Women, Peace, Security: Thinking Creatively to Pursue National Security through Gender Equality 


Twenty-three years after the U.N. Security Council passed the Women, Peace, and Security framework and six years after the United States became the only country to legislatively mandate its implementation, widespread misunderstanding remains about why it matters to national security. Contrary to what is sometimes heard among U.S. security practitioners in classrooms, conferences, and conversations, this is not a social justice program. It is not a diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate, or a call for the government to “do the right thing.” And regardless of what the name might make you think, it is not just about women. 

Rather, the Women, Peace, and Security framework is a way to advance national security through gender equality. Gender-related grievances — men being unable to find or pay for wives, for example — are often the underlying cause of conflicts. Because of its earlier one-child policy, China’s 2020 census counted 34.9 million more men than women. These men, referred to as “bare branches” and untethered to society through marriage and children, are considered a potential security problem by the Chinese government. Given China’s past propensity to unite its population — now over 1.4 billion — in times of internal stress by focusing on an external enemy, China’s bare branches could prove a security issue for the United States as well.



Right now, the Department of Defense’s budget allocation for Women, Peace, and Security is low, and the framework’s integration into the professional military education core curricula is still being slow-rolled. To date, the United States has done more to ensure that allies and partners are knowledgeable regarding the framework’s principles, and been more successful in that regard, than it has among its own forces. Security cooperation, for example, has proven an effective vehicle to support Women, Peace, and Security external implementation. But so long as misunderstanding continues within the Department of Defense, opportunities will go unrealized. 


Decades of longitudinal empirical research have unequivocally demonstrated the relationship between gender equality and security. Specifically, if a nation has extremely high gender inequality, it is more than twice as likely to be a fragile state, more than three times as likely to have a more autocratic, less effective, and more corrupt government, and more than one and a half times as likely to be violent and unstable. Further, where gender inequality and domestic violence are high within a country, there is a greater likelihood of state use of violence internationally. Violence breeds violence.

The Women, Peace, and Security framework is built upon four pillars: participation of women in all aspects of security affairs; protection of women from gender-based violence; prevention of conflict and all forms of violence in conflict and post-conflict situations; and ensuring the relief needs specific to women and vulnerable populations are met in post-crises recovery operations. Participation means giving women not just a seat at the table but also a voice, as they bring information, perspectives, and problem-solving skills that increase the potential to address the root causes of conflict. The protection pillar acknowledges that gender-based violence is an often-used tool to silence women’s voices. The prevention pillar urges the utilization of gendered considerations in assessments related to potential conflict to stem conflict before it begins. It also recognizes that post-conflict relief offers the best opportunity for transforming old discriminatory systems into more egalitarian ones.


The U.S. government’s ongoing efforts to advance the Women, Peace, and Security framework with the resources it has available demonstrates the variety of ways more funding could get results. Congress released a report in July 2022 evaluating the progress of the four U.S. government agencies charged with 2017 act implementation. According to the report, the Department of State invested $110 million and the U.S. Agency for International Development $239 million. The Department of Defense, for its part, spent $5.5 million. While this is a tiny amount considering the size of the military’s total budget, the Department can and does make use of synergies in its cooperation with other agencies. 

The State Department, for example, is allocated approximately $400 million annually for International Military Education and Training toward strengthening partner nation forces, improving human rights, providing professional military education, and supporting improved country-to-country communication. This program is run by the Defense Department, blending authorities and funding. Security cooperation has traditionally focused on “hard” security activities such as foreign military sales, direct commercial sales, hybrid sales, leases of weapons, military alliances, and joint military exercises and training. These activities strengthen interoperability for better defense but can also act as tools to build relationships important to Women, Peace, and Security.

One example is Jordan’s 2015 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter acquisition case. The Hashemite Kingdom lacked enough medically and linguistically qualified male pilots to receive American flight training in time for the desired delivery date. The program was used as an incentive to begin recruiting, training, and supporting female military pilots for the first time. As a result, Jordan changed its internal policies to support co-ed pilot training for the first time. This program continues today and is expanding to include fighter aircraft. To build on this, the Colorado National Guard, under the State Partnership Program, engaged with the new pilots to discuss gender integration concerns and provide training. This brought in a third funding and authorities stream if you consider International Military Education and Training for language training, Foreign Military Sales funding for aviation training and a blend of authorities for the National Guard events.

More recently, security cooperation has expanded to include elements such as economic development, human rights, environmental protection, and relationship building. In that context, U.S. security cooperation programs also facilitate the implementation of Women, Peace, and Security principles. The Defense Department can be and has been involved in some of these “soft” activities, which are classified under defense institution building, traditional commander’s activities, or similar programs for both security cooperation and security assistance.

Earlier this year, Tahina Montoya, who now serves as an Air Force gender advisor, described to us witnessing how effective soft security cooperation could be while at the U.S. Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, between 2011 and 2102. After receiving $318 million in direct investment from the United States, Kyrgyzstan faced tremendous pressure from Russia to close the transit center. This came in the form of generous financial offers and an assertive Russian-sponsored media campaign centering on the negative impacts of the American presence. To counter this, the U.S. government, through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, launched a humanitarian assistance program where each U.S. unit based out of the transit center would have a humanitarian assistance coordinator. As Montoya describes it:

I volunteered to be the 376th Expeditionary Operations Groups Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator, which included trips to the town of Bishkek to meet with university women to discuss the similarities and differences of what it was like to be a woman in our respective countries. At the unit-level, over the course of 6 months, our unit conducted 17 humanitarian missions at the local level, starting with engagements with community leaders to discuss challenges, but, over time, included reconstructing playgrounds, building 2 new classrooms, purchasing heaters and a new kitchen stove for the local school, and, perhaps my favorite, the donation of over 200 lightly used mattresses for the village children and elders, and the donation of over 200 winter jackets for the community. With the help of unit members who volunteered on their “days off,” our unit volunteered 850 hours and raised over $4.5K in donations. 

Ultimately, the program did not prevent the 2014 closure of the transit center in Manas, but Montoya believes the soft-power efforts her unit made contributed to keeping the base open for a few extra years. During its time in operation, the base, known as the gateway to Afghanistan, “moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and handled tens of thousands of cargo shipments and refueling missions.”

Beyond conflict zones, military commands engage in security cooperation efforts to further Women, Peace, and Security principles, especially to increase female participation in military and security roles. Southern Command activities have included workshops, conferences, podcasts, and, in partnership with the organization Women in International Security, development of a regional partnership tool, or scorecard, “to integrate the principles of gender equality and the [Women, Peace, and Security] agenda within Central, South America and Caribbean security forces.” Similarly, Africa Command engaged in a range of activities including, in partnership with the North Carolina National Guard’s State Partnership Program, the Women’s African Military Professional Legal Network, which focused on networking and training more regional women in legal best practices. Other commands have more recently ramped up Women, Peace, and Security–related engagement as well.

Finally, the Defense Security Cooperation University offers opportunities to promote the Women, Peace, and Security framework to those working specifically on security cooperation. At a September 2022 security cooperation workshop, the university launched an enterprise-wide effort to take a rigorous, scholarly look at the ways in which implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 advances U.S. national security objectives. This was especially important given that professional military education has been identified as a key road to both domestic and foreign implementation of the framework, especially when dedicated time is allotted to training and education. 

More Will Be Better

It is easy to think that when working in the Middle East or Central Asia, cultural norms in partner nations are the biggest obstacle to the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. But what our research, and the stories above, suggest is that these countries are often eager to make progress on women’s participation. Instead, the biggest obstacle is often a lack of awareness within the U.S. government. A 2023 RAND report advocated better alignment between Women, Peace, and Security rhetoric and action: “Many of our partners are paying attention when the United States emphasizes the importance of considering gender perspectives and are working to improve their implementation of [Women, Peace, and Security] principles. However, they also notice when we do not “walk the walk” — for example, during a training exercise in Eastern Europe, where a young foreign officer demanded to know why there were no American women present.” 

Ground-up awareness and knowledge of Women, Peace, and Security within the U.S. military won’t happen overnight, but with serious commitment it can be achieved. There are lots of opportunities to use existing programs and funding streams to implement Congressional mandates and advance U.S. interests across the globe. Security cooperation programs are intended to promote national security by enhancing relationships, capacities, and capabilities in partner nations. When the U.S. government understands internally how Women, Peace, and Security contributes to this, much more can be done externally.



Colonel Geoffrey Brasse, USAF, is an assistant professor at the Joint Forces Staff College and a foreign area officer with multiple assignments supporting security cooperation and security assistance.

Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese is a university professor emeritus at the Naval War College, a senior fellow at Women in International Security, and the author of Women, Peace, and Security: An Introduction.

The views expressed are those of the authors alone and not those of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kelly Goonan