With the Women, Peace, and Security Act, Washington Could Be a Model for the World

In congressional hearings this week, it just needs to figure out how to better implement the legislation.

A roundtable discussion is held with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on the U.S. strategy for implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Act, on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019.
A roundtable discussion is held with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on the U.S. strategy for implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Act, on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The U.S. Congress will soon turn its attention to assessing how well the executive branch is implementing the Women, Peace and Security Act. The act, passed in Congress and signed by U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 after years of civil society advocacy and strong bipartisan support, is the world’s most comprehensive law in support of women’s leadership in ending wars and building peace. The law required a whole-of-government strategy on how the United States would promote this goal, laid out training requirements for all appropriate personnel, and required a progress report outlining common indicators to track progress. This week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security will hold its first-ever hearing on how well things are going.

In compliance with the law’s mandate, four U.S. departments and agencies—State, Defense, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—recently released plans for how they would implement the 2019 governmentwide strategy on promoting women’s meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution. Among other details, the State Department identified 14 focus countries for its women, peace, and security efforts, including Myanmar, Iraq, and South Sudan; USAID committed to increase women’s roles in countering violent extremism from Indonesia to Northern Nigeria; and the Defense Department promised to be a model for increasing gender diversity and inclusion. As former government officials who were both involved in developing and implementing the U.S. government’s earlier national action plan on women, peace, and security in 2011, it is clear to us that making progress on this issue offers immense opportunities.

A plethora of research supports women’s participation as a proven strategy to improve global security. Countries are more prosperous and stable as the gender gap closes: For example, the Women, Peace, and Security Index, produced by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, has found a direct correlation between women’s equality and societies’ security and stability. Studies by the Council on Foreign Relations have documented how women’s participation in peace processes, from Colombia to Northern Ireland to the Philippines, increased the likelihood of warring parties reaching lasting peace agreements, as they organize across cultural and sectarian divides, mediate local cease-fires, and broaden the negotiating agenda to include issues critical to post-conflict recovery. Women also provide insights and information critical to counterterrorism and the promotion of stability. With this in mind, there are several areas the oversight hearings should examine.

The first is the extent to which agencies have fully integrated their women, peace, and security commitments into their broader national security efforts around the globe.

There are too many missed opportunities where advancing women’s contributions to peace and security could have improved the effectiveness of U.S. diplomatic, development, and security efforts. Despite years of bipartisan promises to protect Afghan women’s rights and set Afghanistan on a path to sustainable peace and stability, the Trump administration abandoned these commitments in order to procure a deal with the Taliban, leaving any guarantees for Afghan women and girls to an intra-Afghan process. At the United Nations last year, the United States aligned itself with China and Russia to undercut a resolution on conflict-related sexual violence and restrict services to survivors of rape used as a tool of war. So far, the Department of Homeland Security has not applied the principles of the Women, Peace, and Security Act to its border security, refugee, or asylum policies.

To prevent further such omissions, security-related policies should view gender equality as integral to more effective outcomes—from the National Security Strategy to the forthcoming congressionally mandated global fragility strategy, a 2019 initiative to muster a whole-of-government approach to the prevention of conflict. More broadly, agencies should make it standard practice for their policies and programs to address gender equality—by integrating that goal in their formal planning and budgeting processes and by requiring a gender analysis to ensure their efforts are informed by realities on the ground. USAID does so already, and its plan reflects the benefits of this approach: It lays out regional commitments that reflect the value of, for example, women’s role in preventing violent extremism in Pakistan, encouraging Myanmar’s peace negotiations, and supporting Iraq’s stabilization operations.

The second way to measure the act is in terms of accountability. Accountability is critical, and agencies must fulfill the requirements laid out by Congress. But the agencies’ current plans are inadequate.

The Women, Peace, and Security Act required the agencies to include specific and measurable goals, benchmarks, performance metrics, timetables, and monitoring and evaluation plans. To date, none of the agencies have met all of these requirements. State and USAID have submitted the most comprehensive plans so far; next, they should produce agencywide baselines that they can use to set specific targets and timelines (for example, how many local women’s groups will they fund or how many security forces will they assist in recruiting more women and by when). Agencywide benchmarks are critical to defining what success would look like; these should be public and form the foundation for any future plans. In contrast, the Defense Department plan lacks the necessary guidelines and takes the radical step of linking women, peace, and security to “lethality,” meaning the military’s deadliness on the battlefield. The Department of Homeland Security’s plan, meanwhile, is at a nascent stage in examining how women’s contributions relate to its mandate (despite the law’s passage three years ago). Without stronger transparency frameworks, the agencies will not be able to demonstrate results, modify underperforming efforts, and improve future planning.

The third metric for the hearings should be funding. Without adequate funding, the White House strategy and its associated implementation plans are empty mandates, yet none of the agencies identify the resources they need to fulfill their vision. Increasing women’s participation is a cost-effective investment to advance U.S. diplomatic, development, and defense objectives; agencies should recognize this and commit more from their existing budgets to make it happen.

Fourth, dedicated staff and agencywide training are necessary to implement the Women, Peace, and Security Act. Agencies are hampered by gaps in both. High-level leadership and agencywide commitment are necessary if the government is to move beyond its inadequate business-as-usual approach to conflict prevention and resolution. The cabinet secretaries and USAID administrator should designate a full-time senior executive who reports directly to them to best ensure the full integration of women, peace, and security across each of the designated agencies. Moreover, the agencies should identify what additional personnel are needed to mobilize a whole-of-government effort. Implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Act cannot be left to well-meaning staff with insufficient capacity and no support from the top.

The 2017 law rightfully includes a focus on training U.S. government personnel at all levels on why promoting women’s meaningful participation contributes to preventing and resolving conflict and how doing so relates to their job responsibilities. In their plans, neither Defense nor Homeland Security detailed how they will expand their training efforts, while State outlined its priorities but without specifics—only USAID laid out time-bound, specific training goals. All the agencies should be pressured to do better.

Fifth, Congress should press each agency on how it is advancing women’s leadership in its own operation.

To lead by example, the White House strategy calls for U.S. diplomatic, defense, and development interventions to include the participation of American female personnel, yet only State’s and Defense’s plans even mention the need to improve women’s representation in their workforces. None of the plans include diversity and leadership targets to address their inclusion shortcomings. As the United States rightly encourages other governments to increase women’s participation, it should take its own advice to heart.

With the implementation of the groundbreaking Women, Peace, and Security Act, the U.S. government could be a model to the world, demonstrating that we are all more secure when women participate fully in preventing and resolving conflict. Congressional oversight is critical if this is to become a reality.

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director for human rights and gender on the White House National Security Council staff.  Twitter: @jamillebigio

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University. From 2009 to 2013, she was U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

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