The release of the plans of four U.S. government agencies to protect, empower, and support women in conflict situations abroad, as required by Congress in the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, presents advocates and independent observers with a conundrum. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in particular have prepared credible plans with ambitious, yet achievable, goals, but how are we to assess commitments to women’s empowerment and gender equality made under a president whose policies have flouted those principles for more than three years? A president whose actions consistently undercut women’s human rights activists abroad, prevent women from accessing life-saving sexual and reproductive health services, and demonstrate a readiness to sacrifice the progress achieved by women in places like Afghanistan on the altar of a false peace?

As if to purposely dampen expectations, four days after his administration released these plans last month, the president also issued new immigration regulations that would, in violation of domestic and international law, eliminate persecution based on gender as grounds for asylum, force women back into dangerous situations of domestic violence and sexual abuse abroad, allow judges to make negative decisions on an asylum application without giving the applicant a chance to testify, and continue a policy of separating children from their mothers.  What are we to make of this?

Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017

In October 2017, Congress enacted and President Donald Trump signed the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 on a bipartisan basis. The law reflected a growing awareness that the wide-spread exclusion of women from peace processes and post-conflict governance, as well as the failure to protect and assist displaced women have been a key factor in the proliferation of wars and refugee crises globally, crises that impact America’s own national security.  The law codified practices adopted through regulations or policies under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to enhance the role of women in peace processes abroad, protect and assist women threatened by violence and abuse from conflict and displacement, support women’s rights activists and movements abroad, and integrate gender into all aspects of its national security strategies.

The law required the Trump administration to put in place, within one year of passage, a strategy for government-wide action, and to submit detailed implementation plans for four key agencies: the State Department, USAID, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Despite the one-year deadline, the Trump administration took more than 2½ years to complete this process.  A bare-bones White House strategy released in June 2019 began by tossing aside the lessons of past administrations, explicitly stating that its strategy “supersedes” rather than builds on the much-delayed but internationally acclaimed U.S. National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security adopted under the Obama administration in 2011 and strengthened in 2016. Last month, the White House finally released the four agencies’ implementation plans, but only after scrubbing the documents to eliminate references to sexual and reproduction healthcare, commitments to expend resources in support of women’s rights, positive allusions to the United Nations or previous administrations, and other issues anathema to the Trump administration.

Actions Belie Commitments

In the meantime, Trump and his administration took many actions diametrically opposed to the goals of the 2017 law. These included a willingness to exclude women and gender considerations from negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, raising the prospects that hard-fought women’s rights and socio-economic progress achieved since 2001 will be lost.  Similarly, Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces on the Turkish-Syrian border in October 2019 led directly to the brutal murder of such prominent Kurdish women as Hevrin Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party and a voice of tolerance and unity among Arab, Christian, and Kurdish women and men. Trump’s refusal to stand up to dictators who are closing civil society space abroad has put women peace and human rights at the mercy of authoritarian regimes. The broadening of the so-called Global Gag rule and other efforts to pursue the administration’s radical sexual and reproductive healthcare agenda has cut vital assistance to the World Health Organization and other groups providing assistance in refugee situations.  And as noted above, his immigration and asylum policies have aggressively sought to punish women and families for asserting their rights under international and U.S. laws.

A clear sign of the disinterest of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the women, peace and security agenda is their three-year delay in appointing an ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Before the collective sigh of relief when seasoned diplomat Kelley Currie was named to the position in December 2019, the White House floated candidates such as a reality MTV star and a FOX News commentator best known for her homophobic views.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Against this backdrop, it is impressive that the State and USAID implementation plans are fully credible. They help give substance to a four-pronged strategy to: (a) support the meaningful participation of women in global decision-making related to conflict and crises; (b) protect women and girls’ human rights, access to humanitarian assistance, and safety from violence, abuse, and exploitation; (c) strengthen U.S. international programs to support women’s equality and empowerment; and (d) encourage partner governments to adopt these goals and policies.

The State Department and USAID engaged in broad consultations with civil society, foreign governments, and international agencies, and identified best practices that emphasized local ownership and empowerment. (Full disclosure: I participated in several of these discussions.) Their plans commit to time-bound, measurable goals and require the generation of sex-disaggregated data to inform their work. State and USAID mandate widespread training for their staff, and they reinforced internal structures in their bureaus and offices to ensure gender concerns are central in decision-making rather than tangential or add-ons.

The State Department rightly prioritizes its regional engagement, and identified 14 countries for initial focus: Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Cameroon, Colombia, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Moldova, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. State also managed to include positive references to National Action Plans developed by many countries under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which ushered in the women, peace and security agenda 20 years ago. And USAID notes its support for a provision in Haiti’s constitution that mandates a 30 percent quota for women in legislative and political party structures, one of 130 countries now using quotas to increase women’s political participation.

By contrast, the Defense Department and Homeland Security plans are somewhat weaker and less detailed, but at least they too take the important step of affirming that the women, peace and security agenda is not a “soft issue,” but a key to pursuing America’s national security interests. The Defense Department plan lists 16 separate “DoD equities,” including gender integration, inclusive leadership development, preventing sexual harassment and assault, implementing international human rights and humanitarian law, and countering violent extremism. Respected defense scholars such as Jeanette Haynie and Kyleanne Hunter from the Athena Project and Mackenzie Eaglen at the American Enterprise Institute have written insightful articles suggesting ways the Pentagon can build on the new strategy to benefit fully from an approach to military policy that considers and respects the impact of gender.

The scant and anodyne Department of Homeland Security “plan” is devoid of any significant commitments, including in its responsibilities to women and girls seeking protection and asylum in the United States. In the 2016 Women, Peace and Security strategy, Homeland Security committed to  “provide humanitarian protection through the administration of immigration benefits programs and other immigration mechanisms, as appropriate, to eligible individuals, including women and girls, in need of relief from persecution or urgent circumstances.”  Not surprisingly, the current strategy is silent on this point.

The plans still contain some clunkers. The Defense Department, for example, states that an important benefit of the women, peace and security concept is to “build a more lethal force.”  Despite the congressional requirement to identify financial resources to be devoted to initiatives related to women in peace and security issues, a $ sign appears on only one of the 110-odd pages of the four implementation plans.  References to women’s rights are rare, while references abound to wielding the women, peace and security agenda as a tool to fight violent extremism abound. And despite the emphasis on “quality over quantity” of women’s engagement and empowerment, nearly all the White House metrics are tied to inputs or outputs – such as the number of meetings in which such issues are discussed with foreign officials — rather than outcomes.

Holding the Next Administration Accountable

Attention now shifts to putting these plans into effect. Clearly, this will be impacted by the results of the November presidential elections. Most observers expect that a Biden administration would move rapidly to institute a more robust framework, especially given his impressive record of advocacy of women’s empowerment as vice president and senator.

Still, it will be incumbent on Congress and civil society to hold a new Trump or Biden administration accountable for meeting these commitments. In this regard, advocates should focus on the extent to which agencies take four sets of actions:

  • Support and empower women and women’s groups on the frontlines of peace, human rights, and justice in their countries;
  • Mainstream and integrate gender into all U.S. efforts, including by requiring gender-impact statements for all major women, peace and security initiatives;
  • Become global thought leaders, advocates, and partners for governments, international agencies, and NGO’s through formal policies and implementation plans with time-bound, measurable goals; and
  • Walk the walk within their own agencies through gender-sensitive hiring and employment practices, widespread training, elimination of unconscious biases, and more inclusive leadership patterns.

Recent developments suggest that this may be difficult under a second Trump administration.  Even now, the White House is refusing to make senior officials from State, USAID, Defense, and Homeland Security available to participate in a House of Representatives video hearing on the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, despite the administration’s willingness to have these same officials field softball questions tossed to them in a similar format at the American Enterprise Institute four weeks ago.

Writing to the heads of the four agencies recently to urge them to make top officials available to testify, House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and National Security Subcommittee Chair Stephen Lynch (D-MA) stated, “It is deeply disturbing that the Trump Administration’s continued resistance to Congressional oversight extends to such an important matter as the rights of women and girls around the world … Unfortunately, it appears the Trump Administration has one standard for allowing its officials to appear before friendly conservative organizations and another standard for allowing them to testify before Congress as it conducts its responsibilities under the Constitution.”

Hopeful Signs of Cooperation

Still, there are some hopeful signs that bipartisan and executive-legislative cooperation so essential to this effort is possible. In March, U.S. Representatives Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Mike Waltz (R-FL), accompanied by Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Currie, announced the formation of the Congressional Women, Peace and Security Caucus designed to “support the implementation of the WPS agenda and ensure the WPS goals are considered national security and foreign policy priorities for the United States.”

At the launch, the comments of co-chairs Frankel and Waltz were fully in sync. One said: “Peace agreements last longer when women are included in negotiations, and our world is ultimately a safer place because of gender equality,” while the other said, “When girls and women are healthy, educated and financially secure, their communities are more prosperous and peaceful.”  No prizes for guessing who said what.

IMAGE: A demonstrator holds a sign that read ‘Peace and dialogue’ as women from different parts of Ecuador march through the streets of Quito on October 12, 2019, to appeal for peace and to repeal the economic measures taken by President Lenin Moreno. Ecuador was facing the 10th day of protests to repeal the government’s measure to end a four-decade fuel subsidy. Clashes between demonstrators and security forces had escalated, leaving five people dead. (Photo by Jorge Ivan Castaneira Jaramillo/Getty Images)