It’s Time for a U.S. Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security
By Sahana Dharmapuri, Jolynn Shoemaker, and Erin Cooper of Our Secure Future
The new Biden Administration will encounter a mix of traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including authoritarian governments and state aggression, violent non-state actors, cyber threats, climate change, and human rights abuses. All of these security threats have a dimension often treated as an afterthought but is central to our security: gender equality.
The incoming Administration is revisioning security to look more like America and prioritizing critical issues, like climate change and technology policy. Establishing a Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security, would proactively address yet another strategic policy objective.
As a government, we’ve already acknowledged this reality. The Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 (WPS Act), builds on 20 years of experience, research, and advocacy for gender equality, diversity and inclusion in security decision-making. Women, Peace and Security is a transformative policy mandate with a global constituency. It provides policymakers with the tools to end cycles of violent conflict, create more equitable peace processes, halt inequalities, and promote gender equality on a global, national, and local scale. The evolution of this global agenda demonstrates that sustainable peace and security is not possible when voices on human rights and inclusion are marginalized.
Gender equality is far more than “women’s issues” that can be brushed aside. It is closely correlated with social stability, state security, rule of law and good governance. Research has demonstrated that the way in which women are treated in a society is a harbinger of that society’s stability and propensity for violence. Using a gender perspective improves security outcomes. A gender perspective is far more than just women at the table. When projects, programs, and algorithms are designed with a gender perspective it increases our chances of success at creating sustainable peace and security for everyone.
A robust and revitalized Global Women’s Issues office in the State Department could house the Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. The Special Representative aligns with the overarching mandate of the Global Women’s Office to promote gender equality.
The Special Representative position would report to the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and would give the Women, Peace and Security policy agenda the dedicated attention it deserves. The Special Representative would focus exclusively on the specific issue set of Women, Peace and Security. This would be a time-bound position to support legal and policy commitments we have made as a country through the WPS Act.
The Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security would work closely with counterparts in the National Security Council, USAID, Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, to break down silos between portfolios that are relevant to this agenda. This is not unlike other Special Representatives with a specific role in advancing U.S. foreign policy interests, such as the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, the Special Representative on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, or the Special Representative on Trafficking-in-Persons.
Such a portfolio would enhance diplomatic relations with the UN, NATO, and countries that prioritize this issue set with their own Women, Peace and Security National Action Plans. The Special Representative would also be empowered to identify new and emerging security issues and to coordinate inclusive and innovative approaches that embody the Women, Peace and Security agenda. The Special Representative can be tasked with producing a 25th Anniversary Report on the State of the World on Women, Peace and Security. The report would assess American commitments on this issue set, and review the progress of other countries, identify gaps, and highlight emerging issues relevant to national security.
Establishing a Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security early in the Biden Administration will demonstrate American leadership and a commitment to the values of transparency, accountability, and equality as central to U.S. foreign policy. This will be instrumental for realizing a human rights-based vision while embodying the principles of diversity and inclusion.
What is Women, Peace and Security?
Now, more than ever, there is an opportunity to build on the momentum and commitments of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, as embodied in U.S. law. The Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 (WPS Act) was a successful bipartisan effort in the midst of a deeply partisan political arena. The WPS Act mandates defense, diplomacy and development institutions to integrate a gender perspective. It requires a gender analysis in decision-making, and increasing women’s participation in foreign policy decision-making. A bi-partisan Women, Peace and Security Congressional Caucus, established in early 2020, is co-chaired by Representative Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Representative Mike Waltz (R-FL).
The U.S. law may be relatively new, but Women, Peace and Security has a much longer history. This agenda was developed by civil society, and was spearheaded by women in non-Western contexts, including countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia in reaction to violent conflict, authoritarianism, and human rights abuses.
Today, civil society efforts are underway to press for this more inclusive and peaceful approach in every region around the globe. Since the United Nations Security Council first formally recognized women’s roles in peacemaking and peacebuilding in UNSC Resolution 1325 (2000), governments and international organizations around the world have also tasked themselves with moving this agenda forward. More than 85 countries now have National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security, and these plans involve multiple ministries spanning all aspects of governance.
U.S. agencies have been implementing this agenda since the Obama Administration, after an Executive Order on Women, Peace and Security was issued in December 2011. The work has been slow but steady, relying on individual champions and pockets of awareness across the government. But overall, very few foreign policy and national security policymakers are knowledgeable about this mandate.
Many see it as narrowly applicable to only specific conflict-affected countries. This is a missed opportunity. A Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security could examine emerging, complex and far-reaching foreign policy and national security challenges where we need much broader representation and ranges of perspectives.
New Frontiers for Peace and Security
One example of this is in the emerging national security and technology space. The United States is making policy decisions about the future of technology governance and innovation, and how the use of technology by malign actors will be curbed. Women and marginalized communities are experiencing systemic bias and abuse in technology leadership, creation, and use. Algorithmic bias could have widespread negative consequences for women and BIPOC communities, and gendered dynamics on tech platforms are interlinked with violence, extremism and authoritarianism. The problems show up first in women’s experiences and in the most chronically marginalized groups.
Women in politics, in particular, are the targets of overwhelming volumes of online attacks and fake stories, often aimed at framing them as untrustworthy, unintelligent, emotional or hyper-sexual. This type of disinformation is designed to alter public understanding of women politicians’ track records for immediate political gain, as well as to discourage other women from seeking political careers.
Doxxing, swatting, deepfake videos, disinformation, and other forms of cyber attacks are often first tested by extremist groups on the most marginalized groups, such as women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities, before these tactics become mainstream. This is true globally–whether the violent actors are white supremacists or Islamic fundamentalists. It is easy to test violent political narratives and agendas on marginalized communities simply because those groups are neither listened to by mainstream security actors, policymakers, nor by the private sector. It shouldn’t be a surprise — violence perpetrated on these communities is often ignored.
These new gender and security problems are not well understood within the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security policymaking.
Technology companies such as Facebook, and even small start-ups are starting to recognize many human rights and gender problems that are playing out on technology platforms. They are attempting to address these issues with interventions like ethics committees and oversight boards. Sustained and coordinated dialogue with civil society, the private sector, and government actors will be critical to address interlinkages between technology, peace and security in a holistic and gender-sensitive way.
The Special Representative could leverage these nascent good governance efforts, and bring together stakeholders to support the Women, Peace and Security agenda in these emerging policy areas. An internal advocate for a broader peace and security lens, the Special Representative would expand the range of voices at the table. This would ensure that our security policy discussions and solutions are more inclusive, effective, and forward-thinking.
This is the moment for the incoming Biden Administration to bring the principles of Women, Peace and Security into the full landscape of peace and security challenges, including violent conflict but also new and complex challenges in the digital ecosystem.
We need imagination to bridge our ideals of human rights and democracy into the reality of the new world that we are living in. The Women, Peace and Security Agenda is about norms and principles – human rights, participation, inclusion, justice – that are fundamental to our journey as a nation.
The Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security can bring together many facets of the democracy we seek to build at home and reflect the best of American leadership abroad for the sake of peace and security.
About the Authors
Sahana Dharmapuri, Director of Our Secure Future
Jolynn Shoemaker, Fellow, Our Secure Future
Erin Cooper, Women, Peace and Security Project Specialist, Our Secure Future
About Our Secure Future
Our Secure Future: Women Make the Difference (OSF) is a department of the Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation. OSF works to strengthen the Women, Peace and Security movement to enable effective policy decision-making for a more peaceful world.