Women, Peace, and Security at Twenty

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“No society treats its women as well as its men,” according to a 1997 United Nations (UN) Development Report.[1] In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, known as the Women, Peace and Security resolution, to address that situation. Resolution 1325 then went one step further beyond seeing gender equality as a human rights or social justice issue. It recognized for the first time that women’s rights are central to national security and defense policy. It, and subsequent resolutions, acknowledged the fundamental linkage between gender equality, societal stability, and national security.

UNSCR 1325 acknowledged that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are included in those efforts, including conflict prevention, mitigation, and recovery measures.[2] Modern conflicts have been largely intra-state rather than inter-state, with civilians targeted as a strategy of war and sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Further, major crises such as war, conflict, famine, and pandemics disproportionately impact women because of societal inequalities and affect women and girls differently than men and boys. Therefore, excluding women from preventive and mitigation efforts and settlement negotiations often results in gendered perspectives and key considerations being overlooked.  Statistics already show, for example, that countries with women leaders are doing comparatively well in terms of addressing COVID-19.[3] Similarly, when women are involved in peace processes there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting 2 years, and a 25% increase of an agreement lasting 15 years.[4] Yet women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles generally and political leadership roles specifically in many countries, and generally excluded from participation in peace processes.


UNSCR 1325 intended to put women, peace, and security at the heart of the international security agenda. Two decades after its passage, though rhetorical support from political leaders is strong, implementation is still largely viewed as an optional luxury rather than an absolute necessity, globally and in the United States. For example, in the United States, the Trump administration put forth the first United States Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, but has provided no funding in the budget. Though significant advances have been made in removing structural barriers that inhibit women’s full participation in security matters, commitment to and sometimes even awareness of the importance of including women in security affairs is still lagging. Reviewing where UNSCR 1325 implementation stands globally and in the United States after 20 years allows for looking forward, toward future challenges and what is needed to overcome those challenges.


Once Resolution 1325 was passed, it was up to individual nations to decide their implementation approaches and what they would actually do to assure gendered perspectives were considered in security-related decision making. The scope of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda is broad, including areas related to human security such as education, health care, and even economics, but also hard security areas such as military operations, fighting ,and terrorism and peace settlements. More, though still limited, progress has been made in human security areas, considered more traditionally related to women, than in hard security ones, which is the focus of our analysis here.[5]

Global Progress and Challenges

As of January 2020, 83 countries have enacted National Action Plans with several more in development. Those 83 countries with plans represent 43% of all UN member states. There are also eleven Regional Action Plans in place. At the 2019 annual October Security Council “Open Debate” on Women, Peace, and Security, 140 nations requested time at the podium to speak out in support of the program. Yet less than 25% of those states with National Action Plans have budgets to implement them. If national and organizational priorities are most easily discerned by what is funded, lack of funding suggests that support for Women, Peace, and  Security has been largely rhetorical.

Women, Peace, and Security (ACMC)

It should not be surprising, then, that an analysis of 1500 peace and political agreements adopted between 2000 and 2016—post UNSCR 1325—reveals only 25 agreements that even discuss the role of women’s engagement in implementation.[6] More recently, peace talks in Yemen and Afghanistan have largely excluded women. The Council on Foreign Relations states that women were present in an official capacity in only 2 of 23 rounds of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban when, given the Taliban’s past draconian actions against women, they potentially have the most to lose.[7] The final agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban does not mention women at all. The important role women play in “Track 2” backchannel diplomacy events and in mass action campaigns is important and should not be discounted, but they need to be at the negotiating table as well. According to the only female peace negotiator in the Balkans, “If we want more women at the table, we need to invest in women in politics.”[8]

Increasing the number of women in politics has been more achievable in some countries than others. As of June 2019, eleven women serve as Head of State and twelve as Head of Government. There has been a slow increase in the percentage of women serving in all national parliaments, from 11.3% in 1995 to 24.3% as of February 2019, with significant differences between countries. There are 27 nations where women still account for less than 10% of parliamentary seats, and three chambers with no representation by women. As of November 2019, there are 101 women serving in the U.S. Congress, holding 23.2% of the total seats, the highest number of women serving to date. By comparison, Rwanda, which has a mandatory 30% quota for women, has the highest number of women serving in parliament, with women holding 61.3% of lower house seats.[9]

As in the Rwanda example, some of the differences in numbers of women serving in Parliaments can be traced to the use of quotas. The intent of a quota is to raise the number of women serving in parliamentary positions to between 30-40%, often considered the number needed to move beyond tokenism and into being a critical minority. Many countries of the world have used various types of quotas, often on a temporary basis, to correct under-representation problems.[10] The United States is not one of them.

U.S. Progress and Challenges

The U.S. addressed the Women, Peace, and Security agenda later than many other countries, but has since taken more extensive efforts. The Obama Administration issued the first U.S. National Action Plan for executing the Women, Peace and Security agenda in 2011, subsequently updating it in 2016. In 2017, congress passed the bi-partisan Women, Peace, and Security Act, signed by President Donald Trump. This represented the potential for significant leadership on the part of the United States, as it was the first nation to make Women, Peace, and Security implementation the law of the land. Follow-up, however, has been mixed at best.

Initially, there was no budget authorized for implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Act,  and related programs have yet to be included in the budget. Nevertheless, some government agencies, including the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Defense, allocated funds to programs based on the National Action Plan, and congress allocated funds to specific programs such as the recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Notably, the fiscal year 2019 defense budget included specific funding for implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Act for the first time, though only for $4 million of a $1.3 trillion budget.[11] Sustained funding is needed to train and support full-time positions for gender advisors. Money is also required for field operations and for integrating Women, Peace, and Security principles into government education programs.

A U.S. Strategy for Women, Peace and Security was subsequently issued in June 2019, providing a policy framework for implementing the 2017 Act, with Ivanka Trump delivering it to Congress. Importantly, it provides a hook—a clear guidepost—on which individuals leaders can base supportive programs and activities. But it should also become an integral part of the nested U.S. security strategies, starting with the National Security Strategy. Implementation targets would go a long way in spurring across-the-board implementation.

Gathering gender-disaggregated data is key to setting targets in the US and globally, as it reveals equality gaps and uncovers sometimes otherwise unrecognized problems.  Gender-aggregated data also illustrates challenges and opportunities to skeptical or unknowing implementers. A first step in that direction is having individuals understand that gender blind does not mean gender neutral;  instead, it means gender ignored.[12] To be gender blind is to ignore that men, women, boys, and girls have different experiences in society, including different security needs. That supports a need for broader awareness through training and education that takes place throughout a service member’s career, from initial accession training to Joint Professional Military Training (JPME) II. Currently, most service members are only exposed to Women, Peace, and Security when they participate in an exercise that includes it, or find themselves assigned for the first time in an operational gender advisor position. It is currently entirely possible to graduate from a professional military education institution without ever hearing of Women, Peace, and Security, including from Master’s Degree granting institutions.[13]

Ivanka Trump, members of the Cabinet, and guests at the signing of National Security Presidential Memorandum to launch the “Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative" on 7 Feb 2019. (Tia Dufour/White House Photo)

Day-to-day support within the executive branch has largely been at the middle management level, and occasionally by a unit leader. Individuals in these roles work exceptionally hard, but often must repeatedly provide basic education to key stakeholders. Beyond moments when Women, Peace, and Security is raised to a high level in the U.S. government—such as the signing of the Women, Peace, and Security Act and the roll out of the national strategy—senior leadership involvement is scarce.[14] Without active leadership involvement, the efforts of those middle-managers can only go so far. Multiple studies have shown that even knowledge about the Women, Peace, and Security agenda is hap-hazard, and often misconstrued.[15]

The lack of leadership buy-in shows literally in black and white in those agencies’ policies and plans. According to a 2018 study based on interviews with security practitioners by the New America Foundation, “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.”[16] The New America Foundation report goes on to say, “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.”[17] Defense Department roadblocks stem from the same kind of cultural biases that kept women from many combat positions in the past.[18]

Individuals from the Pentagon and throughout the Department of Defense have quietly championed Women, Peace, and Security, such as commands offering gender advisor courses and developing tools to measure the progress of Women, Peace, and Security implementation.[19] It is because of them that the Department of Defense’s nascent efforts show promise as a global example if properly resourced. But the deadline for completion of the Department of Defense Implementation Plan for the 2019 National Strategy was September 11, 2019.[20] It is still forthcoming. Congressional oversight will be critical in the future to mainstream implementation to ensure that implementation is a widespread effort, rather than being based on the efforts of a handful of individuals. Further, individuals pay attention to those tasks on which they are evaluated. Real transformation will take place when performance reviews include how well (or not) individuals included consideration of the Women, Peace, and Security mandates in their jobs. Accountability will move implementation forward.

Lessons Learned and Moving Forward

Globally, the objectives of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda are often relegated to an afterthought, as if they will be tended to when “more important” matters are resolved. But addressing the agency (or lack thereof) of 50% of the population is often the most important issue needing to be addressed because of connections that address other drivers or mitigators of conflict.[21]

There are multiple challenges facing proponents of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. First is the question of where proponents should place their emphasis. One view is that incremental change bears the highest chance of success, such as by focusing on getting more trained female peacekeepers into conflict zones and addressing issues like sexual violence during conflicts and victim treatment afterward. Another view is that a more big-picture approach should be taken, through advocating for foreign policies specifically developed through a gendered lens, as Sweden, Canada, and Mexico have done.[22] Which approach is taken within countries or organizations will likely be situational dependent. The African Union, for example, is focused on peacekeeping and so probably more amenable to the first approach. Countries with a narrow security focus may similarly be more receptive to foreign policy through a gendered lens.

Moving toward transformation also requires extending the coalition of support and the involvement of more men. To date, most Women, Peace and Security advocates have come from women peace builders and activist groups. Even in the U.S. government, meetings on the topic are most often attended by women. In terms of recruiting more men, groups like HeForShe at the United Nations and Mobilizing Men As Partners For Women, Peace, and Security are part of a larger, necessary effort to raise general awareness of the value of including more women in security conversations and actions, the cost of not doing so, and the need for men as allies and mentors.[23]


Efforts also need to be cross-cutting and cross functional. Gender is relevant in nearly every facet of security, and consistent engagement of senior leadership will enable connections with other security-related efforts and organizations with overlapping priorities, such as conflict prevention, anti-terrorism, disinformation, and nuclear arms control. The Council on Foreign Relations released a 2019 report, Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners pointing out how the role of women in anti-terrorism policy is often overlooked. The New America Foundation similarly evaluated the role of women in the nuclear arms field, with particular focus on the “‘gender tax’ facing women in nuclear policy.” It also explored how “hyper-traditional subfields respond to new ideas—creating what former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy calls a ‘consensual straitjacket’ in which gender and substantive taxes combine to restrict innovation.”[24] In other words, it demonstrated how sexism and gender-related expectations (of what women could or couldn’t do) inhibit women’s willingness and ability to speak up, or be heard.   


Building a wider coalition of supporters beyond often hollow rhetoric raises questions about the scope of Women, Peace, and Security. Are there, for example, fundamental beliefs that are part of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda that must be adhered to before individuals, organizations and countries can legitimately proclaim themselves supporters? For example, a 2019 debate at the United Nations Security Council on a resolution focused on preventing rape in conflict situations included the argument that rape has been used as a weapon of war, that that this is not inevitable, and that it can be prevented. But then the United States sided with China and Russia in support of stripping language regarding the provision of sexual and reproductive health care, saying the language normalized sexual activity and condoned abortion.[25] The United States threatened to veto the resolution unless the language was removed, which it was. The reproductive health care issue also keeps some women from supporting the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, inherently making reproductive health care—autonomy for women over their own bodies—a lynch-pin issue.

The international mood for supporting gender equality has also been affected by the rise of misogynistic authoritarian leaders. Comments from leaders including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and U.S. President Donald Trump signal to many women that gender equality is backsliding. With support for gender equality seen as backsliding, implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda becomes easier to ignore for those not inclined anyway. This creates a bind for mid- and lower-level practitioners. They do not have the leadership buy-in to ensure their work progresses, yet too much attention to their work could threaten the existence of Women, Peace, and Security programs entirely.

Finally, more than token funding is needed to implement the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. Are countries only serious supporters if they commit to spending at least a certain amount? The question then is how much? In 2016-17, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that bilateral development aid programs with primary and secondary goals in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment programs stood at 4% of total aid given. In the economic and productive sectors, it was even less, at 1% of total aid, a decrease from previous years.[26]

Major Seitebatso Pearl Block, a South African Army officer and U.N. Peacekeeper (United Nations)


Ultimately, full implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda requires broad organizational leadership and commitment. Even resource-constrained nations such as Ethiopia and organizations like the African Union are moving closer to owning the agenda rather than merely rhetorical support.[27] And NATO has made notable progress toward military implementation through extensive policy implementation, including requiring gender advisors in every mission and integrating gender perspective training into all exercises.[28]

In the United States, Congress passed the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act with bipartisan support, and the 2019 Strategy notionally indicates White House support. The Act calls for “timely written reports from the President and regular reporting to relevant committees by the secretaries of state and defense, and the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.”[29] The intent is to begin to hold organizations accountable for implementation, especially in the Department of Defense. Only accountability at all levels of all relevant organizations will assure implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda—with all of its clear benefits—becomes a reality.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She is the author of Educating America’s Military and Women, Peace & Security: An Introduction.

Andrea Goldstein is an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] “Human Development Report 1997” United Nations Development Program, p.9 http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/258/hdr_1997_en_complete_nostats.pdf

[2] The four pillars of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 regarded foundational to achieving its goals are participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. Participation calls for “increased participation of women at all levels of [peace and security] decision-making, including national, regional, and international institutions.” Protection refers to “protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.” Prevention “of violence against women, including by prosecuting those responsible for violations of international law, strengthening women’s rights under national law; and supporting local women’s peace initiatives and conflict resolutions” is called for through improved intervention strategies. Relief and recovery efforts reference advancement in “measures to address international crises through a gendered lens” including the needs of women and girls in refugee camps and settlements. UNSCR 1325 basically entails meaningfully including women as equal partners in security decision-making and for policies and that programs be developed and implemented through a gendered lens, whereby often-differing effects on both women and men would be considered, and achievement of those broad goals is the benchmark of progress. NATO has led the way in emphasizing that men and boys, and not only women and girls, are included in gendered considerations.

[3] Tomas Chamorro Premuzic, “Are Women Better at Managing the Covid-19 Pandemic?” Forbes, April 10, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomaspremuzic/2020/04/10/are-female-leaders-better-at-managing-the-covid19-pandemic/#6c9aca3928d4

[4] “Women’s Participation and a Better Understanding of UN Security Council Resolution 1325,” Chapter 3 in A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Resolution 1325, UNWomen, 2015.  https://wps.unwomen.org/participation/

[5] United Nations Women, Families in a Changing World: Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020, https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/progress-of-the-worlds-women

[6] Facts and Figures, U.N.Women, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/peace-and-security/facts-and-figures#_Notes

[7]“Afghanistan, 2020,” Council on Foreign Relations,  https://www.cfr.org/interactive/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/afghanistan

[8] “Women, Peace and Security experts look ahead to 2020,” 18 March 2019,  https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/3/news-women-peace-and-security-experts-look-ahead-to-2020

[9] Facts and Figures. U.N. Women, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures

[10] Gender Quotas Database, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, https://www.idea.int/data-tools/data/gender-quotas/quotas

[11] Sahana Dharmapuri, “Letter from the Director: Make 2019 the best year yet for Women, Peace and Security,” 21 January 2019. https://oursecurefuture.org/blog/make-2019-women-peace-security

[12] Donald Steinberg, “Looking Through the Gender Lens,” Women on the Frontlines of Peace and Security, National Defense University press, p.14.  https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/Books/women-on-the-frontlines.pdf

[13] Joan Johnson-Freese and Maryanne Blackburn, “Women, Peace & Security in Professional Military Education, Small Wars Journal, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/women-peace-and-security-in-professional-military-education

[14] Joan Johnson-Freese, “Women, Peace and Security in the Military: The Need for Leadership,” Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School, March 23, 2020. https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/9891-women-peace-and-security-in-the-military-the-need

[15] Heather Hurlburt, Elizabeth Weingarten, Elena Souris, What We Talk About When We Talk About Gender, New America Foundation, December 11, 2018. https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/national-security-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-gender/

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Heather Hurlburt, Elizabeth Weingarten, Elena Souris, “A Guide to Talking Women, Peace and Security Inside the U.S. Security Establishment,” New America Foundation, 2017.

[19] Capt. Marcie Mascaro, “U.S. Southern Command Hosts Second U.S. Operational Gender Advisor Course,” 10 December 2018. https://www.southcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/1708587/u-s-southern-command-hosts-second-us-operational-gender-advisor-course/. Brenda Law and Corrie Fleser, “Africom Develops New Tool to Measure Women’s Progress,” Defense Department News, 12 January 2018,  https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/News/Article/Article/1415054/africom-develops-new-tool-to-measure-womens-progress/

[20] Jim Garamone,”Women’s Perspectives Important in  New DOD Strategy Push,” Defense Department News, 19  July 2019.  https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/1910884/womens-perspectives-important-in-new-dod-strategy-push/

[21] Valerie Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, Perpetua Lynne Nielson, The First Political Order, Columbia University Press, 2020.

[22] Lyric Thompson,“Mexican Diplomacy Has Gone Feminist,” Foreign Policy, 14 January 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/14/mexican-diplomacy-feminist-foreign-policy/

[23] See, for example, W. Brad Johnson and David Smith, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, Bibliomotion, 2016.

[24] Heather Hurlbert, Elizabeth Weingarten, Alexandra Stark, Elena Souris, The “Consensual Straitjacket”: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security. New America, 2019. https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/the-consensual-straitjacket-four-decades-of-women-in-nuclear-security/

[25] Robbie Gramer and Clum Lynch, “How a UN Bid to Prevent Sexual Violence Turned into a Spat Over Abortion,” Foreign Policy, 23 April 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/23/united-nations-bid-end-sexual-violence-rape-support-survivors-spat-trump-administration-sexual-reproductive-health-dispute-abortion-internal-state-department-cable/

[26] “Aid in Support of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment,” OECD, https://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/aidinsupportofgenderequalityandwomensempowerment.htm

[27] Awol K Allo, “The power of Ethiopia’s gender-balanced cabinet,” Al Jazeera, 19 October 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/power-ethiopia-gender-balanced-cabinet-181019110930577.html; “Women, Peace and Security Forum keen on sustainable peace and development,” African Union Press Release, 29 May 2019.  https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20190529/women-peace-and-security-forum-gives-emphasis-sustainable-peace-and

[28] Joan Johnson-Freese and Andrea Goldstein, “How the Pentagon can Build on NATO’s Success with Women, Peace & Security,” The Strategy Bridge, 13 May 2019.  https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/5/13/how-the-pentagon-can-build-on-natos-success-with-women-peace-amp-security

[29] Jaqueline O’Neill, “Nine Things You Need to Know About the Women, Peace & Security Act,” Inclusive Security. https://www.inclusivesecurity.org/2017/10/12/nine-things-need-know-women-peace-security-act/

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