The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy called COVID-19 “a portal,” a window between the world we inhabit and a new one being born. A defining characteristic of the new security environment for the United States — and the globe, for that matter – has been an increase in non-traditional threats: pandemics, climate change, migration, resource scarcity, cyberattacks, disinformation or hybrid warfare.
As the world marks International Women’s Day, the United States must build upon our collective experience over the past year to radically reshape how we manage non-traditional security threats and their disproportionate effects based on gender. That means moving to the next stage in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS), elevating decision-making on gender and security in the U.S. government, and broadly reimagining 21st century security policy to be more inclusive and equitable.
The particularly pernicious impact of COVID-19 on women, girls and gender minorities has demonstrated that emerging security challenges have a threat-multiplier effect that exacerbates gender inequalities and further exposes pre-existing power imbalances. In the United States, women lost more than 5 million jobs in 2020. In December alone, women accounted for fully 100 percent of America’s net job loss.
Increased caregiving responsibilities without compensation have forced women around the world to cut back on work hours or leave their jobs entirely. With women representing 70 percent of the global health workforce, they have also had greater exposure to COVID-19 on the frontlines. Additionally, the pandemic has amplified the economic vulnerabilities experienced by the LGBTQI community and gender minorities generally, by reducing access to services, increasing isolation, and exacerbating job inequities.
Globally, domestic violence rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic, as women and girls are confined at home with abusers. From Colombia, where cases of intrafamily violence against women aged 29 to 59 rose 94 percent, to France, where reports of domestic abuse increased by more than 30 percent in the first two weeks of lockdown, the pandemic has set back the global response to gender-based violence. In the U.K., an organization warned early in the pandemic that LGBTQI individuals experience a disproportionate share of domestic abuse, and so may be at particular risk during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has also caused an alarming disruption in reproductive health services, and with it, the independence to plan one’s future. Lockdowns have dislocated contraceptive supply chains and caused women to lose access to birth control, a consequence most heavily felt in developing countries and conflict zones. A Guttmacher Institute study estimates this diversion of resources away from reproductive health in low-and-middle-income countries will increase rates of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted infections, rolling back hard-won gains for women’s safety and empowerment.
Rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are also up around the world. In South Asia, West Africa, and elsewhere, financial strain from the pandemic has led families to pull their daughters from school and arrange transactional marriages. Without an education, more girls are also vulnerable to FGM, with the United Nations warning that rates of FGM are expected to increase by 2 million in the next 10 years due to pandemic-related disruptions in prevention services.
Risks in Rural Areas
While COVID-19 feels like an unprecedented crisis, current trends suggest that non-traditional security threats will continue to escalate in intensity and complexity, with uniquely gendered impacts. As resources dwindle and land becomes increasingly uninhabitable, gender-based violence, exploitation, and displacement will rise. In rural areas across the globe, where women are overwhelmingly tasked with gathering water, intensified droughts will force them to travel further distances, putting them in danger of sexual violence. In communities already facing scarcity and insecurity, climate-related strain will increase the propensity for conflict, directly threatening women’s safety and livelihoods as they are exposed to gender-specific, conflict-related risks.
Finally, as global economies continue to develop and digitalize without the necessary social protections, inequality is likely to persist, especially affecting women and youth, with those from racial minorities or low-income communities at higher risk. Online, we are likely to see an increase in gender-based stalking or harassment; already, the European Union estimates that 1 in 10 women experience targeted cyber violence.
A comprehensive, ambitious approach that fully accounts for the experiences of women, girls and gender minorities, and that empowers them to be active agents of change, is key in preparing for an era of novel shocks. First, as the United States, other governments, and multilateral institutions continue to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which marked its 20th anniversary last year, it’s time to look ahead to a WPS 2.0 that tackles new frontiers in security.
Such a next-level framework should address the full range of non-traditional security threats and advocate inclusive and innovative approaches to address differential factors and impacts based on gender. A more comprehensive articulation of how women and gender minorities experience insecurity would modernize metrics for tracking the associated risks of novel threats, update gender-sensitive early warning indicators for broader societal instability, and dedicate financial support to civil society organizations fighting for gender equality and inclusion of the LGBTQI community.
Second, the United States and its allies should follow in the footsteps of institutions like NATO and appoint a Special Representative on Women, Peace, and Security to work in coordination with the White House’s new Gender Policy Council and established structures like the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the State Department. The Office of the Special Representative would act as a focal point for all WPS-related work at the national and global level and coordinate cross-cutting, whole-of-government efforts to integrate the agenda into emerging security areas. Elevating decision-making on gender and security would help mainstream these issues at the national level and create critical links between foreign and domestic policy when tackling gender inequality.
Alternative, Human-Centric Model
Finally, as a leader on the world stage, the United States should fundamentally reimagine what constitutes national and international security. The missing considerations of gender differentials is just one fault of an out-of-date intellectual and institutional architecture built after the Second World War, too focused on state security. Transformative frameworks like Sweden’s feminist foreign policy (FFP) offer an alternative, human-centric model, which approaches gender equality as both an objective in itself and a means towards sustainable global security. Practical successes of this approach include mainstreaming gender equality into the updated Paris Climate Agreement (COP21), leading initiatives like the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-based Violence in Emergencies, and using aid and international development funding for gender-focused efforts like reproductive health.
The Swedish strategy also has been groundbreaking for the intersectional lens it applies to foreign policy decisions. This framework helps draw more attention to the experiences of those most marginalized by militarized security practices and introduces identities of gender, race, and class in foreign policy. By understanding how various forms of inequality and insecurity can exacerbate each other, this approach can help chart more equitable pathways in addressing non-traditional threats through the identification of secondary, interrelated social, economic, and political strains that can perpetuate cycles of vulnerability.
Adapting this model to security strategy can help expand the notion of threats, include long-ignored perspectives, and eventually demilitarize responses to insecurity by tackling its root causes first. For example, an intersectional, gender-sensitive approach can allow for more targeted conflict analysis and detailed early warning systems. This, in turn, can help policymakers develop better preventative mechanisms and address the underlying causes of instability such as social exclusion, economic inequality, or poor governance, before they turn into full-blown conflict.
Arundhati Roy’s COVID-19 portal has helped us see the need to build a new world that is both more equitable and resilient to upcoming shocks. The United States should lead the way in this work. As we rethink what security means in the face of novel threats, prioritizing gender equality is a must.