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New US law gives women a crucial role to play in mitigating conflicts

New US law gives women a crucial role to play in mitigating conflicts
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Conflicts rage across the world from Afghanistan to Ukraine to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, exacting devastating human tolls of death, displacement, and destruction.

Recently, the United States recognized in a new law that women have a crucial role to play in mitigating conflicts. The Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 ensures that the U.S. will promote women’s meaningful participation in peace-building, reconciliation, peace negotiations, humanitarian efforts, and in the security sector because it is in our national interest and an important measure of U.S. global leadership.

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This new law is a significant bipartisan achievement in what has become an increasingly polarized political environment. Its impact, however, will depend on its implementation.

 

The law mandates that the Departments of Defense, State and The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) train government officials to integrate a gender perspective and the participation of women into the range of our diplomatic, military, and development policies and programs. Women’s participation must no longer be viewed as an optional add-on, but as a necessity for operational effectiveness.

As chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted, “This law was the culmination of years of bipartisan work by members of Congress, current and prior administration officials and the many advocates who want to see better, more sustainable solutions.”

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The law calls on the president to develop a public strategy within the next year that includes specific implementation plans for each agency. It calls both for coordination and accountability.

As the former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, I was involved in the previous administration’s development of a U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security which had a similar objective. Today 67 countries have adopted plans in this area, including NATO. They recognize the linkage between women’s engagement and more peaceful, stable, and democratic societies.

Many of today’s wars are recurring conflicts and more than half of peace agreements fail within five years of being signed. Women comprise only a small percentage of those involved in negotiations even though they are directly affected by the conflicts.

Rape continues to be employed as a tool of war, and conflict touches women's lives in myriad other ways. Women possess vital knowledge and on-the-ground experience that is vital to the outcome of peace talks.

During a trip to Afghanistan a few years ago, an Afghan woman who was a frontline activist for peace admonished me, ”Stop looking at us as victims, and look at us as the leaders that we are.”

She was right, of course. Studies show that women’s participation contributes to an end to hostilities and helps create a durable peace.

My experience working to implement the U.S. national action plan at state provides insights into the steps necessary to ensure the successful implementation of this new law.

First, there must be an understanding that women’s participation is critical to foreign policy. It is predicated on an evidenced base case that demonstrates women’s important contribution to operational effectiveness in building peace.

We should learn from the efforts of women leading peace and not repeat the same failed strategies.

Second, this is not about feminist theories but concrete practice. The U.S. is engaged in preventing conflict and working to achieve peace in conflict zones around the world. This should affect our policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and more. It is about supporting the nascent peace agreement in Colombia. It is about countering violent extremism.

Third, this requires leadership from the top, particularly from the secretaries and USAID administrator. It means that implementation is not relegated to an office with little clout or to a siloed “gender” advisor.

If it is not deemed important by leadership, it will not be considered important. Congress should hold agency leaders accountable and follow the implementation of the law. This should be about integration for operational effectiveness and not about marginalization just to check a box.

We can do better; this must not be about good intentions but concrete actions.

Amb. Melanne Verveer is the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace and Security and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women's Issues.