Warfare is not just a man’s domain

by Brenda Oppermann

Originally published at Small Wars Journal. Reposted here with author’s permission. 

Clearly, the emperor has no (or few) clothes when it comes to the United States’ ability to stop violence and facilitate stability in troubled places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc. Years of effort and mammoth expenditure dedicated primarily to building up security forces and institutions appear to have wrought little in the way of sustainable peace and stability. It’s time to rethink our notions of security. And it appears that the Department of Defense (DoD) is leaning in that direction.

More and more, senior military leaders are discussing women’s crucial role in enhancing security. At a recent global security event, for example, Gen. John Allen (ret.), Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, made a strong case for working closely with indigenous women as a means to counter extremism and stop violent conflict.  After decades of all but completely ignoring local women, it seems that Defense is finally removing its blinders and acknowledging the crucial role that women play in preventing violence and stabilizing communities. As a result, conversations surrounding Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) are on the rise.

WPS is shorthand for UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, a landmark international legal framework adopted in 2000 that addresses how war impacts women differently from men and discusses the pivotal role women should — and do – play in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. The U.S. is obligated to implement UNSCR 1325 according to Article 25 of the United Nations Charter that states that all members of the United Nations “agree to carry out and accept the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter”.

UN-member countries implement 1325 by developing National Action Plans (NAPs). A NAP is a detailed road map outlining ways to address the specific effects of conflict on women and girls as well as increase women’s participation in preventing, resolving, and rebuilding from conflict. The U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security was created through the efforts of government agencies and non-governmental groups and organizations. It recognizes that “empowering half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace … is critical to our national and global security”.

In December 2011, the U.S. NAP was instituted by Executive Order 13595, legally mandating its implementation. While all federal government entities are accountable for implementing the Plan, the lead organizations are the U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of State, and Department of Defense (DoD).

WPS Rationale Doesn’t Guarantee Integration

According to the U. S. National Security Strategy, “Experience shows that countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women are accorded full and equal rights and opportunity.” Experience also shows that women generally take the lead in promoting peace and stability and are key influencers in their communities. Nevertheless, despite this knowledge and the logic it implies, i.e., improving the status of women and including them as active agents in stability operations is key to preventing and mitigating conflict, DoD has struggled to implement WPS.

Female Engagement Teams (FETs) are a key example of this.  FETs were a prime tool for reaching out to women in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to collect information about local populations and implement community development projects to promote peace and stability. However, their impact was often minimized for two main reasons: 1) little effort was put into educating military members about the importance of these teams to the overall mission —  a constant complaint from FET members was that their commanders didn’t understand their work and/or didn’t believe it contributed to the mission — and 2) FET members were dual-hatted; they were soldiers who already had full-time jobs as mechanics, medics, intelligence analysts, etc., but were also expected to participate in combat missions in their “FET” role. This meant that a commander would have to forgo a soldier’s primary duty if she was sent out on a FET mission. The most common result of this situation was many commanders’ refusal to regularly deploy FETs thereby effectively disregarding local women.

The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP) is another example of DoD’s struggle to integrate WPS. Although WPS stresses the importance of involving women in all peacebuilding measures, in Kandahar, for instance, no Afghan women were involved in the program during its first few years.  The lack of women’s involvement occurred despite the fact that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — represented by an American command in Kandahar — was responsible for directly facilitating this peacebuilding program. Even calls by senior Afghan leadership failed to encourage the U.S. military to include Afghan women in APRP activities. In early 2011, for instance, a large gathering of Kandahar Provincial Government representatives, non-government key leaders, and ISAF military members took place in Kandahar City to discuss and promote APRP. The Minister of the Haj and Religious Affairs called on the assembled group to encourage Afghan women to participate in the process, noting that peace could not be achieved without them. Despite this public call, the U.S. command in Kandahar made no move to ensure that the American officer in charge of the local APRP staff require them to engage local women. So they continued to work solely with Afghan men.

More recent evidence of the military’s foot-dragging is found in DoD’s most recent annual report concerning progress made in implementing the NAP. By and large, it includes examples of efforts to train and educate rather than operationalize WPS. WPS has been included in the Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) system, for instance, as a Special Area of Emphasis (SAE). While this is a positive development, PME colleges are encouraged, but not required, to incorporate SAEs in their curricula. DoD has also conducted many studies and held several conferences and seminars on WPS-related issues. While research and discussion are important, there needs to be more walk to match the talk.

Obstacles to WPS Integration

History reveals numerous examples of women around the world promoting peace and preventing conflict and extremism, but getting little, if any, credit for their work. In addition, research shows that involving women in peacebuilding increases the probability that violence will end within a year by 24%. Local women also ensure the stability of communities during conflict and hence, are key to successful post-conflict reconstruction efforts that can be the most critical indicator of long-term peace. So why doesn’t DoD fully integrate WPS?

Of the two main reasons: one is structural and the other cultural. As discussed, if female soldiers are required to serve in two duty positions at the same time, e.g., intelligence analyst and FET member, then commanders are essentially being asked to complete their mission with insufficient support since one soldier is made available when two are needed. Given the choice, most commanders opt for having a soldier continue to fill the “official” billet, rather than resource a poorly understood enabler. While this structural impediment is very real, the primary reason that Defense has been slow to integrate WPS is the culture of the military.

Culture is a powerful force. And U.S. military culture is strongly tied to its masculine-warrior identity. Just how tied military members are to the notion that warfare is the domain of men has been clearly evidenced by recent efforts to open all military occupation specialties to women. Just as the military has resisted providing women with the same opportunities as men to “officially” serve in battle, so, too, has it resisted acknowledging and leveraging the role of local women in transitioning countries from conflict to peace.

Now that some senior military leaders appear to have gotten the WPS memo, perhaps DoD will overcome these obstacles and turn discussion into action.


Brenda Oppermann, MA, JD, is a stability operations advisor, gender expert, and human rights lawyer has extensive experience working with DoD. She is also the founder of GameChangers 360. Follower her team on Facebook and Twitter


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