Security Roundtable: Expert Interviews with Women Leaders in Women, Peace and Security

From left: Joylnn Shoemaker, Jessica Huber, Naureen Chowdhury Fink

Did you know that there is one UN Security Council resolution that has a global constituency of feminists?  This watershed resolution, the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (UNSCR 1325), was unanimously adopted in October 2000 to elevate the presence of women in decision-making positions in matters of international peace and security.   It is groundbreaking because of the requirement it places on Member States to “consult with women” about their foreign policy agendas, especially in peace processes and peacekeeping. However, there’s a lot of confusion about why women need to be consulted and how to do it meaningfully when it comes to international policy making.

Our Secure Future’s Security Roundtable Series has previously interviewed experts Cynthia Enloe, and Male Leaders. In this third part of the series, Director Sahana Dharmapuri talks with three leading women experts in international security about what UNSCR 1325 adds to the global policy debate on international peace and security and what’s still missing.

Jolynn Shoemaker is the former Director of Women in International Security (WIIS) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Previously, she handled international law and policy issues for the Initiative for Inclusive Security, an initiative of Hunt Alternatives Fund. She served as Country Director in the U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, International Security Policy (Eurasia), where she focused on the Western Balkans region. She was a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) from 2000-2002. During that time, she was the Regional Advisor for Southern and East Africa at the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs. She completed two rotational assignments working as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Defense, General Counsel’s Office for International Affairs. Ms. Shoemaker has a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, an M.A. from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Security Studies, and a B.A. from University of California, San Diego. She has published articles and chapters on women and armed conflict, legal reform in post-conflict situations, human rights, and women in peacekeeping. She is a member of the New York Bar.

Jessica Huber has over 20 years of professional experience working in the field of women's empowerment, protection and civic participation. She formerly worked with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) as a Senior Gender Specialist and with the American Refugee Committee on issues including women's rights and empowerment, peace building, civic engagement and gender-based violence in Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, South Sudan, Liberia and Pakistan. Huber also spent significant time working in Uganda, most recently as director of the Peace and Justice Programs for USAID's flagship Early Recovery Stabilization Project, where she implemented initiatives to empower women and girls in recovery from conflict and mainstreamed gender issues into economic security programs. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Urban Studies from Vassar College and a Master's Degree in Peace Studies from Trinity College, Dublin.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is currently a Senior Fellow at the Global Center of Cooperative Security, where she also served as the Head of Research and Analysis at the time this interview was conducted. She focuses on the international and multilateral response to terrorism and related challenges, such as violent extremism, armed conflict, and political instability, and the role of the United Nations. She came to the Global Center after five years at the International Peace Institute, where she developed the counterterrorism portfolio and published on international efforts to prevent radicalization and violent extremism, regional counterterrorism cooperation in South Asia, terrorism and political violence in Bangladesh, and the UN counterterrorism program. She has also worked closely with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate on developing their initiatives in South Asia. Prior to that, she worked with the Middle East Program in Chatham House and the World Intellectual Property Organization and World Trade Organization in Geneva. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and an MA in War Studies from King’s College, London. 


Sahana Dharmapuri (SD):  We are facing a lot of complicated challenges today, with extremist groups like ISIS on the rise, climate change, and other issues. Why should policy makers take the time to consult with women about these types of problems?

Jessica Huber (JH):  This question always seems like an opportunity to state the obvious, but I have been amazed at how often the obvious is obfuscated. Women are half of the population and by right they should be consulted. Equally as important, basic common sense affirms that women’s voices are critical in the resolution of any debate or conflict, be that a local village debate about healthcare, a national policy debate about economic security or a Track 1 peace negotiation. However, this case still needs to be made time and time again, and along with it the need to underscore the fact that women’s voices bring depth and perspective to their leadership and involvement that can represent the needs of an entire community. This helps bring new issues to the table and clarity to existing obstacles, which resonates more broadly across a population and makes solutions more sustainable.

Jolynn Shoemaker (JS): In my view, peace and security cannot be achieved without the participation of women.  International peace and security policy is often determined at government and United Nations levels far removed from the realities on the ground.  But the policies cannot possibly succeed without an understanding of these realities and the cooperation, ideas, and human capital of people who are living daily lives and sustaining families and communities.  Women have been peacemakers and peacebuilders in their families and communities throughout history.  There has just been a deep disconnect between these efforts and the decisions about war and peace that determine the security and life opportunities for millions of men, women, and children.  The decisions have either completely ignored the human security needs on the ground or been based on a very narrow set of assumptions, ambitions, and experiences of those with power or seeking power.  In a world where women and children bear the brunt of war and the aftermath, leaving those perspectives out of the process is a recipe for failure.

Consulting with women as equal participants opens up entirely new options and approaches for tackling some of the most complicated and vicious violence in the world.  In business, would it be smart to overlook needed talent that could improve the bottom line?  Of course not.  In peace and security, the stakes are so much higher.  Wouldn’t we want to bring all of the available resources to bear to improve our chances of success?  If we get it wrong, the costs in lives and capital are enormous.  War is devastating to lives and economies, whereas peace and development brings benefits for entire societies.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink (NCF): When we are talking about countering violent extremism (CVE), women are the first line target of extremist groups—it’s often their freedom, rights and space that are constrained. In many instances they are best positioned to feel and see these societal changes, even in communities that are traditional, they see these

It helps to develop a response that is uniquely tailored to their community. The special roles of mothers and the elderly in communities have an element of respect. When they speak out against certain problems like violence against women they play a powerful role against glorifying it. Given their unique role and position they are a critical element of more nuanced CVE efforts.


SD: Ok, but, I get asked this question a lot, “who should be consulted?” Many policy makers—meaning diplomats, foreign service officers and military personnel—do not know which women to talk to when they are in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. There are a lot of women out there, but who is the most relevant to international peace and security policy decisions?

JS:  When it comes to women’s leadership issues, for a long time, the response was “we can’t find the women.”  Of course, this is ridiculous.  What it really means is that we don’t want to take the trouble to figure out who to talk with and who to include.  Especially in the bureaucracies that make policy decisions, it is very difficult to dislodge established processes and introduce new approaches.

We need to get to a point of more inclusivity, where all the stakeholders who are affected by decisions have ways to ensure that their voices are heard in the process.  When international delegations come to countries to assess peace and security, development, human rights, and economic needs, we should see women at the table.  When the difficult peace negotiations occur after so much bloodshed and mistrust, women must be at the table.  When new institutions are formed out of the ashes of war, women need to be leaders to ensure accountability to the entire population, not just one half of it. 

JH: From a political, democratic perspective, all women should be consulted. Of course, female experts on a particular topic should lead efforts on issues, whether that is democracy and governance, economic empowerment, security or health. But women and girls of all ages, social and economic standings must be part of conversations about their societies. The challenge is to find the entry points to include all of these important perspectives. This is perhaps where international and national civil society organizations working on gender equality and women’s empowerment can play a most valuable role: supporting access to decision-making and decision makers, as well as representing concerns of women when access isn’t possible.  Many interventions help, from leadership training and capacity building support to increasing access to basic services to advocacy with the highest levels of government and multilateral institutions.

NCH: That’s a challenging question. In a lot of civil society groups there are concerns about gatekeepers, and that women are representative of the spectrum of stakeholders. An easy answer is the women who are most affected are the best placed to identify the threat or help shape a response. It’s helpful to talk to women from countries and communities that are confronting violent extremism.



SD: Can anyone give an example of how talking to women made a real difference?

JH: Yes. In the lead up to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, women from both sides of the conflict joined together to form a political party: the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. These women placed aside decades of deeply divisive and violent conflict to develop a common agenda based on peace and justice. The party, with its two elected officials, played an instrumental role in quelling debates among the negotiating parties. Its genesis came from the cross-community women’s movement in Ireland. While most others were entrenched in their sectarian positions, the Women’s Coalition was able to resist such politics and played a vital and unique shuttle diplomacy role in discussions that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement. Although the party dissolved in 2006, its contributions to the peace negotiations were invaluable. And, most notably, two women, one Catholic and one Protestant, won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for the efforts: Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams.


SD:  What about resistance? Isn’t there still a significant amount of resistance to talking to women, and including their perspectives in policy formulation?

JS: We are now at the point where it is politically incorrect to directly oppose the idea of including women at decision-making tables, but there is still great resistance to changing the status quo.  Some organizations and institutions have been more amenable to change, due to either their areas of work, for example, international development or the individual commitment of key leaders who believe in the difference it can make to include women.  However, other organizations and leaders view the growing popularity of Women, Peace and Security and women’s leadership topics as either a passing trend or merely a PR opportunity to lead to more funding or visibility.  In international peace and security, the issue areas are still segmented, and many entities tend to focus on more traditional, or what used to be termed “hard security,” such as defense, aerospace, weapons, and geopolitics. 
Human security, development, human rights, and of course, gender, are often grouped into another category – where they are advocated for by non-governmental organizations but remain under-resourced and are not as well integrated into other security-related debates.

Although the US government, UN, NATO and many other governments now have mandates on women’s inclusion in peace and security, the full implementation of these commitments has been slow.  Outside of public institutions, think tanks and for-profit entities have been extremely resistant to the integration of these commitments.  Until they are forced to do so by their own internal mandates and see some association with funding opportunities, they will be unlikely to change.  It is interesting to note that many of these organizations are funded by government and still show tremendous lack of gender diversity in their leadership levels.

NCF: The focus on women in CVE is new.  More discussions have been with women as victims and women in civil society groups. There has been a focus on exploring it –more prevalent in addressing CVE. Three years ago it was the soft of the soft, or “women’s issues”. Now the discourse on CVE initiatives are more proactive on gender. There’s a lot of statements and policies on the importance of women. I think the rhetoric has changed, but more work needs to be done in changing the work. Whether countries look more proactively for women to participate more in training in certain proportions or workshops or CVE initiatives is another question. There’s still a way to go to move from policy to practice.

JH: UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security “urges member states to ensure increased representation of women and all decision-making levels in national, regional, and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.”  However, as countries that descend into or emerge from conflicts, women hear the same thing: “women’s issues are important, but we first need to tackle the issues of peace and security and then we will include the discussion on women’s involvement and rights.”

There are examples of this “not now, but soon” argument to the involvement of women in every place where there is conflict and emerging democracies around the world, highlighting more than ever the need for countries and multilaterals to move beyond rhetoric and develop action plans on 1325. In Syria, for example, there is a brutal civil war that has raged on for years. There is a robust movement of Syrian and international women’s and civil society groups working to consolidate and amplify women’s voices in leading peace efforts. Yet, despite concerted advocacy efforts at all levels, there have been few opportunities for women to meaningfully participate in Syria’s transition. At the international peace negotiations, women’s groups have largely been excluded from formal talks when those talks have managed to take place. Even at the local levels, where local councils are using various improvised governance structures to keep communities functioning, women must continue to press local leaders to include them in decisions about what shape interim governing may take.


SD:  It seems obvious to talk with women and include their perspectives when doing any kind of problem solving, but it seems like the idea of consulting with women is a new phenomenon in international security. What is so revolutionary about talking to women?

JS: Talking to women, learning their perspectives, and valuing their experiences should not be revolutionary.  But the reality is that it is revolutionary because if leaders and organizations actually did this systematically, it would drastically change our decision-making processes.  This possibility of change can be threatening.  It is ironic that in peace and security, the established ways of gathering information and making decisions are not working effectively, and in any other industry, the outcomes would be considered failures.  Yet, there is still so much resistance to trying other methods and approaches, and bringing in new voices.  This is why the community of gender experts is constantly asked for “proof” that including women will make a difference.  The fear of change is very real, and it is a major obstacle to moving forward.  Individual champions within these organizations are trying to navigate and smooth the path for change, but it is slow and difficult work when the attitudes have not shifted within the organizational cultures.  These organizations desperately need leaders who understand the stakes and the tremendous, untapped potential of women; and who are not afraid to upend the current structures and processes. 

NCF: I wouldn’t say it’s revolutionary because there has been so much discussion about the roles of women in peace negotiations and conflict resolution.  We didn’t think it was revolutionary, but this is why we thought it was surprising that women weren’t engaged in more CVE.  I think what’s new is a discussion about engaging women as a security issue—looking at what extremist groups do not as an infringement on women’s rights but as a security issue. We’ve seen this with ISIS, and the attacks on women are not seen as just a women’s issue, but a security issue at large. From that perspective talking about women’s security issues not as only affecting women, but as broader security issues at large is new.

JH: What’s new about it? Nothing. I think that’s part of the challenge of working on gender equality issues. Talking to women is not revolutionary, but rather perfectly ordinary. Men and women talk every day in most societies. What is revolutionary is making those discussions count toward something: making sure women and men contribute equally to determining their futures and the futures of their families and communities and governments. It is revolutionary, because it challenges societies to remove systemic discriminatory policies and practices that bar women from equal opportunity. It is revolutionary, because it requires the defeat of violence against women, including sexual violence, as a tool of oppression and war. It is revolutionary, because it requires long-term work that challenges and ultimately changes common practices and behaviors.