The Trump administration found a rare area of bipartisan agreement with the launch of a strategy to reduce global conflict and foster long-term peace by engaging more women in security agreements, political life and civic society.
But even as the initiative draws praise, analysts worry about the administration’s commitment to fully realizing its vision. They point to White House policies that undercut the strategy’s central goals of furthering women’s economic and political empowerment.
They note that while the plan calls for close cooperation with non-governmental organizations like the United Nations, the Trump administration has had a fraught relationship with the world body, particularly on gender issues.
They also point to US involvement in Afghanistan peace talks, noting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declined to commit to ensuring women’s participation. And they raise the fact the administration is providing no new funding to back its ambitious goals.
‘All the right language’
“It has all the right language,” said Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a former ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues in the Obama administration. “It’s great on the need to protect women in conflict situations, the need for women’s participation in effecting outcomes, the role they play in prevention. The acid test is how this affects administration foreign policy.”
White House officials have said the strategy was spearheaded by Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior adviser, who promoted the initiative at an event on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with officials from the departments of State and Defense as well as the US Agency for International Development.
A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee marked the strategy’s release with a hearing Thursday on women’s role in peace and security. No administration officials attended.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the subcommittee chair, noted the wealth of research that shows women’s involvement in peace negotiations leads to more lasting stability. “Women play a key role,” Rubio said. “If 50% of your population is left out of peace processes and is left out of key leadership and decision making roles, you are setting yourself up for failure.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and driving force behind the legislation that led to the strategy, said “there are so many conflict areas around the world where having women participants will make a difference”
Syrian human rights activist Lubna al-Kanawati, who works with the group Women Now for Development on a political solution to the conflict there, says women’s participation is crucial.
‘Women tell stories’
“Women tell stories in a different way, they experience everything differently and that needs to be reflected,” al-Kanawati told CNN at Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on the rights of women and girls held in Vancouver earlier this month.
A 2015 study by the International Peace Institute shows that when women participate in peace talks, negotiations are 35% more likely to succeed. Peace agreements that involve women also last longer, according to a 2018 study cited by the United Nations.
Despite that, the number of women at the table tends to be miniscule, even as conflicts continue to simmer in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Burma, Afghanistan, Ukraine and elsewhere.
Between 1990 and 2017, women only made up 2% of mediators, 8% of negotiators and 5% of witnesses and signatories to all major peace processes, the UN says. Another study found that of 1,500 peace and political agreements between 2000 and 2016, only 25 considered how women could play a role in implementing them.
The new US strategy – a product of the Women, Peace and Security Act, legislation with wide bipartisan backing that President Donald Trump signed into law in 2017 – is meant to address those shortfalls.
‘An important step forward’
It directs the departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security, along with the US Agency for International Development “to guarantee the meaningful participation of women in conflict resolution and disaster recovery,” to increase the physical safety of women and girls and their access to assistance and justice, and incorporate the strategy’s principles into their existing programs, personnel training, and international activities.
Rachel Vogelstein, director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations says the law is an “important step forward,” but adds that the real test for implementing the strategy “is going to come in conflict.”
On Thursday, Rubio noted that ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan could serve as a test, saying they “provide us with an opportunity for the US to prove its dedication to women’s participation in negotiations. And I hope we do all we can do ensure that women have a seat at that table.”
During an April Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, even as the administration was working on the new strategy, Shaheen repeatedly asked Pompeo to commit to prioritizing Afghan women’s involvement in ongoing peace talks.
Pompeo repeatedly side-stepped, declining to offer US backing.
“Secretary Pompeo’s refusal to commit to including Afghan women in US-led negotiations with the Taliban is both a moral and foreign policy failure for this administration,” Shaheen said in a statement afterward, noting that involving women is “mandated by the Women, Peace and Security Act.”
Palwasha Kakar, a senior program officer with the United States Institute of Peace told Rubio’s panel, “I cannot stress enough how worried Afghan women are about the US-Taliban talks” because they are concerned that hard-won rights might be eroded.
Analysts point to another inconsistency in the administration’s approach in the strategy, which emphasizes women’s economic empowerment as a foundation for greater political participation in their communities as well as in security and peace efforts.
Yana Rodgers, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, was among those who said a central pillar of the Trump administration’s foreign policy dramatically undercuts a woman’s ability to improve her economic situation and with it, her ability to engage politically.
Under its version of the “Mexico City Policy,” the Trump administration will cut all health funding to any foreign nongovernmental organization that discusses, provides or recommends legal abortion services to the public or its government. The policy is making it much more difficult for poor women in developing countries to access contraceptives and other forms of reproductive health care, according to international NGOs on the ground.
There’s clear evidence that when women can time the spacing of their pregnancies, they’re able to participate in the economy in ways that benefit their families and societies, Rodgers said.
“They are actually attacking women’s reproductive rights and that is an attack on women’s economic empowerment,” Rodgers said.
Administration officials did not answer questions about the conflict between the reproductive health policy and the security strategy. They were also unable to pinpoint the exact amount of funding that will back the program.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it wasn’t unusual for those amounts to be quite low. “This is not a partisan issue, it is absolutely across administrations,” she said.
‘The rubber hits the road’
The strategy and the Women, Peace and Security Act have their roots in a 2010 announcement at the UN by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who committed that the US would create a National Action Plan on women and security. The Obama administration launched the plan in 2011 and an update in 2016. Then, too, funding was tight, said Lemmon.
“This effort remains chronically underfunded,” said Jamille Bigio, a former Obama administration official who helped design and implement the National Action Plan.
Bigio said the Trump administration strategy lays out “an important vision,” but added that her experience with the first plan showed her it will take work. “I saw how challenging it has been for the United States government to ensure its commitments to women in peace and security efforts are integrated into its core security programs.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that Ivanka Trump publicly promoted the strategy on women, peace and security at an event with administration officials.