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In the violent conflict tearing across the Middle East and North Africa, fully half of the pieces needed to complete the security puzzle may be missing almost entirely: women. As extremist groups and military forces parry with the weapons of war and politics, the pivotal role that women could play in restoring peace and security has largely been cast aside, as old-school thinking perpetuates the idea that gender equality is a problem for another day, according to experts and a new study just published by USIP.

Kurdish YPG Fighters
Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Lead study author Paula Rayman, a Middle East specialist at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, joined State Department Senior Advisor Stephenie Foster, USIP experts and Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) on May 4 to discuss the region’s implementation—or lack thereof—of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

“It’s not about culture that excludes women. It’s about power.” -- Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, International Civil Society Action Network.  

Since the Security Council adopted the resolution in 2000, 60 U.N. member states have established national action plans to carry out provisions such as protecting women and girls in conflict and involving women in decision-making on security issues. Perhaps surprisingly, Iraq in early 2014 became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to approve such a plan, at the urging of women’s organizations in the country. But just months later, the self-styled “Islamic State” extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, swept into the country’s north, killing, raping and terrorizing religious minorities as well as Muslims, and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. Once again, best-laid plans were shelved.

"Particularly in the context of the ISIS escalation, security has taken the front seat in government and media rhetoric,” Rayman and her co-authors wrote in the USIP Special Report on their study, which focused on Egypt, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Tunisia. “Women’s rights are perceived as a humanitarian burden and beneficial for women alone, and the link between women’s rights and security is largely misunderstood.”

Rayman, director of her university’s Middle East Center for Peace, Development and Culture, cited three primary lessons from the study:

  • The definition of security must be transformed to include women’s rights and economic justice. “We need peace linked with security,” she said.
  • Women and men need to be united in the struggle for gender equality in the region. “Men and women must do this together.”
  • Supporters in the U.S. need to think about how to further preparations for peace rather than continuing to sell war as the means for resolving conflict. “How, especially, can we utilize the resources of universities and educational centers and places like USIP to train youth and to prepare them for a future of peace rather than war.”

“For most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Linda Bishai, USIP’s director of North Africa programs, “insufficient public awareness and political buy-in and a shortage of targeted resources have stalled efforts and continue to hamper implementation, even where advocates have succeeded in promoting the adoption of a plan.”

Emergency Plan

In Iraq, an alliance of women's organizations mobilized to win government adoption in May 2015 of a new Special Emergency Plan for UNSCR 1325. While the original plan focused on legislation and the social and economic empowerment of women, the emergency blueprint stresses protection, participation and prevention, said Suzan Aref, a partner of USIP in Iraq who participated in an invitation-only panel discussion on the issue at the institute’s Washington headquarters in October. The idea was to accelerate the provision of legal, psychological and health services for women and girls affected by the renewed violence, and to ensure women are involved in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

The women’s alliance particularly needs the international community to help provide advice, training and political support to their own groups as well as to local authorities in powerful positions to implement the provisions of these plans, Aref said. She founded her Women Empowerment Organization, based in Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, in 2004, not long after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“We are not that strong as local organizations to apply pressure on our local governments,” she said. “So we need the political pressure from the international community.”
Women also provide invaluable early warning of simmering conflicts that can turn violent, experts said in the May 4 discussion.

“Women saw the changing nature of war and the proliferation of actors and the complexity of these issues 20 years ago, because they were at the front lines of this problem,” said Naraghi-Anderlini, the ICAN co-founder. “And the question is, did we listen to them?”

The resolution emerged in part because, in a post-Cold War era, the U.N. couldn’t effectively address civil wars because it was made up of governments that often were among the warring parties.

“In that context, we were seeing women do this work across the world—Colombia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Guatemala,” she said. She cited a 1998 conference in London that gathered 50 women from across the world to talk about their experiences. “That was really the moment where we said we need to have a global agenda that acknowledges the voices and work of women in conflict areas, and it needs to be in the Security Council because that’s the premier international institution that deals with security issues,” she said.

Still today, women in war zones often lead appeals for peace.

“The challenge is are we willing to listen to them, because they are challenging very strong vested interests,” Naraghi-Anderlini said. “It’s not about culture that excludes women. It’s about power.”


Even in the U.S. government, decision-makers still need greater understanding of the pivotal role women can play, not only as victims of violent conflict but also as problem-solvers, said Stephenie Foster, senior advisor and counselor in the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

“We do this work pursuant to the Security Council resolution, but we do it because it makes us more effective,” Foster said. She cited a U.N. study of 40 peace processes that was published on March 1 with the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative. The research found that, when women’s groups wielded substantial influence in a peace process, the chances increased significantly that a final agreement would be reached and sustained.” But even in countries where we’re not in a place where we have a peace negotiation in place and a resolution (of a conflict), we know that engaging women creates a stronger fabric and it creates more resilience.”

Foster cited the example of U.S. funding for a group of women in West Africa to increase their political participation and connect more women across civil society and elected office.

“Lo and behold, when the Ebola outbreak occurred [in 2014], these were women who were already working together, who had good networks, who had good lines into the community in which they lived and were able to be tapped as part of the Ebola response and recovery effort,” Foster said. Their involvement concretely helped address a crisis that threatened to undermine many hard-fought gains in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, she said.

It's important, said Kathleen Kuehnast, USIP's senior gender advisor, to move from “not just counting women—how many women are in the room—to how do we make women count in security” issues.

In addition to advancing the goals of the resolution on women, peace and security, USIP several years ago also began work on “Men, Peace and Security,” to enlist the support of those who still hold most positions of social, economic and political power, and to develop or reinforce more constructive conceptions of masculinity that would advance the goal of equality, respect and empowerment.

“People often ask me how I can go from nuclear arms negotiations to women’s rights, but there’s a very simple answer,” said former Ambassador Steve Steiner, who leads the men, peace and security agenda. “In both cases—bringing down nuclear arms levels and empowering women—we’re building a safer world, a more civilized world, and this is definitely a security issue.”

In the aftermath of war, for example, any process of disarmament of security units that have been steeped in the fight must include the nurturing of new ways that men can see themselves in place of the warrior persona, Steiner said.

In addition to a recent project with 40 young men in Afghanistan, he is traveling this week to Ukraine, where USIP is working with a local partner organization to strengthen the peacebuilding skills and roles of internally displaced women and men in the communities where they are taking refuge from the war with Russian-supported forces in the country’s east. Ukraine has the world’s fourth-largest number of internally displaced people, after Yemen, Syria and Iraq, according to a report on Deutsche Welle cited by Ukraine Today. About 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled the war with Russian-backed forces in the country’s east, with 942,000 taking shelter in other parts of Ukraine.

“You can’t succeed on women, peace and security if you don’t have, in each country, a concerted, organized effort to engage men to understand and to support the rights of women,” Steiner said. “The goal [is] to show men that this is a security issue and it affects the security of themselves, their families, their communities and certainly their countries.”

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