Three cheers as Trump launches first women peace and security strategy
Today on Capitol Hill, after 18 months of bureaucratic give-and-take, the White House is scheduled to launch the first national strategy on women, peace and security. Security experts should pay attention. Key aspects of the agenda can enhance our understanding of, and preparation for, contemporary conflict.
Mandated by the bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, the plan aims to bolster U.S. strategies on national security, counterterrorism, defense, stabilization assistance, human trafficking, and women’s economic empowerment.
Women have unique understanding of the logic of conflict and their societies’ inner workings. Preparing women for “meaningful participation” in decision-making before the first phase of armed conflict, one of the strategy’s main goals, can catalyze U.S. diplomatic efforts abroad. Women have provided actionable intelligence when they’ve seen sons or husbands in the process of radicalization, before they participate in terrorist acts. Much more can be done to help women safely share those insights.
Ensuring women’s equal access to aid in the relief and post-conflict recovery phase has catalyzing effects, too. When women are strong-armed or intimidated out of their fair share of support in the aftermath of war or natural disaster, families and communities lose their primary channel for aid. Backstopping women’s leadership role in the family and in the community is essential to successful U.S. aid efforts.
Last week, President Trump rightly honored the thousands of young men who fell on Normandy beach 75 years ago, turning the tide of war, forging an alliance and, later, framing the legal and institutional bases of our world order. Today’s conflicts undermine that order. Countless thousands of anonymous women and children are raped, sold to sexual slavery, and murdered by armed groups and rebels who flout the laws of armed conflict meant to protect civilians.
Lessons from Latin America and elsewhere show that large-scale sexual violence in conflict destroys families and the fabric of society needed to recover and rebuild democracies and economies. That’s why the strategy’s goal of protecting women and girls in conflict and disaster is a strategic issue.
Ending impunity for such crimes is a bedrock principle of the rule of law. Yet women’s participation in reconciliation and justice in the post-conflict phase often goes missing. That hampers a country’s ability to transition to peace and democracy. Many survivors live in remote, war-ravaged areas and speak in regional dialects. Fear of reprisal and harmful social norms compounds their lack of participation.
The painstaking work of protecting them while gaining their wisdom in the peace process pays long-term dividends. Support for faith-based and local organizations with ties to under-represented communities will be essential in implementing the strategy. Implementation plans are forthcoming from the departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the months ahead.
Here at home, the administration does well to take stock of its own national security apparatus. Several key positions, such as the U.N. ambassador, remain vacant and provide opportunities to bring in women leaders with experience in security and strategic studies, counterterrorism and intelligence, as well as statecraft and development.
As a former faculty member in one of our nation’s war colleges, I can corroborate the strategy’s assertion that relatively few foreign military women participate in our professional military education, and that they should. That doesn’t mean they’re not engaged. The administration can capitalize on the work of groups such as the Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium, which has hosted hundreds of international military women, including pioneers from Africa and Asia. Service academy and other networks’ all-women members have spent entire careers in and out of conflict and disaster zones. They can help inform operational plans for tomorrow’s conflicts and disasters.
Women’s participation is not a matter of gender equality or diversity for its own sake. Women serve because they bring something essential to the table, and to the fight. Women are force enablers. Our diplomatic, military and development institutions need the unique qualities women bring to bear. Hats off to the administration for launching its strategy; now it’s time to meaningfully implement it. Security experts should pay attention and get involved.
Susan Yoshihara is a retired U.S. Navy commander and helicopter combat logistics pilot. She is president of the American Council on Women Peace and Security and senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy. Follow her on Twitter @susan_yoshihara.