By Tatyana Hopkins
The domestic and international efforts of federal agencies to advance women’s equality, inclusion and economic empowerment are like individual bricks, and the government lacks a comprehensive approach to unite them to strengthen its global impact, said retired Admiral Michelle Howard.
“We have all of this work going on, and it’s related, but we’re not actually building,” said Adm. Howard, who joined the George Washington University last fall as the Elliott School of International Affairs’ J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Visiting Professor.
She spoke Tuesday in the Jack Morton Auditorium as part of the Shapiro Lecture Series, where she analyzed the strengths and limitations of the recently published United States Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. Shirley Graham, director of the Elliott School's Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs and associate professor ,moderated the discussion.
The strategy, which was mandated by the bipartisan Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, recognizes the adverse and disproportionate effects of disasters and conflict on women and girls and their under-representation in efforts to prevent and resolve conflict. It outlines four “lines of effort” that require the United States to advocate for the protection, participation and involvement of women in conflict prevention, resolution and reconstruction.
“This strategy could be the mortar to put all these bricks together to actually make a cohesive, holistic government response,” Adm. Howard said.
She said the strategy would be most effective if it made specific agencies responsible for parts of the plan rather than directing various federal agencies to create action plans “that cover [its] entire portfolio.”
The lines of effort are to: (1) support the meaningful participation of women in conflict and crisis decision-making; (2) promote the protection of women and their access to safety from violence, abuse and exploitation around the world; (3) adjust U.S. programming to improve equality outcomes for women; and (4) encourage partner governments to adopt policies that improve the meaningful participation of women in peace and security decision-making institutions.
“One of the key things we have to do is assign someone to be responsible for the lines of effort,” Adm. Howard said. “Trying to get all of the departments to focus across the lines probably means you’re not going to have as much movement.”
She said the U.S. State Department, which represents the United States in the United Nations and is responsible for the nation’s foreign policy and international relations, should lead the charge on the strategy’s third line of effort. The line, which Adm. Howard called the “foundational brick,” seeks to improve equality outcomes internationally.
“You have to make sure you have equality for any of this to blossom,” she said “This is the spirit [the State Department has] been working in for decades.”
Adm. Howard said the State Department could encourage other nations to reconsider policies they might have in place that hinder gender inclusion and equality in areas of peace and security.
“If the militaries have policies that limit where women can participate… then when you're trying to generate women peacekeeping forces, you're limited because you don't have a source there,” she said.
She said the Defense Department should lead the strategy’s second line of effort, which aims to protect women’s and girls’ human rights and access to safety.
“The Department of Defense should lead this line of effort because they're the ones who end up providing the training to other militaries for peacekeeping, and there's a lot of opportunities for [them] to exert leadership in this line of effort based on the alliances we have,” Adm. Howard said.
She said the department could sponsor a NATO center of excellence, an international organization that trains leaders from NATO member and partner countries on specialized topics, for women, peace and security.
“We would then have an ability within the NATO framework to start creating and institutionalizing processes that look at women, peace and security through a gender lens,” she said.
She also said the Defense Department could leverage its National Guard Partnership Program, which conducts joint exercises and trainings among states’ National Guard units and the equivalent of a partner country, to create an international pipeline for training on gender equality. She also suggested the agency incentivize countries to send women for training in its International Military Educational and Training program by offering fully-subsidized seats for women candidates.
She said the U.S. Institute of Peace was the “natural place” to undertake the strategy’s remaining goals that focus on stimulating the “meaningful” participation of women in decision-making institutions because of its extensive work with nonprofits and data collection. She added that the United States Agency for International Development, which provides civilian foreign aid and development assistance, should lead the White House’s women economic empowerment initiative.
“These are things we can do right now that don’t cost a lot of money,” Adm. Howard said. “This is achievable. There has been a tremendous amount of work done by our government. I think the strategy is a way to connect it and move forward.”