Women are essential to resolving conflict — yet they are often woefully underrepresented in the peace process. Why is this — and what can be done?

The United Nations Women, Peace and Security Framework and the series of UN resolutions that followed promote increased participation of women in all levels of decision-making and in conflict prevention, advocate for protection of women and girls in conflict, and promote gender mainstreaming. The framework is critical to recognizing and fully realizing the role women play in security affairs, and the U.S. Department of Defense also plays a critical role its implementation.

Yet, while close to 80 percent of attendees of a recent Sea Services Leadership Association had heard of the framework, they weren’t familiar with its content, or the framework’s critical link to promoting security.

SSLA discussed this key issue of women, peace and security – what the framework is (and isn’t), why it matters, and what’s stopping it from being implemented – with national security expert, professor and author Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese.

The webinar was part of SSLA’s inaugural Joint Women’s Leadership Virtual Series, a twelve-session webinar program providing professional development learning opportunities for military servicewomen and veterans.

In short, according to Johnson-Freese, the WPS Framework is “not just a human rights or just a gender equality issue. It’s a matter of security.”

First, Johnson-Freese highlighted the importance of diversity, and “having women involved in a way that they can make their voices known, they are listened to, they feel they can speak without potential retribution.” Including the diverse views, perspectives and information of women (essentially, half the population), Johnson-Freese stressed, is critical to understanding the security environment as a whole.

“One of the key external factors in strategy development is understanding the security environment. But how can you understand the security environment if you’re not including the views, perspectives and information that can be garnered from half the population?” said Johnson-Freese. “I think the United States has found repeatedly in places like Afghanistan and Iraq that not fully understanding the environment before going in, does not set up your strategies for success very well.”

Johnson-Freese also noted how conflict and war can disproportionally affect women, which in itself can lead to instability and even further conflict.

“The nature of war has changed – and it’s changed in ways that really affects women. Women are in fact more likely to die than men from the indirect effects of war, things like food shortages, disease, health issues….Targeting women has become a strategy of war. States that are characterized by gender inequality are more likely to engage in violence and conflict,” said Johnson-Freese. “So, it is a matter of security – and we need to acknowledge it as such.”

Inclusivity, noted Johnson-Freese, is critical to addressing this environment, and investing in women’s agency can lead to prosperity and security.

“Women are agents of human security,” said Johnson-Freese. “If we just included more gender inclusivity in the job market, we could add $12 million to the global GDP by 2025; in education, an increase of 10 percent enrollment of girls in school can increase the country’s GDP by some three percent.”

“It has been statistically shown that when women are included in peace negotiations, the probability the resulting agreement will last for at least two years increases by 20 percent and 35 percent that it will last at least 15 years,” continued Johnson-Freese. “Yet, women are included less than 10 percent of the time. So we know there’s a relationship, we know inclusivity but he has benefits, yet we’re not doing it.”

So why aren’t there more women included in the peace and security process? Johnson-Freese noted there are many challenges to implementing the WPS Framework.

“Implementation challenges are structural and cultural,” noted Johnson-Freese. In the United States, “we’re very fortunate that many of the structural barriers have been taken down,” she said, but even some recent structural changes, such as allowing women in combat roles, necessitate addressing culture barriers, which “are actually the harder challenges.” Deeply-rooted patriarchy and misogyny often play a role, with power often a commodity that men “are simply not willing to give up.” Just as insidious, Johnson-Freese said, is what she calls the “blind fish syndrome” of individuals being unaware of their own environment: “If you are experiencing sexism, or racism as we’re talking about increasingly at a nationwide level, you might not recognize it, and you might inadvertently perpetuate it.”

With all these barriers, what can be done? Johnson Freese highlighted several essential actions to contribute to increasing security:

Awareness. “You can’t implement what you don’t know about,” stressed Johnson-Freese. And, “skeptics want data.” Progress is being made in increasing awareness of WPS topics through programs at national war colleges and increased gender advisor courses. Various webinars, books and other research and scholarly articles can increase learning and discussion on the topic. (Johnson-Freese recommends resources such the ones contained in this bibliography.)

Inclusivity. Johnson-Freese notes that in order to truly have “inclusive diversity,” women must comprise at least 30 percent of group. Further, experts on WPS need to have access and inclusion in national security affairs. “We need more peacekeepers, we need more gender advisors and they need to be put in positions where they have the weight, and the ear of those who are making decisions.” Additionally, “women’s issues can’t be seen as peripheral, they must be included as mainstream.”

Resources. “You put your money into things that you think are important…there is no doubt that it starts with more money for peacekeeping generally, and having governments put pressure on recruitment of women.” Johnson-Freese noted resourcing peacekeeping is more than simply funding, but also “having [peacekeepers] appropriately trained, having them skilled and having the resources on hand for them.”

 Leadership. “It takes leadership to be active rather than passive in inclusivity. We need to, when in leadership positions, speak out about implementing women, peace and security framework across the board…and that’s both externally and internally.” Johnson-Freese pointed to Australia’s former Chief of Army Gen. David Morrison’s 2013 video on gender inclusion as a primary example of this leadership. Further, we all can play a leadership role, stressed Johnson-Freese, even if we just talk to our leaders about WPS and inclusion, or simply “whet [our] appetite for knowing more.”

Watch this webinar, “SSLA Joint Women’s Leadership Virtual Series: Women, Peace and Security,” on SSLA’s YouTube page.

To participate in future JWLS Virtual Series events, view the full schedule here and join the conversation on SSLA’s Facebook page.

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