house hearing

House Holds “Truly Historic” Hearing on Women and Security

   •    March 22, 2016

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the first-ever hearing by a full congressional panel on the role of women in peace and security. Jacqueline O’Neill, Director of The Institute for Inclusive Security, one of three witnesses, testified that the hearing “put a crucial topic squarely on the agenda of one of the most prominent committees in Congress.”

Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said in his opening remarks at today’s hearing that the “truly historic panel” was addressing an issue of critical importance. He noted that conflicts raging in Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan are becoming increasing deadly and disruptive, and extremist violence makes negotiations more important than ever.

“And simply put, when women are at the negotiating table, success is more likely,” Royce said. “Research shows that a peace agreement is more likely to be reached—and is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years—when women are involved.”

Finding better ways to secure peace is an urgent need. Several speakers cited the current Syrian peace talks, where women and other civil society representatives are being included, as a promising example amid such terrible suffering.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), said women must not be seen only as victims of conflict, but as actors who can play a central role in ending it. He added: “Women are the first to resist violent fundamentalism.”

Joining O’Neill as witnesses were Monica McWilliams, a renowned negotiator and signatory to the Good Friday Agreement who is also a member of Inclusive Security’s Women Waging Peace Network, and Hassan Abbas, professor at National Defense University and a prominent analyst of security issues in South Asia. Betty Bigombe, a Ugandan mediator and peace campaigner famed for negotiating with the Lord’s Resistance Army, submitted written testimony.

The hearing, titled “Women Fighting for Peace: Lessons for Today’s Conflicts,” drew questions from several Congress members from both parties who wanted to learn how the US can strengthen the role of women in ending conflicts and building lasting peace.

Royce put it this way: “As I hope today’s hearing will demonstrate, the benefits of women’s participation —and the risks of their exclusion—in all aspects of governance and peacemaking are too great to ignore.”

Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) said that, when she was an active duty Air Force officer flying combat missions over Iraq and Kuwait, she hadn’t even heard of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women to be decision makers in peace and security. She said that, too often, colleagues regard this as simply a women’s issue, whereas her military experience made it clear: “This is not a women’s issue. This is a security issue.”

O’Neill cited an array of data and anecdotes to make the case for women at the peace table. She noted that “in many ways, the peace table itself is disappearing” as non-state actors such as terrorist groups become more active. That trend makes it even more urgent to draw in women because they are often better placed to learn about security threats and to mediate solutions.

“Women expand the conversation beyond a narrow discussion of where borders are drawn and who gets to control minerals and oil,” she said. “They introduce priorities that lay a foundation for a stronger state in the long term.”

O’Neill made specific recommendations for congressional action:

  • Pass the bipartisan “Women, Peace, and Security Act” (S. 224) to codify the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. That will give Congress more oversight over how the plan is implemented.
  • Provide resources to advance women’s inclusion in peace and security processes, including for recruiting, training, and retaining women in police forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond, as well as support for women’s inclusion in the Syria peace negotiations.
  • Insist that every congressional delegation meet with female community and government leaders in conflict-affected countries.
  • Be sure to invite female experts to hearings on international crises and security issues.
  • Ask targeted questions at hearings—particularly of nominees for diplomatic, defense and development positions—to explain how the national action plan principles are reflected in his or her priorities.

In response to a question on how to get more women to the table, O’Neill said: “There’s never a shortage of women who want to have a say in their own lives. So our best resource is the women at the front lines already. Our objective is to amplify their voices.”

“We have a system now that tends only to reward those who took up arms,” she added. “In all of our strategic negotiations and contacts, our most senior diplomats—and not just women, men too—should be emphasizing the importance of hearing women’s voices.”

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