A new National Action Plan aims to fully integrate women in diplomacy and defense, but holding on to the progress they’ve already made may be a greater challenge.
The abuse of women protesters in the streets of Cairo earlier this week shocked many onlookers and met with sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people,” she said in a speech at Georgetown University on Monday. “As some Egyptian politicians and commentators have themselves noted, a new democracy cannot be built on the persecution of women, nor can any stable society.”
Quite ironically, the headlines from Cairo coincided with Clinton’s release Monday of a U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security. The detailed plan is meant to integrate women as full and equal partners by applying gender considerations as a tool of analysis across all U.S. diplomatic, defense, and development policies. The NAP brings the U.S. into compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and four subsequent UN resolutions adopted since 2000 as a global framework for more effective conflict resolution and sustainable peace-building. It also institutionalizes priorities long promoted by Clinton personally, even before she became Secretary of State.
Clinton traveled to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and it was there that she delivered the landmark speech of her years as First Lady. In no uncertain terms she staked a claim for the fundamental principle of the global women’s movement — that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are the right of every woman. Drawing a direct corollary between societies that oppress women and states that fail on a larger scale, she also memorably repositioned women’s rights not just as a moral imperative, but as a necessary condition of success in U.S. foreign policy — not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do if our aim is to meet the world’s most critical security and development challenges.
In the years since, Clinton’s increasing prominence as a diplomat in her own right has provided her a powerful platform for these core beliefs. As a consequence, large numbers of individuals around the world, including many elected officials and professionals in diplomacy, development, and defense who simply never thought this way before, have come to agree that investing in women and working to secure their rights are among the most effective tools we have to consolidate democratic transitions in fragile states, to maintain regional peace and security, to spur economic growth and reduce poverty, to improve public health and well-being, and to address dire challenges the world faces to sustaining our fragile natural environment.
The NAP represents a quantum expansion of this effort because it moves beyond diplomacy and aid to incorporate U.S. defense policy and personnel, whose scale and reach is so much greater. Under-Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld were in the audience when Clinton spoke on Monday, and U.S. military strategies in Afghanistan, including the Marine Corps’s Female Engagement Teams and the Army’s Cultural Support Teams, which both send women soldiers to support ongoing combat operations by engaging women in local populations, were cited as examples of the virtues and success of enhanced gender integration and awareness.
Clinton seized the occasion of the release of the NAP to call for a redoubling of efforts in several critical areas:
First, to invest in conflict prevention strategies including early warning systems that monitor increases in violence against women as an indicator of instability and future widening conflict, while also putting women and girls at the center of U.S. efforts to secure countries through programs in food security, public health, and economic entrepreneurship.
Second, to strengthen protection for women and girls in conflict situations, with greater focus on greater legal accountability for rape and sexual violence and on enhanced training of foreign militaries, police, and justice systems to support women victims of violence and find them safe shelter — much as has occurred as a result of federal funds made available to American cities to reduce high incidences of crime over the past four decades.
Third, to mandate participation of women in conflict resolution and peace processes, as has been successful in some small countries in recent years, including most prominently Liberia, Darfur, and Kosovo.
Fourth, to support many more women-led civil society organizations in post-conflict relief and reconstruction efforts, especially in refugee situations where they are most vulnerable.
Translating good intentions into effective operational plans is in itself an accomplishment worthy of note and celebration, especially in this holiday season. So let us all give three cheers for the leadership of Secretary Clinton and so many others who have worked hard on these efforts in the Obama administration. But as with so many worthy resolutions made at the coming of a new year, those announced this week face innumerable obstacles to their realization.
First, of course, is the sad reality that universal standards for women’s human rights offer no sure cure for violations that persist with uncanny fortitude and often unimaginable cruelty, as the situation in Egypt reminds us. With harsh fundamentalisms resurgent in many countries, women and girls will remain vulnerable despite improved U.S. intentions and indeed, in part, perhaps because of them. Their rights will remain an arena of intense political conflict as a response to the social dislocations that inevitably result in the short term from opening greater opportunity to women and from the larger assaults on traditional cultures of many real injustices of modernization and globalization.
Even in the U.S. decades of substantial progress by women have fueled a fierce backlash, so much so that America continues to reside in the unlikely company of Iran, Sudan, and Somalia as the only UN member states that have failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, commonly known as CEDAW. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty shortly before leaving office in 1979 and sent it to the Senate for ratification, where it has remained in limbo ever since, held hostage by three obstacles: the high bar of 67 votes needed for U.S. ratification of international treaties; the hostility of U.S. conservatives to multilateralism in general; and, of course, their historic contempt for women’s rights agreements of any stripe. Failure to be party to this visionary accord compromises the sincerity of America’s global efforts on women’s rights, if not necessarily the effectiveness of some of the specific bi-lateral agreements and policies the Obama/Clinton team has put in place.
No matter how noble the intentions of Secretary Clinton and President Obama in the larger arena of women’s rights and foreign policy, the prospect for lasting impact thus remains tethered to political realities. In the likelihood that the U.S. Congress remains locked in partisan combat, resources to expand innovation in diplomacy, development, and even in defense policy simply will not exist. And making better use of what we have, of course, will require that whoever replaces Hillary Clinton, who has announced she will not return for a second term, is a foreign policy leader of comparable intellect, energy, and commitment to women’s rights.
And that, sad to say, is an awful lot to hope for, even as we head into these days of good cheer.
Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.