Women, Peace, and Security: Moving Implementation Forward

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What will it take for the key national security agencies in Washington to prioritize the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) framework, rather than just pay it lip service? Until the framework is embedded into all institutional mission goals, rhetorical support will continue to outpace actual support, as has been the case since 2000.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000. It and nine other supplementary resolutions adopted subsequently have formed the basis for what is known as the WPS framework. That framework recognizes the key role that women play in the advancement of security governance and mandates the integration of women leaders and women’s perspectives into security sectors, processes, and decision-making. Subsequently, many countries have developed national action plans for implementation, some more quickly than others.



The first U.S. action plan did not reach fruition until 2011. Implementation of that plan, and of the other commitments to WPS principles that have followed, within key public institutions in the United States has varied. Implementation is influenced by awareness of individuals in the institution on the very existence and nature of the framework, whether or not a champion has been put in place to support advancement, and on whether that advancement included embedding WPS into all institutional mission goals.

The Propensity Toward Rhetoric Over Action

In the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed implementation of WPS in 2012, noting that it is critical to U.S. national security. In 2016, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Ann Witkowski noted implementation steps that had been taken, including the development of a national action plan implementation guide and the naming of WPS as a special area of emphasis within joint professional military education. Yet a review of online joint professional military education material a year later failed to find any incorporation of the WPS framework into the core curriculum. As of this writing, it is still possible to graduate from a graduate-degree granting joint professional military education institution without ever hearing about WPS. Further, the Department of Defense did not develop an implementation plan until 2020, three years after Congress required it do so in the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017.

Feminist scholars have written about resistance to inclusion of gender considerations in international relations studies and policies, even in liberal academic institutions, for many years. Cynthia Enlow’s 1990 book Bananas, Beaches and Bases makes the case for viewing international relations through a “gendered lens” and suggests that this isn’t done because it threatens existing power structures. Not much has changed since then in terms of teaching and implementing international relations. When it comes to implementing the WPS framework in U.S. government institutions, in addition to a general reluctance to see women as agents of security rather than in a passive role, there are considerations of organizational and bureaucratic politics, as well as organizational culture. Several studies done in the interim period examine difficulties in implementation, with lack of awareness and little appreciation of the role women play in security and stability being among the reasons found for those difficulties.

Who Cares?

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Texas National Security Network conducted a 2016 survey of some 500 national security leaders (80 percent of the respondents were male). Only 13 percent of the respondents thought that gender inequality was a vital threat to U.S. national interests (20 percent of the women respondents and less than nine percent of the men thought so), and only 31 percent of respondents said women and girls’ full participation in their society is an important foreign policy goal (28 percent of the men, 45 percent of the women). A 2016 survey of security practitioners by the New America Foundation began by asking how much security practitioners consider the ways in which policies and programs impact men and women differently. The response was “not very much.” In fact, many respondents confessed that they found “women, peace, and security” a confusing triad of words.

Raising awareness and knowledge about WPS goes a long way in advancing the framework in many cases. You can’t implement what you don’t know about. Further, it is normal to experience “friction” when inserting a new effort into an organizational structure. But as James Q. Wilson examined in his 1991 book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, bureaucracies are not known to welcome or easily accept change. Consequently, outright organizational resistance has occurred as well. A 2018 survey of security practitioners, again by the New America Foundation, found that “across agencies and administrations, nearly all our interviewees saw most roadblocks to gender inclusivity emanating from two sources: the Department of Defense or from interagency rivalries.” Inside the Defense Department, respondents reported that the roadblocks often stemmed from the same kind of cultural biases that had kept women from many combat positions in the past. The survey report found evidence of Department of Defense resistance through a comparison of organizational strategic plans. “The State Department makes 18 mentions of ‘women’ and nine of ‘gender’ in its 62-page [Joint Strategic Plan 2018-2022, with U.S. Agency for International Development] report. The Department of Defense’s [Business Operations Plan for Fiscal Year 2018-2022] makes no mention of ‘women’ or ‘gender’ in its 38-page report.”

Not surprisingly, funding roadblocks have also made implementation difficult. WPS was not funded in the National Defense Authorization Act until FY2019, and then in the amount of $4 million out of a $1.3 trillion budget. If you believe that organizations spend their money on what they think is important, that relatively small amount is not an encouraging indicator. For comparison, an oft-cited 2015 Military Times article stated that the military spends some $84 million annually on erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra and Cialis. Notably, WPS funding was doubled in FY2021, to $8 million.

Even without specifically allocated funding, there have been individuals in the Defense Department who have quietly — or, in some cases, not so quietly — championed WPS. U.S. Africa Command, Southern Command, and Indo-Pacific Command have been particularly active in working on the external aspects of WPS implementation through security cooperation programs, including tools to measure progress. These commands recognize that gender equality is a good indicator of a strong civil society and overall community stability.

After the 2020 Department of Defense Women, Peace and Security Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan was released with requirements for reporting WPS-related activities, organizations began to pay attention, and an increasing number of individuals genuinely cared about real progress. Initially, the department held one-hour meetings once a month among commands to discuss WPS implementation. Though often backed by little organizational commitment or support, many participants devoted time and energy toward creating a critical mass of likeminded individuals and organizations who have worked together and contributed to the U.S. government’s foundational efforts in advancing the WPS agenda, including provision of critical inputs to various policy documents over the years. It is through the internal implementation, however, that gender empowerment becomes an embedded principle with a life beyond individual leaders. The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, one of the five regional centers for security studies that fall under the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, sets an example for other Defense Department institutions to follow in that regard.

Embedding WPS Principles: A Defense Department Success Story

Air Force Lt. Gen. (retired) Daniel “Fig” Leaf served as director of the Daniel K. Inouye Center from January 2012 to October 2016. According to its mission statement, through education and training programs the center “builds resilient capacity, shared understanding, and networked relationships among civilian and military practitioners and institutions to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.” While at the center, Leaf “spearheaded” the embedding of the WPS framework into the center and the curriculum, making it his top priority. The strategy for framework implementation took an across-the-board approach, reaching into all aspects of center operations, policy, and planning.

Internally, Leaf established a working group of center faculty and staff to administer the WPS program, with the chair rotating among involved individuals. The program was also embedded into the center’s annual program planning and explicitly addressed in its budget request. The center made a concerted effort, which continues today, to raise female course and workshop enrollment to 33 percent, in order to create the critical mass needed for women to feel able to speak freely, with positive incentives to reach that goal endorsed. The center’s commitment to build the capacities of women security practitioners and their visible inclusion in its programs effectively signals the importance accorded to this objective by the U.S. government to friendly and partner nations. The increased enrollment of women creates a congenial environment to meaningfully integrate the gender perspective into critical thinking and dialogues on security.  WPS is prominently featured in each course, through core lectures, elective offerings, and seminar discussions.

Facilitating free-flowing professional discourses among male and female participants has, according to faculty interviewed who have watched the process, facilitated positive movement in perspectives about women’s relevance and valuable contributions to security among many students and faculty. These conversations sometimes inspire men in decision-making positions to recruit more women, diversify their roles, and promote them to leadership positions in their organizations. In the same vein, workshops and dialogues are organized, both in-region and in-residence, to build the capacities of international and U.S. security practitioners, women and men, in advancing an enhanced understanding of gender inclusion and its nexus with national security. Faculty publications, as well as podcasts on WPS topics, evidence the breadth of faculty involvement, and bring a gender perspective to topics as counter-terrorism and de-radicalization, public health, disaster management, COVID-19 and women healthcare workers, women’s integration into the defense sector, economic security, and societal violence.

Externally, international fellows at the center who are interested in WPS are assigned faculty mentors toward the design and implementation of a a related capstone project. These projects provide opportunities to address a security challenge in fellows’ home countries and organizations, and so are both relevant and serve to expand knowledge regarding the benefits of the WPS framework. Successful capstone projects have included a Gender Action Plan for the Project Coherence Unit at the U.N. Office for Project Services in Kathmandu, Nepal, designing the implementation framework for the WPS National Action Plan in the Republic of Moldova, integrating female border security guards in Lebanon, building women’s capacities in countering terrorism in the Maldives, establishing protection mechanisms for victims of honor killings in Pakistan, promoting women’s engagement in the peace process in Myanmar, and ensuring female leadership in drafting Samoa’s first National Security Policy. The center’s partnerships with like-minded Department of Defense agencies, such as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and state National Guards, have been instrumental in advancing U.S. policy objectives to promote women’s participation in security-sector governance in partner nations. What this across-the-board approach has meant is that when Leaf left in 2016, the program had been successfully institutionalized and has emerged as an organizational core competency.

Recognizing the Importance of Education and Data to Implementation

Education has been found to be a key venue for making broad inroads of awareness and appreciation of the WPS framework. NATO, an early adopter of WPS principles with their first WPS policy in 2007, has made the framework part of their educational curriculums. Some U.S. War Colleges are following suit.  It is not enough to have WPS as an elective, or part of an elective, since only a very small portion of students may take that class. It should be integrated into the core curriculum. The Naval War College will begin integrating WPS into the national security affairs curriculum in 2021 to 2022, as well as hiring a WPS chair. In October 2020, the Army War College issued a WPS Charter, acknowledging the need to integrate WPS principles into joint professional military education curriculums. Named chairs are most effective when they can act as an internal champion of the subject matter to leadership and are part of curriculum planning. It then becomes up to those with supervisory ability to convince middle managers — often a sticking point even when leadership is rhetorically committed — to the importance of embedding the program.

Convincing leadership and middle managers of the linkage between gender and security can be difficult. But while the 2016 New America Foundation survey showed knowledge about WPS was low, 75 percent of those surveyed said supportive data regarding the link between gender and security would lead (security-oriented) workplaces to focus more on inclusivity. Gender-differentiated data, however, has often been difficult to find and gathering such should be a priority of all U.S. organizations in the future. Nevertheless, researchers Valerie Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen make a strong case for that linkage in their 2020 book The First Political Order. Using data gathered and compiled over two decades for the WomanStats Project, under a grant through the Department of Defense Minerva Initiative, they assembled data on every country with a population over 200,000 (then 176 nations). Their findings were clear: Countries that subordinate women are also more likely to be unstable, corrupt, and violent. More specifically, for example, a nation that subordinates women is twice as likely to be a fragile state, and over three times as likely to have an autocratic, less effective, and more corrupt government than a nation that does not subordinate women.

A Champion Is a Necessary But Not Sufficient Step Forward

The Defense Department has by no means been the only U.S. government institution to struggle with integrating WPS into its ethos. It is not surprising that the first U.S. national action plan was adopted during the 2009 to 2013 tenure of WPS champion Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Clinton has been a strong advocate for gender empowerment throughout her life and career, perhaps most notably shown in her 1995 speech in Beijing at the World Conference for Women. Consequently, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development had WPS implementation strategies in place by 2012. Clinton strove to mainstream gender considerations into State Department policymaking rather than leaving them as a stovepiped afterthought. In what has become known as the “Hillary Doctrine,” Clinton advanced women’s empowerment as a way of advancing peace and prosperity, rather than as a social justice or human rights issue that could be too-easily ignored as something that was nice to do, but less important than central policy concerns.

By the time Clinton left the State Department in 2013, she had linked women and security in the inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, weaving gender equality into policy prescriptions. She said, for example, that “the status of the world’s women is not simply an issue of morality — it is a matter of national security.” Recognizing as well that there would be skeptics within the State Department and beyond, Clinton incorporated WPS into policy considerations within the context of “a growing body of evidence” that shows that “women bring a range of unique experiences and contributions in decision-making on matters of peace and security that lead to improved outcomes in conflict prevention and resolution.” But, perhaps unsurprisingly, when Clinton left the State Department the focus on the WPS framework diminished.

The 2015 book The Hillary Doctrine is especially critical in its coverage of the U.S. Agency for International Development, an independent federal agency that receives overall policy guidance from the State Department. The problem, as stated in the book by a woman with longtime experience in the agency, is that “It’s stacked with old white guys.” When the agency turned most project supervision over from career employees to contractors some years ago, many of those jobs were filled by retired military, many of whom see their roles more through a military lens than a developmental lens. Though a requirement was put in place in 2011 that all projects undergo a gender analysis, resistance was significant. With Samantha Power now the administrator, the agency has stated a commitment to enhancing diversity, inclusion, and equity within the agency and as part of the agency’s mission. To be truly effective, though, institutional changes should live beyond an individual leader.

It’s a Matter of Security

Terrorists have already shown that they understand the link between gender and security and the advantages they can reap from Western biases regarding the assumed role of women in security by, for example, posing as women to avoid being searched by men and by using women as suicide bombers. U.S. military women were eventually brought in as part of Lioness and female engagement teams in Iraq and Afghanistan to counter cultural biases, both American and local. Islamic State also exploited gender equality to recruit and retain members, something they couldn’t have done were gender subordination not already accepted in their culture. Now, with U.S. government attention now shifted to great-power competition, integrating women into security sectors across the board can give the United States an important edge over China and Russia. Internal and external implementation of the WPS framework is a security imperative.



Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She has authored multiple articles on WPS and Women, Peace and Security: An Introduction (2018). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College. 

The author would like to thank Dr. Saira Yamin at the Daniel K. Inouye Center for Asia Pacific Security Studies for specific information on the center’s programs, and to thank Dr. Yamin and Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd for allowing her to interview them about the Women, Peace, and Security program there.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson)