Peace advocates, defense experts, policymakers and women around the world are celebrating the passage into law of the Women, Peace and Security Act. At a time when women’s rights and bipartisanship may both appear fraught in the United States, this bipartisan bill ensures that the role women play in preventing, experiencing and resolving conflict globally is elevated across the full spectrum of U.S. foreign policy.
The bill originated in the Senate and passed unanimously in the House on September 28, thanks to the leadership of Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), Ranking Member Eliot Engle (D-NY) and Representatives Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). In the Senate, the bill was led by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Christopher Coons (D-DE). President Trump quietly signed it into law Friday.
This historic legislation could not be more necessary or timely. Currently, there is more global conflict than the world has seen since World War II. The humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq have all stemmed from conflict and have created regional instability, a massive refugee crisis, wide-spread starvation and ripples of human suffering across the globe. In Yemen alone, a staggering 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and 60 percent is food insecure. While women are caught in the crosshairs, a cholera epidemic is spreading swiftly through the country—and a child under the age of 5 dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.
We need every resource at our disposal to create a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world. Without women, we ignore half of society’s power to achieve this. This is often the case when we ignore gender as a lens through which we must view and approach policymaking. It is also important to understand that women and girls bear the brunt of conflict, experiencing unspeakable violence against their bodies, being less likely to survive a food shortage and more likely to be sold into slavery or forced into marriage. Studies show that 25 percent of women in complex humanitarian emergencies experience sexual violence, as opposed to seven percent of women worldwide. These disproportionate effects alone give them the right to be present and heard at the negotiating table.
But women are more than victims. They are also a unique and powerful force for peace, both in resolving and preventing conflict. Groundbreaking research has shown that substantial involvement of women in peace negotiations makes resulting peace agreements more successful. In fact, studies have shown that the inclusion of women made agreements 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. For example, women in Rwanda played a key role in facilitating the reconciliation and reconstruction process after the 1994 genocide. In Liberia, during the second Liberian civil war, women came together to form the movement known as Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. These women convinced warring factions to agree to peace negotiations, participated in those negotiations and helped lead the postwar reconstruction efforts.
The evidence that women’s inclusion in peace processes makes those processes more successful has led to increased consensus among the international community and in the United States that women must be intentionally included in them. During the passage of the legislation, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said in his House floor speech, “Now, it may seem obvious that women should have an opportunity to represent their communities as a matter of right. They make up half the population and what negotiation or agreement can claim to represent women if their very participation is barred!”
And he is absolutely right. But this obvious fact has not always played out in reality. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, between 1992 and 2011, women represented fewer than four percent of signatories to peace agreements and nine percent of negotiators. The mountain that must be climbed to reach equal representation is steep indeed, so it is critical that the Women, Peace and Security Act now puts the full force of U.S. foreign policy behind this principle.
So, what does this look like in reality?
The legislation builds upon current policy that was put into place by executive order in 2011 requiring that the U.S. promote women’s participation in peace processes, prioritize protective mechanisms for women and girls in the midst of conflict, engage women in conflict prevention and peace-building efforts, and ensure equal access for women and girls to relief and recovery efforts during post-conflict reconstruction. The Women, Peace, and Security Act ensures the U.S. will always have such a strategy and gives congressional oversight to its implementation. The Secretary of State, the USAID Administrator, and the Secretary of Defense will all now be required to report to Congress on the development of guidelines, training of staff and personnel and the monitoring and evaluating of impact on the ground. And it is worth noting that these requirements span the full spectrum of U.S. foreign policy as they are being carried out through defense, diplomacy and development.
It could be argued that this particular legislation was necessary because foreign policy is very rarely made with an eye toward gender. Very often, policies and the way they are implemented affect the lives of men and women differently and these differences should be taken into consideration. However, research has shown that this is not the case, particularly when making foreign policy. Many policymakers, in fact, pride themselves on being “gender blind” as a way of ensuring that their efforts are equitable. But the result is often the opposite.
“The problem with blind spots,” wrote Elizabeth Weingarten and Valerie Hudson, “is that you end up blindsided by unintended consequences. Until we recognize how central (gender) is to every security policy and issue, we will continue to live in a world that is less safe—for both women and men.”
The Women, Peace and Security Act is a critical and historic first step in making the world more safe by requiring the U.S. government to ensure women—their voices, contributions and needs alike—are amplified when addressing conflict. But our efforts will not stop there. Civil society played an enormous role in encouraging the U.S. government to create the National Action Plan and pass the legislation that builds upon it. We are inspired and grateful to the bipartisan team of congressional leaders who did the right thing for women and the smart thing for the world by passing this legislation and we will continue to work with them and the Administration in the critical first steps of its implementation.
But today, we celebrate. We celebrate women as advocates, peacemakers and leaders. We celebrate all those who support them, men and women alike. We celebrate the recognition that conflict, crisis and the policies to address them affect us all differently.
Most of all, we celebrate that today, as a result of working together, we are all a bit closer to a better, safer future.