Bipartisan leaders from the White House to the Senate this month reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to support women’s roles in preventing and resolving conflicts, from Afghanistan to Colombia to Yemen.
In a welcome step, the Trump administration launched its Women, Peace, and Security strategy, laying out an ambitious agenda to ensure women are part of peace negotiations, security forces, and postconflict transitions, while addressing the effects of conflict on women and girls. The strategy fulfills one of the key requirements of the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act—the most comprehensive law in the world to support women’s meaningful participation in peace and security efforts—and reinforces policies first issued in 2011 by the Obama administration.
Underscoring Congressional support, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) chaired a hearing on advancing women’s roles in peace and security, at which I was honored to testify. I saw the potential of supporting women’s participation in security efforts while working to advance this issue at the White House and the U.S. Departments of State and of Defense, where I helped launch the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on promoting women, peace, and security. The Trump administration’s new strategy is a positive step: the question now is whether the government can translate its promises into standard U.S. practice around the world, and—by consistently supporting women’s contributions—improve security outcomes.
CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy program analyzed the ways that women contribute to peace processes around the world, documenting why it matters across twelve recent cases. Take two active peace processes—Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, women have negotiated directly with insurgent leaders to support the reintegration of demobilized Taliban fighters, mobilized public support for the peace process, including by encouraging local insurgents to participate, and worked in schools to counter extremist narratives. They also broaden the agenda. Wazhma Frogh, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network, recounted: “when women engage in the process, we talk about the needs of the communities, about justice, about schools, about health, about education. It becomes about communities and issues, not just about men deciding which power positions to hold.” Yet in twenty-three rounds of talks between 2005 and 2014, on only two occasions were Afghan women at the table.
In Yemen, women have facilitated humanitarian access where convoys have been blocked, joined across political lines in local truce committees to prevent fighting over water and land resources, led reintegration programs for child soldiers and—in the face of ongoing abuse—worked to release detainees and track bombings and medicine shortages. Yet only one Yemeni woman participated in the December 2018 talks in Stockholm.
When civil society actors—including women’s organizations—participate in peace settlements, the resulting accord is 64 percent less likely to fail, and when women participate as negotiators, mediators, witnesses, or signatories, an agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least fifteen years. Despite ample evidence demonstrating the importance of women’s involvement, they remain largely excluded from peace and security efforts. Our program tracks women's participation across the world’s major peace processes, and the findings, which Senator Shaheen referenced at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s recent hearing, are disparaging: between 1992 and 2017, women comprised less than 5 percent of mediators and less than 10 percent of negotiators around the world. Women are also routinely underrepresented in peacekeeping missions, even though their participation has been shown to improve operational effectiveness and advance stability: in 2017, only 4 percent of UN military peacekeepers and 10 percent of UN police personnel were women. And while local women’s groups lead grassroots efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts, they received just 0.4 percent of the aid to fragile states from major donor countries in 2012–2013.
With the Trump administration’s new strategy outlining a vision to fill these gaps, I recommended in my testimony a number of opportunities to translate its lofty goals into diplomatic, development, and defense investments in areas around the world affected by conflict.
- In any peace or transition process in which it is involved—from bilateral talks in Afghanistan and Yemen to Syria’s constitutional committee and beyond—the U.S. government should advocate that women represent at least 30 percent of negotiating bodies and mediating teams. Likewise, the U.S. government should ensure that its own delegations advancing peace and security efforts include a minimum of 30 percent women.
- The U.S. government should allocate more resources to support women’s contributions in efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts. Investment by the United States in this area has been limited to small grants or stand-alone programs, an omission that overlooks the benefits of women’s participation and the contributions of half the population.
- As the U.S. government pushes peacekeeping operations to be more effective and less costly, it should help troop-contributing countries recruit and deploy more female peacekeepers. And to improve the capacity of security partners around the world, the U.S. government should increase the participation of female officials from around the world in U.S. provided security training. Courses like the International Military Education and Training program or the Antiterrorism Assistance program should double within three years the total number of women receiving training (as a bill introduced in Congress a few years ago sought to do).
- To combat the sources of terrorist support, the director of national intelligence should produce a National Intelligence Estimate and form an operational task force on the relationship between women, violent extremism, and terrorism, including an analysis of women’s roles as recruiters, sympathizers, perpetrators, and combatants. Given the rise in women’s participation in extremist groups, the United States can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which women can strengthen counterterrorism efforts.
- To discourage the use of sexual violence in conflict by militaries, police, and armed groups, the U.S. government should encourage partner countries to condition bilateral assistance and weapon transfers to foreign militaries on the security units’ human rights record, including with respect to sexual violence. Such a commitment would be modeled on the U.S. Leahy Law (1997) and Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits the use of funds for units of foreign security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights. In parallel, the Departments of State and the Treasury should use sanctions to apply a travel ban and asset freeze on human traffickers.
The success of the Women, Peace, and Security Act and of the administration’s new strategy can only be measured through action. This month, leaders on the Senate Foreign Relations committee—from Senators Rubio and Shaheen to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA)—committed to hold the administration accountable. Including women is a proven strategy to advance peace: for the sake of our collective security, now is the time to act.