United States Strategy on Women Peace and Security Underestimates Women's Agency

November 12, 2019
by Andrea Tuemmler

The recent United States Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security is a promising first step in implementing the world’s first domestic legislation on the global Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. Because the Strategy does not go far enough in recognizing women’s agency and participation in security services, we recommend that the departments tasked with implementation of the Strategy pay close attention to:

• Recognizing existing women’s advocacy and participation in security and peacebuilding;
• Analyzing differences in women’s experiences of conflict and intersecting identities;
• Avoiding a narrative that focuses only on women’s victimization; and
• Supporting women who are already participating in security services.


U.S. progress towards women’s inclusion in the military has always been incremental. Despite years of advocacy, only 15% of the U.S. military are women, and it was only in the last three years that women were allowed to assume combat roles. While the U.S. first released a National Action Plan for Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) in 2011, it was not until 2017 that congress passed the Women, Peace and Security Act and became the first country in the world with domestic WPS legislation. Finally, in June 2019, the United States published its Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security to begin the process of implementing this landmark legislation.

The global Women, Peace, and Security agenda, rooted in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), is committed to mainstreaming gender in the global response to conflict. It calls for a gender-sensitive approach to its four main pillars: participation, conflict prevention, protection, and relief and recovery. Many countries have formally adopted a National Action Plan for implementation of the domestic WPS frameworks, so the U.S. is not the only actor taking an important leadership role in this space. However, by writing WPS into domestic law, the U.S. has an opportunity to lead on how this international norm can be translated into codified legal obligations. Especially in a moment where the United States’ commitment to gender equality and international engagement is in question, the ways in which the WPS Strategy is implemented will have repercussions for global efforts to include more women in security and peacebuilding.

While the Strategy successfully develops a framework for gender-sensitive conflict prevention, protection, and relief and recovery, it misses the mark on the first pillar of the WPS agenda: participation. There are three interrelated problems with how the Strategy frames the issue of women’s participation in security and peacebuilding.

First, the Strategy mis-identifies women’s unequal participation as a result of lack of capacity rather than a lack of opportunity, ignoring a long history of women’s agency in peace and security. Second, it fails to take a nuanced approach to gender, suggesting that women share a common experience removed from crosscutting identities such as race. Third, the Strategy under-emphasizes women’s participation in security forces, focusing on women as victims in a way that is harmful to full participation in the sectors where women could be most empowered to participate in peacebuilding.

It is our hope that in the implementation of this Strategy, especially when the relevant U.S. agencies publish more detailed implementation plans, the U.S. can better capitalize on its exciting role at the forefront of domestic legislation to recognize and support women’s agency.

The Strategy

The Strategy outlines three key objectives:

• Better prepare and enable women to participate in peace-building efforts;

• Increase safety and access to resources for women; and

• Institutionalize the WPS agenda in the U.S. and abroad.

The WPS Strategy is far from perfect. It is inconsistent with other Trump administration policies such as the Global Gag Rule, which pulls federal funding from many international NGOs that provide healthcare to women in conflict-affected areas. Successful implementation of the Strategy may be undermined by U.S. reluctance to engage with the United Nations and international peacekeeping efforts. However, the plan does show commitment not just to the rhetoric of WPS but to putting it into practice, especially in its calls for the collection of sex-disaggregated data for measurable targets and metrics. Further, it goes beyond merely calling for gender parity, and looks to systemic ways in which women’s voices have been victimized, marginalized, and excluded from decision-making processes. This article is meant not to criticize the administration but rather to identify the areas in which successful implementation of the Strategy could more robustly support women in security forces and peacebuilding efforts.

Here, careful implementation can help remedy the conceptual oversights in the Strategy. The Strategy gives recommendations, but it requests that the relevant U.S. federal agencies – Department of Defense (DoD), State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – publish their own implementation plans. As U.S. Admiral Michelle Howard argued in a recent talk at George Washington University, this devolved implementation mechanism can lead to policy incoherence or inefficient overlap. Admiral Howard argues that it would be better to delegate different aspects of the Strategy to the agencies that are best equipped for each challenge; for instance, allocate military training to DoD and make USAID responsible for development and humanitarian assistance. The potential for synergy requires inter-agency coordination that has not been made evident in the Strategy. However, this lack of detail may allow the individual departments the flexibility to address the conceptual failure of the Strategy and better recognize women’s agency as participants in peace and security.  

Women’s Capacity

The Strategy’s first objective calls for progress towards women being “more prepared and increasingly able to participate in efforts that promote stable and lasting peace.” Capacity-building and inclusion of women in military academies is key to creating a culture of women’s participation. However, the way in which this objective is framed ignores women who are already prepared and interested in participating in peace and security efforts. It obscures the fact that women often lack the opportunity for advancement in military and leadership roles and face structural barriers to participation beyond merely a lack of preparation. Encouraging women’s participation must involve opportunity at all levels of career advancement and a recognition of how prepared many women already are.

Further, this objective fails to recognize the long history of women who have been advocating for greater inclusion, both in security forces and in peace processes. The framework wants to “encourage” women to participate, suggesting that women do not already want to and have been participating. By better detailing existing areas in which women are active participants and by focusing on reducing barriers to participation rather than encouraging women, this objective would better respect the ways in which women have agency. The phrase “increasingly able to participate” must be implemented in a way that assumes not a latent lack of ability but rather structural barriers to exercise capacity that already exists.

Intersectional Identities

Second, the Strategy lacks nuance about the diversity of women’s experiences, another way of inadvertently obscuring women’s agency. The Strategy emphasizes ‘women’s inclusion,’ language that is uninterested in the differences between women. It treats ‘women’ as a socially salient group identity that in many contexts may not speak to the reality of how different women experience conflict. While this approach generates helpful information such as sex-disaggregated data that has historically been lacking, it can serve to obscure key nuances in how conflict and peace are experienced by different groups. For instance, women in different security roles or on different sides of conflict may not see gender as the primary identity through which they experience conflict. Other factors such as race differentiate the experiences and interests of women in important ways, and a strategy that fails to address difference will not be effective in empowering all women.

The Strategy does not specifically exclude a focus on the intersection of identities, but in failing to mention that these intersections exist, the Strategy is liable to obscure the different needs of different women. The erasure of difference among women also feeds into a reductive narrative that limits women’s agency, since it treats women’s inclusion as deriving from their identity rather than from their humanity. It also fails to challenge the political limitations of the 1325 framework that addresses ‘women’ rather than gender, therefore imposing a binary understanding. Successful implementation of this Strategy must transcend the limits of the text to be more attentive to nuance and difference within gender identity.

Women as Combatants

Finally, the Strategy emphasizes the ‘protection’ pillar of the WPS agenda over the ‘participation’ pillar. The Strategy focuses on women as victims and as peacebuilders, ignoring the role that women can and do play as actors in security forces. One of the objectives of the Strategy is that “women and girls are safer, better protected, and have equal access to…assistance.” Discussions of violence against women are critical, especially in spaces with stark power dynamics such as peacekeeping operations and military hierarchies. The Strategy is comprehensive and attentive to the nuanced ways in which women experience differentiated harm in conflict. However, sexual violence and gender-based victimhood are not the only aspects of a woman’s experience with peace and security. An exclusive focus on women as victims may perpetuate those very barriers that prevent women’s inclusion in security forces.

The strategy does not place enough emphasis on women as combatants, avoiding almost all discussion of women in security forces. Instead, it seeks to increase women’s participation specifically as “negotiators, mediators, and decision-makers.” While there is one paragraph recognizing the role of women in U.S.-based security-sector initiatives (pg. 7) and another recognizing the role of women in peacekeeping forces (pg. 13), the Strategy as a whole does not sufficiently address the role of women in militaries. This focus at best limits the scope of how women are encouraged to participate and at worst reinforces harmful stereotypes about women’s intrinsic peacefulness. In practice, women’s inclusion in peacebuilding and in security forces are not two distinct processes; it is often military leaders who are critical players in peace processes and who are called on as peacekeepers. By imagining that women can participate meaningfully in peace processes without recognizing their role in security forces, this Strategy overlooks a key avenue through which women can and do participate in leadership roles to engage in peace and security.

A Global Challenge

The ways in which the U.S. chooses to engage with the global WPS strategy are critical to its success. Two of the Strategy’s objectives are to increase the institutionalization of the WPS in the U.S. and abroad. The tension of U.S. leadership in WPS is apparent in one of the main spaces in which the WPS agenda is operationalized in the international community: peacekeeping. The U.S. does not contribute peacekeeping troops, so it holds itself apart from how effectively WPS is realized globally. However, as a major donor to UN peacekeeping and as a leader in military training and education, the U.S. still plays a role in the UN-driven efforts to achieve gender parity and an end to sexual exploitation and abuse among peacekeepers. The Strategy alludes to this role by encouraging engagement with international partners. However, implementing the international aspect of this domestic Strategy depends on the extent to which the U.S. is willing to continue to play a role on the global stage instead of withdrawing. The U.S.’s current failure to pay United Nations dues, take seriously multilateral peacekeeping efforts, and ratify other gender initiatives like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) constrain the extent to which the U.S. can take a leadership role in implementing the WPS agenda.


The U.S. Strategy is a critical development in the translation of international frameworks into domestic legislation with enforceability. Its success will depend on the extent to which it engages with broader U.S. commitment to playing a role in international engagements, specifically with regards to women’s rights. It also depends on how the U.S. manages to implement the Strategy domestically, coordinating actionable plans between the different government departments. Through these two channels, the international and the domestic implementation, an effective interpretation of the Strategy would stress those aspects of the Strategy that recognize women’s agency by:

• Acknowledging where women already work in the security and peacebuilding space;

• Engaging with existing civil society and military efforts to increase women’s participation;

• Recognizing the intersection of other identities with gender, and the nuances between different women;

• Creating leadership opportunities and increasing space for women already participating in security forces;

• Avoiding a narrative of women exclusively as victims;

• Better analyzing the cultural barriers to women’s participation beyond ‘lack of capacity’; and

• Focusing on women in security forces and how security forces interact with peacebuilding.

By appreciating and supporting women’s agency, the United States will be more effective and more credible as it implements the WPS agenda at home and abroad.

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