Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Women's Rights Are a National Security Issue

| December 26, 2016

The Trump transition team asked the State Department last week to submit details of programs and jobs that focus on promoting gender equality. Maybe it's for benign purposes — or better, a signal that the administration wants to make women's empowerment a cornerstone of its foreign policy. But this seems unlikely, to put it mildly, given that such a commitment was absent from Donald J. Trump’s campaign, and alongside Mr. Trump's vow to defund Planned Parenthood.

Whatever the reason for their request, Mr. Trump and Rex W. Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state, should remember that women's rights are tied directly to national security. The State Department's gender equality programs are not just politically correct fluff — they deal with matters of life and death, like rape during war, genital cutting, forced marriage and access to education. The State Department provides essential funding to combat these problems.

Nongovernmental organizations around the world that work with survivors of rape and sexual violence are supported by small grants from the State Department, for example. One program in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh trained 450 imams to extol the importance of girls' education in their Friday sermons and, when officiating at marriages, to ask for the bride's age and proof of her consent. The United States Agency for International Development helps girls purchase books and pay fees so they can finish grade school. This kind of work is important not just for the women and girls who directly benefit from them, but also for the security of their countries.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was not the first person to argue that national security is linked to women's equality when she made it a cornerstone of American foreign policy. President George W. Bush identified "respect for women" as one of the "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity." Even President Xi Jinping of China said in 2015 that "every step taken to promote women's cause has been a giant step forward for the progress of human civilization."

This is not just hot air. Over a decade's worth of research shows that women's advancement is critical to stability and to reducing political violence. Countries where women are empowered are vastly more secure, whether the issue is food security, countering violent extremism or resolving disputes with other nations peacefully.

Recruitment by terrorist groups is a prime example. A forthcoming paper by one of us, Professor Hudson, and Hilary Matfess, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses, has found that swiftly rising "bride prices" (money or goods given by the groom to the bride's family) makes it easier for terrorists to recruit members.

Bride prices typically act like a regressive tax on young men, and in some places, that burden has risen rapidly. In South Sudan, for example, a bride cost 12 cows a decade ago. But the going rate in recent years has been over 50 cows, 50 goats and $12,000. These marriage practices not only cast women as chattel, but also create widespread resentment among young men.

Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in West Africa and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan have found it easy to recruit in such a context, and in South Sudan, two-thirds of men surveyed reported they had to steal cattle to pay for brides, stoking ethnic conflict. A realist foreign policy would use this knowledge in efforts to reduce terrorist groups' recruitment, perhaps also tracking bride price trajectories while encouraging a cap on prices and even changes in the practice, as Uganda has recently done.

Furthermore, it is also vital to include women's priorities in negotiations and transitions from conflict to peace. A study of the landmark United Nations resolution on women, peace and security found that peace agreements were significantly more durable when women took part in the negotiations. A realist foreign policy would take note of this. For example, to gain a lasting peace accord in Afghanistan, policy makers should make sure that both Afghan and American women are at the negotiating table in meaningful numbers.

The strongest antidote to the instability caused by gender inequality is to attack the constellation of forces that cause women to suffer, such as child marriage and unequal property rights. Our foreign policy should ensure that women have not only a place at the table, but a real voice when major decisions are made.

Even if the new administration is not poised to be as attentive to gender issues as previous ones, the United States still has obligations under international treaties, and also some of our own policies. The United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security requires the State and Defense Departments, along with the Agency for International Development, to meet benchmarks on efforts for women's inclusion and empowerment.

Consider what Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, said about the fate of Afghan women: "No one is going to be dumb enough to say, 'Oh, forget the women; that's not important.'"

During the campaign, Mr. Trump called for a return to "foreign policy realism," in which national security is the foremost concern, the stakes are zero-sum and the most powerful states are the only ones that matter. To build such a foreign policy, women's rights are an indispensable pillar.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hudson, Valerie M. and Dara Kay Cohen.“Women's Rights Are a National Security Issue.” The New York Times, December 26, 2016.

The Authors