Last week, the Trump administration finally released its “United States Strategy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).” The document lays out the strategic framework for U.S. efforts to promote the meaningful participation of women around the world in “conflict prevention, conflict-resolution, and post conflict peace-building activities and strategies.” While the strategy is light on specifics, it raises questions about both the administration’s dedication to the issue and how they might use this policy to further their ideologically driven policy agenda.
The Trump-Pence administration is notorious for undermining the rights of women and girls and LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly in multilateral forums. Their actions are often in direct conflict with and stand in stark contrast to the purported positions outlined in the strategy. Women, peace and security advocates, technical experts and Congressional champions need to view this strategy, the forthcoming implementation plans and the administration’s actions with a critical eye and be prepared to hold the administration accountable.
The strategy was a core requirement of the bipartisan “Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017,” which was passed by voice vote in the House and Senate and signed into law by President Trump on October 6, 2017. The law required that the strategy be submitted to Congress within one year of enactment, but October 2018 came and went with no strategy. Nine months later, the Trump administration publicly released the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).
Though the legislation is the first of its kind in the world, it is rooted in more than two decades of global advocacy, research and policy development. This body of work recognizes the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls and seeks to increase women’s participation and inclusion in peace processes and security activities. Furthermore, much of this work seeks to end the use of sexual violence in conflict, document and report sexual violence, hold perpetrators accountable and ensure survivors and others affected by conflict have access to humanitarian assistance, including sexual and reproductive health care. These principles are embodied in the landmark UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 (passed in October 2000) and a series of subsequent United Nations (UN) resolutions that make up the international women, peace and security agenda strategy. President Obama launched the United States’ first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP)—the predecessor to this new strategy—by Executive Order in 2011, which was subsequently updated in 2016.
Congress wrote the Women, Peace and Security Act to ensure that the U.S. would continue to prioritize WPS—regardless of who was in the White House. While the bill requires that there be a strategy, it did not codify the pre-existing Obama NAP. This gave the Trump administration the ability to craft a new strategy, aligned with their priorities and positions.
Contradictions in Policy and Practice
While some of the language in the WPS strategy looks promising at first glance, it seems to be at odds with the actions of this administration.
Under the strategy’s Line of Effort 2, it states the U.S. should “support solutions to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. This includes… supporting multilateral efforts, including at the UN, to address violence in conflict, including sexual violence…” It goes on to call for equal access to “… medical care and psycho-social support for survivors of violence, exploitation and abuse.” However, the Trump administration’s behavior and actions at the UN have repeatedly made it clear that the administration supports no such thing. In fact, earlier this year, just a month and a half before the release of this strategy, the U.S. made headlines worldwide when it threatened to veto a newly proposed UNSCR on sexual violence in conflict. The U.S took issue over the inclusion of language on sexual and reproductive health care, among other issues, resulting in the final resolution being heavily watered down. Recognition of the importance of access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors had been agreed to in two prior WPS UNSCRs adopted in 2013, UNSCR 2106 and UNSCR 2122. The U.S. has been similarly disruptive during other UN negotiations including the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Population and Development and in the Third Committee where the U.S. disassociated itself with resolutions on violence against women, female genital mutilation and efforts to end obstetric fistula.
The strategy also includes many references to rights. Line of Effort 2 in the strategy is to “[p]romote the protection of women and girl’s human rights, access to aid, and safety from violence, abuse and exploitation around the world” with the goal of “[w]omen and girls’ security, human rights, and needs are protected – by their governments…” Yet, the Trump administration’s record on human rights, particularly women’s rights, has been abysmal. One of the administration’s first actions was to reinstate and massively expand the Global Gag Rule, limiting the ability of women and girls to exercise their right to access sexual and reproductive health care, including those living in fragile states and impacted by conflict. The Global Gag Rule also limits the ability of organizations to advocate for comprehensive reproductive rights in their communities.
The administration has also been taken to task by the media, advocates and Congress for cutting the sections from the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which highlight the successes and failures of governments to protect the rights of their people. Reporting on gender-based violence and LGBTQ+ rights in these reports significantly decreased under the Trump administration in 2018 and the report’s section on reproductive rights was eliminated entirely. This information would be important to determine whether or not the U.S. has achieved their goal under Line of Effort 2. Additionally, while the strategy references international human rights law, the Trump-Pence administration recently announced the intention to create a “Commission on Unalienable Rights” within the State Department to provide “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
The Trump-Pence administration’s actions contradict one of the strategy’s primary aims—to meaningfully include women in conflict resolution processes. The administration has been consistently criticized by advocates and members of Congress for not doing enough to empower or include Afghan women in ongoing talks with the Taliban.
An explanation for this seeming inconsistency may be found in the lack of specificity and important caveats included in the strategy’s language. For example, the strategy calls for equal access to “appropriate medical care” without a specific definition of what that entails. Though the technical experts at the UN have laid out minimum standards for what health services should be provided to survivors of sexual violence in humanitarian crises, it is unclear whether this administration will deem those services “appropriate.” Similarly, the strategy is careful to note that efforts will be in line with the “Unites[sic] States Government’s interpretation of the laws of armed conflict and International Human Rights Law.”
Perhaps most startling, the strategy seems to caveat itself entirely, stating that the U.S. will not be able to advance WPS everywhere—instead, the U.S. will “… engage selectively, and in ways that advance America’s national interests.” This gives the administration explicit leeway to decide when it is beneficial to promote WPS principles and when it’s not.
The National Action Plan on WPS vs. The United States Strategy on WPS: What’s the difference?
The Obama administration’s NAP and the U.S. Strategy on WPS share some similarities. At their core, they both broadly recognize that the participation of women in peace processes leads to greater stability, but too often they face barriers that make it challenging or impossible for them to take an active role. Both documents emphasize certain tools, like the need to improve collection of sex-disaggregated data and conduct gender analyses to help inform programming. Both recognize that the U.S. can lead by example by including women in our negotiating teams and other leadership positions. However, despite these general similarities and others, the NAP and the U.S. Strategy on WPS differ in their approach and content in some critical ways, including:
- Loss of Inclusive Language: One of the most disheartening aspects of the new strategy is its lack of inclusive language. The Statement of National Policy in President Obama’s NAP emphasized the principle of inclusion, highlighting marginalized groups—who may also face disproportionate impacts in conflicts—including those with disabilities, ethnic, racial and religious minorities, indigenous groups and LGBTQ+ individuals. The new Trump strategy includes no such language. The strategy strips out any mention of LGBTQ+ people and reinforces a strict gender binary.
- Connections to other U.S. Policies and Initiatives: Unsurprisingly the NAP and the U.S. Strategy on WPS both highlight connections with their respective administration’s other strategies and initiatives. Unfortunately, the Trump administration only references their own—for example, the Ivanka Trump-backed Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative—and does not carry over references to any of the relevant Obama-era efforts, including the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally (2016 Update).
- Specificity: While the Obama-era NAP was highly prescriptive and heavily detailed, laying out specific outcomes and actions assigned to each implementing agency to meet each of the five objectives, the new strategy takes a much more general approach. Each “Line of Effort” identifies a broad goal and outlines generic actions to be taken at different phases of conflict. For example, though the U.S. Strategy on WPS references access to medical care broadly, the NAP explicitly called for increased access to reproductive health care, under multiple actions and outcomes.
- Alignment with UNSCR 1325: UNSCR 1325 defines four key pillars: Participation, Protection, Prevention and Relief and Recovery. The NAP explicitly tracks these pillars in its objectives, adding a fifth focused on “National Integration and Institutionalization.” While the gist of all five of these original objectives appear to be included somewhere within the U.S. Strategy on WPS, they’ve been rolled up into just three objectives (focused on participation, protection and access to assistance and improved institutionalization) and four “Lines of Effort.”
With so little specificity in the strategy, understanding the full extent of its shortcomings is difficult. These will be clearer in the next three months as departments and agencies have to suggest criteria for monitoring and evaluating programs and again in four months when the main agencies (Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Agency for International Development) will be required to submit detailed implementation plans to Congress. These implementation plans will likely reveal how individual agencies and the bureaus and offices within them are interpreting the strategy and prioritizing programs or activities. WPS advocates, technical experts and congressional champions must utilize the next few months to try to influence these plans and ensure a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to WPS that puts the needs of women, girls and other marginalized groups at the forefront.
Beyond the implementation planning phase, it will take vigilance to hold the administration accountable to promote WPS principles. We must bolster the participation of and full range of rights for women and girls, including around sexual and reproductive health. Otherwise we will end up with a strategy that fails to advance women, peace or security.