to Draw on Women’s Contributions to Security

A relatively tiny increase in dedicated funding would make a big difference downstream.

As Congress drafts this year’s defense spending bills amid pandemic, economic trauma, and uncertainty, lawmakers should increase their support for a proven, yet underused way to boost national security: fostering and drawing upon women’s contributions. 

Evidence that such efforts prevent conflict, counter terrorism, improve intelligence collection, and promote stability led lawmakers to pass the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act, and to support it with dedicated appropriations (including $4 million in 2019 and $7 million in 2020 for the Pentagon). Provisions in recent defense authorization bills have also nudged the Pentagon to better incorporate a gender perspective and increase women’s participation. Congressional support has been critical to the Defense Department’s progress: all regional and most functional combatant commands have hired and trained gender advisors (assisted by Pentagon-based women, peace, and security coordinators). The commands are starting to integrate attention to gender perspectives in their campaign and contingency plans, and into some security cooperation efforts. As required by the 2017 law, the Department will soon release a plan that commits to specific policy and program steps to implement the White House’s own strategy on women, peace, and security.

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Nevertheless, these developments remain too limited to fully reap the benefits of women’s contributions to national security. Congress should increase the dedicated resources that turned the Defense Department’s previously empty commitments into concrete progress, and provide at least $8.5 million to enable the Pentagon to maintain its network of gender advisors and expand its training and security cooperation efforts. 

In addition, provisions in the 2021 defense authorization bill should focus on critical policy and program gaps, starting with security cooperation efforts. Research and experience show that in intelligence gathering, women can reach different populations and provide critical early warning information; in stabilization operations, women’s participation enhances local perceptions of the security force’s integrity; and in all roles, women can bring new and innovative ways of thinking that strengthen national security. This indicates that programs intended to help build the capacity of partner defense institutions and security forces should include attention to the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women—such as by advertising employment opportunities to women, preventing harassment and abuse against them, and ensuring the appropriate equipment and infrastructure is available for female security and police forces. Since 2013, lawmakers have rightly focused on this issue in Afghanistan, requiring the Pentagon to assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in recruiting and training more women. The Pentagon should continue this work in Afghanistan and expand it across other combatant command theaters. 

Likewise, lawmakers should set targets to increase the number of women who participate in U.S.-provided training, capacity building programs, and professional military education where women are woefully underrepresented—such as those that bring foreign officers to U.S. military schools. These opportunities boost careers and should help promising women and men alike to advance in their careers and contribute to their nations’ security.

The intelligence community should increase its assessment of the relationship between women, violent extremism, and terrorism. Lawmakers could, for example, request a National Intelligence Estimate analyzing how women—as perpetrators, preventers, and targets—influence the evolving terrorist threat landscape, and thereby better prepare the United States to respond. 

Lawmakers should further underscore that gender perspectives are an integral part of broader human rights and civilian protection activities. The 2017 defense authorization act dramatically reformed security cooperation efforts by requiring that they include training on human rights and the law of armed conflict, and last year expanded this to require the Pentagon to include human rights and civilian protection in its assessment and evaluation of security cooperation programs. But too often, these trainings and activities overlook women’s rights and protection concerns, resulting in efforts that ignore half the population and fail to fulfill Congressional intent. The Pentagon needs to be prompted to include attention to women and girls in activities related to human rights and the protection of civilians—just adding these few words to relevant provisions would encourage staff to integrate gender perspectives in programs and thereby improve their effectiveness.

Finally, to ensure the next generation of security professionals is best able to meet 21st century challenges, lawmakers should ensure the principles outlined in the Women, Peace, and Security Act are better integrated in training and education programs. The services should identify opportunities to incorporate these principles into all levels of personnel training, including pre-deployment training. One starting point could be strengthening the gender considerations within training for mission essential tasks that require an understanding of what the Defense Department’s joint list of tasks calls “socio-cultural dynamics and human terrain.” And when it comes to professional military education programs—from the Naval War College to the National Defense University—lawmakers should ensure that the curriculum includes courses, readings, and lectures that address gender perspectives and the meaningful participation of women, and how these relate to national security outcomes, and thereby ensure that students are exposed to the research on why and how the U.S. government should advance the role of women in security.