Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to the advancement of women and U.S. foreign policy interests. This article is from Ambassador Cathy Russell, U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues.
It was the women who noticed something suspicious. Strange things were happening in their community in southern Afghanistan. Uzbek women were knocking on doors, asking families about their sons under the guise of bringing foreign business investments to the community.
But the local women thought foreign investments in this remote corner of Afghanistan were unlikely. As they investigated, they learned that the community’s boys were being targeted for something far less appealing: recruitment by militants.
Twelve of the women traveled to Kabul to sound the alarm. They tracked down a government minister to hear their concerns. But instead of taking notes during the meeting, the minister laughed, sending them home frustrated and empty-handed.
Within a month, the militants attacked a bus in their community. Dozens of people were killed.
Afghan activist Wazhma Frogh shared this story at a recent event in Washington, D.C. marking the fifteenth anniversary of international commitments to include more women in global peace and security efforts. The anecdote was a variation on a theme heard at many events reflecting on the anniversary: despite international commitments, and even though women are frequently at the center of local efforts to hold communities together during conflicts, they are rarely at the tables when important national and international political decisions are made.
At an event commemorating this anniversary in New York, Director of the Congolese Women’s Fund Julienne Lusenge spoke to the United Nations Security Council, where she noted, “I thought for a long time whether I really wanted to come back here to re-describe the same atrocities, to tell you that almost nothing has changed in critical situations for women in [the Democratic Republic of the Congo].” She added, “You have heard the desperate cry of women many times, and your actions were not enough to make a real difference. Do not let them go unheard today.”
Lusenge spoke about how women in eastern DRC were demanding seats in peace dialogues, but no one would let them participate. “There are only two parties in the conflict. Either you are part of the Government or part of the M23 [rebel] group,” Lusenge said, describing the response to women’s demands.
This exclusion flies in the face of mounting evidence that shows peace talks are more successful when women are involved. For instance, researchers studying post-Cold War peace processes found that negotiations were more likely to end in an agreement when women’s groups played an influential role in the process. A global study looking at progress on the women, peace, and security agenda found the “most repeated effects” of women’s involvement in peace talks were “the commencement, resumption, or finalization of negotiations when the momentum had stalled or the talks had faltered.”
With so much evidence that women are important partners for peace, why are they still left out of the conversation?
One issue I hear over and over again is the “first, then” syndrome. No one wants to say women can’t participate, but they’re quick to add that first the combatants need to come together, or first the “hard security” challenges must be tackled. Once that happens, then women can join the conversation.
This approach relies far too much on fighters. Women know the economic and security vulnerabilities at the local levels, and they understand the crises and conditions that provoked the conflict in the first place. If they are left out of the peace process, that valuable knowledge is also excluded. Moreover, the foundation for emerging political, justice, and security institutions—which operate best when they represent more than just some voices in a community—is weakened.
Once women are allowed to participate, they need to be well-prepared to be part of peace processes—especially if their presence is disputed by some of the other participants. Working in the local police force, for example, or in local political bodies now gives women the training and experience they’ll need in the future—a fact that should empower every community and country to take action for inclusive security. Leaders should recruit women to work in government, learn the ropes as civil society activists, or join the security sector. That way, they’ll be well prepared to lead in peace building or conflict prevention down the road.
Ultimately, these steps address a hard truth: local, national, and international systems around the world still favor men, leaving women disempowered to live free of violence, pursue an education, make a decent living, and serve their communities as leaders. This, in turn, enables government officials, police officers, soldiers, courts, and other leaders to disregard women’s voices and experiences when important decisions are made.
In other words, international peace and security requires women and girls to be empowered at all levels. That is why, last week, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power announced a series of commitments by the United States totaling more than $31 million that will build on the ongoing effort by the United States to advocate for women as equal partners in promoting international peace and security.
It will take more than money or government action to empower women and strengthen the foundation for inclusive security. We need to change minds as well. Many political, military, and security leaders around the world—including here in the United States—still see gender equality as a soft issue that can be put off for a later date.
The evidence says otherwise. We ignore it at our own risk.