By Stacey Schamber

With the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 and the subsequent resolutions, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has brought international attention to women and girls’ experiences of war, including their role in conflict prevention, the critical nature of their participation in conflict resolution and peace processes, and the importance of their protection and engagement in relief and recovery transitions. The development and implementation of National Action Plans (NAPs) became a prominent tool for translating international policy into “on the ground” reality. The US launched its first NAP in 2011 (with a review in 2016). In addition, in October 2017, the US signed into law the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which “promotes the meaningful participation of women in all aspects of overseas conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and post-conflict relief and recovery efforts. ” In the midst of an administration that is at odds with multilateralism and certainly has not been a supporter of women’s rights, the adoption of the WPS ACT by President Trump was a surprising reprieve.

The strategy of the US WPS Act was released in June 2019, and implementation plans from four US agencies (Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and USAID) are due in October 2019. In addition, the considered legislation on women and countering violent extremism (CVE) and the Afghan WIN Act were both inspired by the WPS Act. Other countries are also considering legislating these policies.  

With the WPS Act, advocates, including the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), aspired to attaining stronger legislation that would enable the US to be a global standard bearer for ensuring the participation in peacemaking and protection of women in war zones, particularly given the US’s involvement in so many wars.  The WPS ACT has the potential to transform the US’s role in the world, particularly given the domestic momentum building up against the ‘forever wars’ in which it is embroiled.  Given this significance and the importance of having such legal commitments, it is time to consider widening the lens of the WPS policies and the Act to include the domestic US context, not just limiting this agenda to US foreign policy. It is particularly pertinent, given the issues of gun violence and violence against women in the US.

The shooting in El Paso, Texas on August 3rd, 2019 in a Walmart store resulted in 22 deaths and 24 injuries, only the fifth-deadliest shooting in the US this decade. I wonder if women in the US are now asking some of the same questions that women in “conflict affected environments” are asking: “Is it safe for my children to go to school? Is it safe for me to shop at the local market or store?” The International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), with Our Secure Future and World Pulse, recently conducted a security poll of women globally and found that 71% of the respondents disagreed with the priorities and definitions of national security as defined by their governments. In addition to expressing concern about rising economic inequality, women’s rights, and various forms of violence, 59% expressed concern over extremism based on faith and ethnicity.

As of February 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 100 active white nationalist and 99 active neo-Nazi groups in the US. The El Paso shooting suspect issued a manifesto online minutes before the shooting, where he expressed support for the Christ Church shooter along with “white nationalist language and racist hatred toward immigrants and Latinos.” Such extremist attitudes are not a recent or minor concern in the US. The George Washington University Program on Extremism, which primarily focuses on Islamic extremism, has identified 191 individuals charged in the US with offenses related to ISIS, 32% of whom were accused of plotting domestic terror attacks. Domestic extremist threats exhibit an uncanny parallel to other forms of extremism, including the correlation that many mass shooters have a history of violence against women, however, current legislation does not enable the US to respond in a constructive way

So, where does this leave women in the US concerned about their own and their children’s peace and security? Some women are involved in researching and mapping extremism and in rare cases intervening to prevent future attacks.  Others lead and work at community organizations like Life After Hate who raises community awareness and assists members of extremist groups to make an exit and Parents for Peace who provides support to families and individuals affected by extremism. Like women in all societies, their meaningful participation in this work should be recognized and protected. And with regard to US legislation, a lot of the language is already there but needs to include and acknowledge the role of women in addressing conflict and extremism in the US. The US NAP’s pillar on conflict prevention calls upon the US government to “promote women’s roles in preventing conflict, mass atrocities, and violent extremism, including by improving conflict early-warning and response systems through the integration of gender perspectives” while the pillar on relief and recovery urges the government to respond to the “distinct needs of women and girls in both natural and conflict-affected disasters and crises” including mass shootings. The WPS Strategy identifies four lines of effort, the first two of which are to:

  • Support the preparation and meaningful participation of women around the world in informal and formal decision making processes related to conflict and crisis; and
  • Promote the protection of women and girls’ human rights, access to aid, and safety from violence, abuse, and exploitation around the world.

Engaging women in decision making about conflict and extremism, as well as protecting their safety and security, in the US would align with the spirit of the WPS agenda. As Sanam Anderlini, founder and CEO of ICAN, comments: “We know the limitations of this legislation, but we see this as our opening not the final Act in terms of putting a feminist stamp on the US’s role in the world, and in terms of inspiring a reform of national and human security policies and priorities at home.”

There is great opportunity now with the US WPS strategy to elevate women’s leadership in creating global stability, peace and security. There is much that American women can learn from their counterparts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. There is no doubt that modeling women’s participation in domestic peace and security issues would bode well for strengthening US leadership abroad.

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