How Getting Women Involved Can Combat Extremism and Save Lives

   •    April 1, 2016

This article was published by PBS NewsHour.

As increasingly costly, disruptive and deadly conflicts unfold around the world, a House hearing last week highlighted that when women participate in negotiations, the resulting agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.

“Think about the lives saved and economies maintained by a 35 percent decrease in repeated conflicts,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. “Simply put, when women are at the negotiating table, success is more likely.”

Smart investments in women’s contributions to preventing conflict and building peace can foster durable peace in countries across the globe, reducing overall U.S. spending abroad and limiting foreign military intervention.

One example where women have an effect is in countering violent extremism (CVE). A sobering reminder of the urgency of addressing extremism underscored the hearing — earlier the same morning, three explosions shook Brussels in a series of terrorist attacks orchestrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The dire need for new approaches to this evolving global threat demands that policymakers around the world involve women in CVE and de-radicalization efforts. Research finds that women, frequently the first targets of fundamentalism, are often the first to stand up against it. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), cited this evidence as an imperative for the broader inclusion of women in the formation of security policy.

Greater inclusion of women at the negotiating table and in post-conflict governance is a catalyst for peace, as well. When women are included in delegations, parties are more likely to sit down together, and when women participate in formal peace talks, success is more likely. A new study of 40 peace processes found a strong correlation between the involvement of women’s groups in political negotiations and successful negotiation and implementation outcomes.

Monica McWilliams, a renowned negotiator and signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, offered testimony of how women in Northern Ireland’s peace talks ensured that parties addressed issues like social services, schools, employment, and other factors that were critical to durable peace. Jacqueline O’Neill, director of The Institute for Inclusive Security, presented research on how women help ensure that peace agreements, once reached, are supported by the disaffected communities.

Given that one of the strongest predictive factors of conflict onset is previous conflict, the integration of women’s perspectives and contributions in negotiating and implementing peace agreements is vital not only to the recovery from conflicts, but to the prevention of future cycles of violence.

Another area where targeted investments hold the potential to pay big dividends is in the recruitment and training of women in police, security, and peacekeeping forces. Hassan Abbas, security analyst and professor at the National Defense University, suggested that increasing the numbers of women in police forces “is directly linked to effective and good policing.”

Research suggests that policewomen are more likely than their male counterparts to successfully de-escalate tensions; women in policed communities are more likely to report gender-based violence to female officers; and female officers may have access to populations and spaces that are closed off to men in conservative cultures. A growing body of evidence supports the notion that increasing the number of women in police forces could significantly reduce police violence and excessive use of force, as well as foster broader social and political stability.

So what should the United States do to ensure that women’s participation in peace and security processes — including in CVE efforts, policing, and peace negotiations — remains squarely on the agenda of policymakers at home and abroad?

First, the U.S. must lead by example. While the United States advocates for greater participation by women in peace and security efforts abroad, congressional representatives and witnesses at last week’s hearing suggested that the U.S. government could do better at setting the tone. They suggested that Congress could recruit more female experts to testify at their hearings and, while on official travel, meet with women in decision-making roles.

Data collected on recent House and Senate committee and subcommittee hearings on Iran, for example, found that at least 38 of 45 hearings had all-male panels, and, of the 140 named witnesses, a total of six were women. As the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney observed, the proportion of women who testified on Iran policy in 2015 is comparable to the rate of women’s participation in Iran’s parliament, where 3 percent of MPs are women.

Second, the U.S. government must make targeted investments. “Provid[ing] needed financial support in places where women’s inclusion is severely lacking … is about smart spending and big dividends,” O’Neill argued. State Department and USAID initiatives support the contributions of women to peace and security from Afghanistan to Colombia to South Sudan. Given the evidence of the impact women can make if provided the opportunity, even more could be done within overall U.S. spending on security.

Third, accountability matters. “Too often, what gets agreed at the table is not delivered, which places the entire process in jeopardy,” McWilliams argued. She shared from her experience in Northern Ireland that “aspirational proposals in a peace agreement are not good enough … they need to be accompanied by benchmarks and timetables, alongside champions tasked to ensure these are enforced.” A similar call has been made in the United States, where there is an effort underway for Congress to pass the bipartisan “Women, Peace, and Security Act” (S. 224) in order to codify and provide oversight over the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

“The benefits of women’s participation — and the risks of their exclusion — in all aspects of governance and peacemaking are too great to ignore,” Royce observed. Hearings like last week’s indicate that Congress knows it should care about whether women contribute to peace and security, and points to what they, along with others in the U.S. government and the international community, can do about it.

A version of this commentary first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website.

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