Charting a New Course for Women in the Pursuit of Civilian Security

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
International Women's Day Conference, George Washington University
Washington, DC
March 8, 2012

Thank you Rebecca for that kind introduction. Also thank you to Barbara Miller, the Global Gender Program, and the Elliott School for inviting me here today to speak as part of the Distinguished Women in International Affairs series. It’s a particular pleasure to be here with you all to commemorate International Women’s Day. 

I am Maria Otero, the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. In this capacity, I oversee eight bureaus and offices at the State Department that work along the continuum of civilian security. What this means is that we support partner governments in the building of just societies that protect individuals -- from the protection of refugees; to the promotion of human rights; to the fight against narco- and human trafficking.

We do this throughout the world -- from stable states to ongoing conflict areas to countries that are emerging from major transitions. This International Women’s Day, I want to share with you how we are advancing the role of women in the context of civilian security.

Today, as we all commemorated this International Day of Women, dozens of active conflicts continue to threaten the lives of millions of men, women, and children.

These conflicts can, and often do, create space for violent groups, terrorists and organized criminals who operate with impunity, sending waves of refugees across borders and threatening regional security. Complicating the matter, modern-day conflicts increasingly involve non-state actors, from militias to cartels, blurring lines of engagement and resolution.

In the midst of conflict, civilians -- teachers, community leaders, students, and mothers -- face a dark existence, their lives clouded by the very real threats of dislocation, broken families, kidnapping, and sexual violence.

History points to a disturbing trend: from World War I, to World War II, to recent conflicts around the globe, civilians represent a growing percentage of casualties in war. No longer seen as collateral damage, they are becoming are primary targets in warfare.

Meanwhile, traditional peace-making and conflict prevention methods are proving less effective at averting or ending conflicts and civil wars. More than half of all peace agreements fail within five years, and backsliding into conflict after civil war is all too common: According to the World Bank, 90 percent of the last decade’s civil wars occurred in countries already scarred by conflict.

So it comes to this: civilians are increasingly targeted in conflicts; and conflicts, once they emerge, are increasingly difficult to extinguish.

Clearly our tools have are not enough, and we need to add more. However, we have one before us: and it begins with better recognizing the roles of women in conflict -- not only as victims of war but also as powerful agents of prevention and peace.

When we only appreciate one side of the coin -- women as victims -- we sell many of them, and ourselves, short, underestimating the value women add as leaders, a knowledge-base of their communities, organizers, and negotiators. The result is self-fulfilling, as women remain victims while the world remains witness to the world’s protracted conflicts. We all lose.

When we acknowledge the other, proven side of the coin, however, the evidence shows that women’s participation in the 1) prevention of, 2) resolution of, and 3) recovery from conflict is essential to ensuring lasting peace, prosperity and security for all.

Smart policies, training, and programming that harness the talents and perspectives of women can bridge existing gaps in peace building and civilian security -- especially when they are designed for police, armed forces, and peacekeeping units. But regardless of whether we’re talking about police officers or government officials, we need to do more to emphasize the vital link between gender equality and improved security.

Women, after all, are not an “issue.” They are half the population. In refugee and post-conflict areas, they are more than half. Failing to incorporate the experience, intelligence and talents of half the world is a terrible waste of a valuable resource. It is unsustainable and undermines long-term success.

This brings me to an important initiative of this Administration. Last December, President Obama signed an Executive Order launching the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.

The Plan is the first roadmap for accelerating and institutionalizing efforts across the United States Government to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace.

The plan lays out five areas in which we work:

First, we will partner with women in places that are more vulnerable to conflict to help prevent conflicts from breaking out in the first place. Women often know when communities are fraying and when citizens fear for their safety. Studies suggest that women’s physical security and higher levels of gender equality correlate with security and peacefulness of entire countries. But political leaders too often overlook women’s knowledge and experience until it’s too late to stop violence from spiraling out of control.

Second, we will strengthen protection for women and girls during and after conflict. Through our ongoing work with foreign militaries, police forces, and judicial actors, we will crack down on rape as a tactic of war, hold perpetrators of violence against civilians accountable, and support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. We are also working with the UN to recruit more female peacekeepers, to better train all peacekeepers to prevent, predict, and react to violence against civilians, and to address the political dynamics that drive sexual violence in conflict-affected areas.

Third, the National Action Plan directs efforts to expand women’s participation in peace processes and decision-making institutions before, during, and after conflicts. To most women (and men, for that matter), true security means more than the absence of armed fighters. It means their sons and daughters can go to school safely. It means they can get medical attention when they give birth, and have their children vaccinated. It means that returning refugees can find land, water and jobs.

It means having a hand in building institutions and carrying out the rule of law, so that the root causes of conflict can be addressed through peaceful means. Only by understanding security within this broader context can we can prevent simmering grievances from recurring and escalating.

Of course, including women does not guarantee that peace talks will succeed or that they will be able to avert a pending conflict. But the current status quo -- in which women are excluded or under-represented and their concerns ignored -- is not producing the peace that we need.

Fourth, we will ensure that relief and recovery efforts from man-made and natural disasters address the distinct needs of women and girls, who are the cornerstone of families and communities that are scarred by conflict and upheaval. Women are often among the most vulnerable in crises, yet they rarely receive a proportionate share of assistance or have the chance to help set post-conflict priorities. But with the right tools and support, women can lead recovery efforts and help get their communities back on their feet.

The same goes for other marginalized groups, like LGBT and disabled persons, and members of ethnic, religious or linguistic minority communities. There is a direct link to the women’s piece here: globally, relative to other vulnerable groups, disabled women are among the most targeted for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), as well as those who do not conform to gender norms. Women with disabilities also have among the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS infection, which is directly related to their increased vulnerability to SGBV. It should be self-evident that women from all of these communities should have a say in finding solutions to the very conflicts that put them at increased risk.

The fifth and final part of the national action plan on Women, Peace and Security could be seen as the foundation upon which the first four pillars are successfully built and carried out: and that is the institutionalization of this work across the United States Government.

We will not get very far on any of these priorities and goals if our own troops, diplomats, and development experts do not have adequate training and tools on how to advance women as agents of sustainable peace and security. So we are updating policies, practices and training across our government -- because our goal is to fundamentally change the way we do business.

At the State Department, we are moving out along all these lines of effort.

We have already begun a new initiative on women, peace, and security in Africa, focused on building local capacity in countries affected by conflict. Its first round of grants will train women activists and journalists in Kenya in early-warning systems for violence, support a new trauma center for rape survivors in Sudan, help women in the Central African Republic access legal and economic services, and improve collection of medical evidence for prosecution of gender-based violence and strengthen the medical-legal professional networks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And in a key step toward institutionalization and mainstreaming gender considerations, together with USAID we’re updating our foreign assistance system so that we can track the implementation of activities under each of the National Action Plan’s pillars.

We’re pleased to be making such initial progress through the Women, Peace, and Security process, which encompasses so much of how I see women playing a role in civilian security. Certainly there is more to come, and we look forward to working with many of you in civil society on effective implementation and monitoring of this work. On that note, let me take a moment to commend the leadership of Melanne Verveer, the US government’s first Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, who has driven so much of the momentum and elevation we have today on these important topics.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I also want to highlight a State Department initiative under the Secretary’s leadership -- and that is the promotion of equal nationality rights for women.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed both the right to a nationality and freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex more than 60 years ago. Yet today, in at least 30 countries around the world, nationality laws continue to discriminate against women and limit their ability to acquire, retain, and transmit citizenship to their children or foreign spouses.

These laws are among the major causes of statelessness, which affects as many as 12 million people around the world. As one might expect, such a tenuous legal situation increases insecurity and limits the enjoyment of one’s human rights. Without recognition by any state, stateless persons typically lack identity documentation, and cannot register births, marriages, or deaths. In turn, without such documentation, they often cannot work legally, travel freely, or access justice. They cannot vote, open a bank account, or own property, and they often lack access to health care and other public services. Without birth registration or citizenship documents, children are often barred from attending school. And thus a cycle of vulnerability and disenfranchisement continues.

In order to right this wrong -- and improve the lives of millions of women and their children -- we are first bringing to light the problem where is has too long gone unnoticed. And second, we are working with governments and civil society organizations to reform these laws. I invite all of you to join us in this effort, knowing that our collective action will help change the lives of millions of vulnerable women and children.

In closing, I would simply add a reflection, together with a call to action.

To those of us that believe in the power of women -- who ourselves have witnessed their selfless courage and incredible impact in the midst of conflict -- much of what I’ve shared this evening seems almost obvious. But let us be clear: it is neither easy nor is it inevitable. In recent weeks even, we have seen here in the United States how respect for the voices and needs of women still needs to be defended. So, let us not rest on our laurels.

Secondly, as I look around this room, and all of you gathered to celebrate women in leadership, I see inspiration and commitment. And that is extraordinary. But I would ask all of us -- when is the last time you attended or hosted a meeting on so-called “women’s issues” and saw more men than women? If we cannot find men as allies in these efforts at home, we will have a much harder time creating the kind of change necessary in less receptive environments. I would urge all of us to cease from defining this work as the realm of women, for women. Indeed, what we are talking about is the work of humanity, for humanity.

So, with that, thank you again for inviting me to be here with you today. I wish you the best in all that you do.