The women, peace and security initiative is not only the right thing to do, but it is militarily effective, DOD officials said on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark United Nations Security Council resolution.
UN Resolution 1325 recognized the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls. It mandates that nations must ensure that the views, needs and circumstances of women are addressed in areas affected by conflict.
By law, DOD must incorporate these considerations. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the combatant commands.
"Combatant commands and their components have really advanced the department's [women, peace and security] implementation," Cori Fleser, a WPS advisor on the Joint Staff, said. "The combatant command gender advisors have been instrumental [in] incorporating gender and human security supporting information into combatant command campaign plans, security cooperation, exercises and training."
That women and girls are particularly affected by war is not new. What is new is the emphasis on incorporating their viewpoints, needs, wants and attitudes toward conflict into plans and then acting on them.
In the early days of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials noted the need for female engagement teams or special operations cultural support teams to gather information from local women. While it wasn't culturally appropriate for foreign male soldiers to gather this information, local women talking to another woman helped forces overcome this operational gap. These early examples were effective. Today the combatant commands and their women, peace and security advisors now have more examples to draw from.
In the past few years, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command's WPS office has leveraged workshops conducted by the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Strategic Studies and disaster relief exercises led by U.S. Army Pacific to strengthen the WPS integration in humanitarian assistance and disaster response support.
One specific example is the command's partnership with Mongolia to develop the Women's Mentorship Program which began in 2018 and continues today, Fleser said. This program equips women in the Mongolian defense and security sector with knowledge and skills to address the needs of women and other vulnerable populations in Mongolian disaster response efforts. It also leverages women's networks to strengthen relationships across the various government agencies involved in the Mongolian disaster response. Women from the program also participated in USARPAC's Gobi Wolf exercise in 2019.
"We know from previous humanitarian crises that women and other vulnerable populations are often overlooked by the national response effort," Carolyn Kenney, who helps manage DOD's women, peace and security program from her post in the Pentagon's policy office, said. "All government entities — especially defense forces — need to ask: How are men and women impacted differently by crisis? How do their roles before and after the crisis differ?"
Other combatant commands have similarly found ways to incorporate women, peace and security tenets into core components of their missions.
U.S. Southern Command's WPS program emphasizes women's participation in the security sector during many of its senior leader engagements with strategic partners across Central and South America and the Caribbean. "Professional militaries at their core require respect from their citizens to be truly effective and successful. Women play a central role in building that respect," Ambassador Jean Manes, civilian deputy to the U.S. Southern Command Commander, wrote in a State Department blog post earlier this month.
U.S. European Command focuses its WPS efforts by strengthening partnerships — both in its support to U.S. interagency initiatives in the European theater and through its support to NATO. Also, NATO itself is a leader in advancing women, peace and security.
U.S. Africa Command has a long history of advancing WPS through its peacekeeping capacity-building support to African troop-contributing countries. In recent years, the command has expanded its approach into countering violent extremist organizations. From 2017-2019, Special Operations Command Africa highlighted the role of female security forces, violent extremist organizations exploitation of gender dynamics and coordination with women's civil society networks within their annual Flintlock exercise with West African partners.
"Leveraging military-to-military partnerships — strengthened through exercises and capacity building efforts — is a powerful approach the U.S. military uses not only to raise awareness of WPS with partner militaries but also to identify the military's role and responsibility for upholding the core tenets of WPS," Fleser said.
Terror groups try to exploit gender norms to garner support from local communities. "Identifying opportunities to safely and meaningfully work with local women's civil society organizations is exactly how militaries can incorporate WPS into their core functions," Fleser said. Local women's organizations are key stakeholders for building community resilience to counter violent extremism, she said.
The program works differently across different regions. Some lessons can be applied in other areas, but many must be tailored. Flexibility and adaptability have been the linchpins of the women, peace and security program's success. Commanders, civilian leaders and Congress recognize its effectiveness, Fleser said.
Congress made adherence to the program part of U.S. law and since the passage of the legislation, the department has leveraged WPS as a strategic partnership opportunity to uphold international human rights and women's empowerment, she said.
This alone sets the United States apart from near-peer competitors and adversaries.
Both officials emphasized the need for expanding awareness and knowledge of the program across DOD by integrating key concepts into existing training with U.S. personnel to help them understand how WPS concepts translate into their day-to-day jobs.
This would be especially important to those service members studying the "human terrain," Fleser said. Special operations teams, civil affairs personnel and intelligence professionals are prime recipients of this training. "Understanding gender nests perfectly within an existing analytical framework they use frequently," she said.
Continued leadership support is also needed for the program to realize its potential, Kenney and Fleser said.
"When first introduced to the WPS program, I was fascinated by the impact our gender advisors were making in the combatant commands," Lisa Hershman, the department's chief management officer, said. "Why were leaders not talking about this? Similar to the Department's reform initiatives that fundamentally change the way we do business, the WPS Strategic Implementation Framework is outcomes-focused, supporting every [National Defense Strategy] line of effort, and is fundamentally changing the way we execute at the tactical, operational, and strategic level. We need to continue to make sure other leaders across the department understand the importance and value of WPS."
"We have a strong network of WPS subject matter experts and advocates across DOD components," Kenney said. "They've gotten us this far. With leadership support and continued funding, it's exciting to think [about] what we may accomplish in the next five to 10 years."
(Editor's Note: Cori Fleser, a women, peace and security advisor on the Joint Staff, served as a subject matter expert and contributor to the writing of this article.)