Democracy & Elections

Why a Focus on Gender Increases National Security

Susan Markham
Thursday, May 5, 2022, 8:01 AM

If a society does not value half of its population, the chances are that society and its leaders will not value international agreements or the rule of law.

Announcement of Kamala Harris as a candidate for Vice President in 2020. (Source: Adam Schultz;

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Early in his presidency, President Biden made clear his commitment to promoting gender equity and equality. On International Women’s Day in March 2021, he issued Executive Order 14020, establishing the White House Gender Policy Council and calling for the development of a government-wide strategy for advancing gender equity and equality in the United States and around the world. Among other things, the order recognizes that gender equity and equality are not only just but also are “a strategic imperative” that advances political stability, fosters democracy and is essential to the “security of our Nation and of the world.” In November 2021, the Biden-Harris administration issued the first-ever national gender strategy, which sets forth an aspirational vision and a comprehensive agenda to advance gender equity and equality in domestic and foreign policy.

While the Biden-Harris administration’s strategy may be new, the connections between women’s advancement, peace, gender issues and national security are not. Academics, civil society advocates and governments around the world have focused on these issues for decades through the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, and most recently through Sweden’s adoption in 2014 of a feminist foreign policy.

These earlier conventions and policies focused on preventing conflict, maintaining peace or rebuilding societies so that women will have the opportunity to fully enjoy their human rights and partake in the economic, political and social life of their communities or countries. But this theory has evolved, and what’s new and important here is the understanding that equality does not come from peace, but peace comes through equality. The security of a nation depends on greater gender equity and equality. If a society does not value half of its population, the chances are that society and its leaders will not value international agreements or the rule of law.


The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the international women’s rights treaty. It sets the standards in international law for achieving gender equality, both normatively and practically, in terms of setting out the concrete steps governments need to take to eliminate discrimination against women in their countries. CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and has achieved nearly universal endorsement. The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have not ratified CEDAW.

The issue of women, peace and security (WPS)—the idea that women’s participation in the peace process is necessary for effective conflict resolution and peacekeeping—has been widely recognized through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325). The resolution acknowledges the changing nature of warfare, in which civilians are increasingly targeted by parties to conflict, and the exclusion of women from peace processes. To that end, it calls for the increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making, negotiations and relief and recovery measures that take gender into consideration. Since 2000, nine successor resolutions have been passed to address specific issues and further implementation.

Research since the adoption of UNSCR 1325 shows that women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution improves outcomes before, during and after conflict. Participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, made a peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail. A study analyzing 130 peace agreements found a statistically significant relationship between peace agreements signed by women and the durability of peace. The same study also found that linkages between women signatories to agreements and women-led civil society groups led to more provisions in agreements focused on political reform, and higher implementation rates of those provisions, which increased the likelihood of durable peace.

Parallel to the implementation of UNSCR 1325, researchers began focusing on the linkage between women’s security and national security. In one notable study, a multidisciplinary team of researchers deployed historical process-tracing, in-depth case studies, and rigorous statistical analysis to examine the critical linkage between the presence of women’s rights and the security of nation-states. The final four years of the research project were funded primarily by the Minerva Initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense. This research is publicly accessible through the WomenStats Project database, which contains over 170,000 data points and covers over 350 variables for 175 nations.

The study concludes that if relations between men and women in a society are rooted in autocracy, exploitation, violence, insecurity and even terror, it primes the society for the same fate. The research also demonstrates that when societies previously broke free from this toxic cycle of female subordination, they achieved a much more stable, prosperous and secure future for their people. For instance, in northwestern Europe, a rise in democratic institutions can be attributed partially to a revolution in marriage law, encouraged by the church. These changes occured in the early seventh century and included the outlawing of polygamy and changing of inheritance law, which led to the strengthening of the position of women within families. This expansion of women’s property and inheritance rights further weakened gendered norms of impunity for men and the value of kinship, while increasing the value of the nuclear family, professional guilds and democratic institutions. Further research indicates that as the character of marriage changed, the character of the political and economic orders also changed. With regard to the relationships between men and women, “To treat the first ‘Other’ as oneself, fully deserving of respect, voice and bodily integrity, is arguably the key microfoundation of civility and self government within a society.”

The idea of feminist foreign policy became prominent in 2014 when the Swedish coalition government, led by Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, adopted a feminist foreign policy posited on the conviction that sustainable peace, security and development cannot be achieved if women are excluded. Since that time, Norway, Canada, France, Mexico, Luxembourg and Spain have followed suit. Additional discussions about incorporating a feminist approach to foreign policy are taking place in the European Union, Chile, Denmark, Malaysia, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Women, Gender, Peace and Security in the U.S. 

Globally, the women, peace and security framework has not been implemented well over the past two decades. There continues to be a disconnected, fragmented and siloed approach to the implementation of UNSCR 1325. There have been many poorly planned and underfunded programs and services in conflict-affected situations; impunity for acts of sexual exploitation, abuse and gender-based violence; and a lack of support for women’s civil society participation in peace processes. It wasn’t until 2004 that the U.N. Security Council encouraged national-level implementation of UNSCR 1325 through national action plans. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the U.K. developed plans in 2005 and 2006, while the U.S. did not fully develop its own action plan until several years later.

In the U.S., implementation of the WPS agenda has also been uneven. President Obama took several actions early in his first term to further gender equality and this framework. First, he appointed his primary campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state. He also tapped Susan Rice to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Obama repealed the global gag rule, regarding access to abortion, and he signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, regarding fair pay, in January 2009. He created the White House Council on Women and Girls and elevated the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State into the secretary’s office.

As secretary of state, in 2010, Clinton initiated the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) to lay out a four-year plan for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The QDDR outlines six specific focus areas and then says, “In each area, we will invest in women and girls at every turn, with the goal of empowering them.” With the secretary’s support and after more than a year’s collaboration between civil society organizations and executive branch working groups, Obama signed an executive order in December 2011 that instituted the first U.S. WPS national action plan to implement UNSCR 1325. The U.S. action plan was important because it outlined specific outcomes associated with objectives and these activities were assigned to specific agencies.

With a nod to the emerging research that links domestic levels of gender-based violence and state security, lawmakers introduced the International Violence Against Women Act in Congress to authorize appropriations to build the capacity of U.S. government staff to address gender-based violence in all humanitarian relief, conflict, post-conflict and disaster relief programs. Despite the bill’s bipartisan support and the fact that it has been introduced in the 110th, 111th, 112th, 114th and 116th congresses, it has never passed. In the meantime, USAID released the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to GBV Globally in 2010. In November 2021, Biden announced the creation of a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, which will bring a “whole-of-government approach to supporting survivors, promoting prevention, and shifting norms” using the full range of foreign policy tools.

In 2017, the U.S. Women, Peace, and Security Act (the WPS Act) was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law. It promotes women’s meaningful inclusion and participation in peace and security processes abroad to prevent, mitigate or resolve violent conflict. The law ensures congressional oversight in the U.S. government’s efforts to integrate gender perspectives across its diplomatic, development and defense-related work in conflict-affected environments. The U.S. is the first country in the world with a comprehensive law on WPS.

In June 2021, the U.S. government released its first report on the implementation of the WPS Act with specifics from the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and USAID. It evaluated progress made across four lines of effort: participation, protection, internal capabilities and partnerships. The implementation of the WPS Act focuses on how the agencies facilitate women’s participation in conflict resolution, security initiatives, and efforts to protect civilians from violence and exploitation in other countries.

In November 2021, the White House released the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality focused on gender issues both domestically and globally. The goal of the strategy is to “close pernicious gender gaps and propel us toward a world with equal opportunity for all people.” With regard to foreign policy, the strategy states, “Recent conflicts and crises around the world have demonstrated, once again, that times of acute instability and authoritarian resurgence reflect and exacerbate gender inequality and that full participation is critical to meeting the global challenges we face.” To that end, the strategy includes guiding principles, 10 strategic and overlapping priorities, and a whole-of-government approach for how the strategy will be implemented.

Gender and Security Now 

The Biden-Harris administration has indicated its commitment to gender equity and equality through appointments and other executive actions, and it has aligned itself with the international community. Biden appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, established the White House Gender Policy Council and created a Defense Department Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the U.S. Military. In 2021, the State Department revised the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to include a broad range of issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It has yet to be seen, however, if the U.S. government is fully prepared to take further concrete actions that mirror the values it extols in the statements and documents that have been released.

The WPS Act, focused on U.S. government activities abroad, has never been fully implemented. The overall strategy released by the Trump administration in June 2019; the implementation plans of the Defense Department, the State Department, USAID and the Department of Homeland Security in June 2020; and the progress report released in June 2021 show movement toward the institutionalization and integration of gender into national security policies and processes. But these efforts are limited to four agencies. Moreover, despite the provisions of the WPS Act, the U.S. government was widely criticized for not meaningfully including women, and issues of women’s rights, in the negotiations with the Taliban. Events that have since transpired—such as the fall of Kabul and the draconian restrictions the Taliban placed on women’s physical movement, access to education and the economy—have only demonstrated the reasoning behind the law and fueled the crisis in Afghanistan.

The 2021 national gender strategy is more expansive than the WPS Act as it sets policies for the executive branch to follow in both domestic and foreign policy and covers the actions of all executive agencies or government officials. It makes connections between a wide array of issues and the idea of security. It expands thinking about security beyond the formal battlefield to include the many ways individuals—and, by extension, the nation—can experience insecurity, including through labor force participation, global health issues, and extreme weather and disasters. The definition in the strategy of “national security” includes both domestic and global threats that threaten individuals, communities and the state.

But while the national gender strategy seeks to expand the definition of national security, the Biden-Harris administration has not always taken the opportunity to use this expanded definition. On the one hand, the Call to Action released in May 2021 regarding private-sector investment in the Northern Triangle—which includes the issue of immigration as part of security—seeks to address the root causes of migration from Northern Triangle countries and includes specific provisions to increase girls’ education, support women-owned businesses and provide access to financial services. On the other hand, while the national gender strategy includes climate change as a threat to national security and promotes equity to mitigate and respond to it, the president did not mention the important role of women, security or conflict as reasons to address climate change during his remarks at COP26, the 2021 U.N. climate change conference in Scotland. Advocates continue to be frustrated with the frequent discrepancy between the administration’s policies and its public actions.

The national gender strategy notes that it is intended to amplify the implementation of the WPS Act, however, the activities listed in the strategy—to promote inclusive diplomacy and to support the leadership of local women-led civil society organizations—do not expand the WPS Act beyond its original framework. It is unclear how or if any of the guiding principles have been used in recent foreign policy processes such as the preparation for or response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The implementation of the national gender strategy is not centralized but, rather, is intended to be a whole-of-government process. There is a risk in this arrangement. Agency implementation plans should focus internally on dedicated staffing, funding, training, and accountability to advance women’s meaningful participation and leadership in conflict prevention, peace, security, and political processes within the federal government itself. Moreover, agencies are instructed to include gender equity and equality issues in planning and budget processes, human resource systems, and data collection and analysis. It will be important to see if the ambition of the strategy is reflected in White House and agency budget requests and implementation plans.

Early in 2022, some of the implementing agencies, including USAID, the State Department and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, have been holding consultation sessions with representatives from civil society organizations in the U.S. and around the world regarding their implementation plans, which are due within nine months of the strategy release (July or August 2022). Based on the national gender strategy, other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Environmental Protection Agency should also be engaged in a new way to maintain national security both domestically and globally. To date, those consultations have not taken place.


The idea that women’s rights and gender equality should be taken into account when discussing national security is still new to many within the foreign policy establishment. Although academics and advocates have been promoting the idea for decades and research demonstrates relationships there, it is still not taken seriously. In the middle of a national emergency, when there’s always a more pressing matter, gender equality issues are viewed as beside the main point—something to be addressed later.

The Biden-Harris administration has gone further than any other in U.S. history to elevate women into decision-making positions and to create policies that integrate gender equality and gender data into decision-making processes. It is still too early to tell, however, if the research, the more diverse leadership, and the government policies will affect how the Biden-Harris administration will implement its foreign policy and protect national security.

Susan Markham is a partner at Smash Strategies, a strategic advisory firm helping businesses, non-profit organizations and philanthropists who want to leverage their commitment to empowering women and girls. She is the author of multiple articles on feminist foreign policy, gender equality, women’s political participation and economic empowerment.

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