Unchecking the 'Women's Issues' Box


As a security sector reform expert who splits her time between educating the next generation and advocating for more women in global peace and security processes, I see a disconnect between the language of past generations and the need to advance a more meaningful discussion about inclusion. My students and peers don’t want to talk about women’s issues, they want to talk about gender mainstreaming and women’s role in the national security architecture. The women I work with overseas don’t see women’s issues, they see constitutional reform, security sector reform, food security, and health care.

They see human security issues, about which women care as deeply as men.

On September 10, 2001, disillusioned with the reality of legal practice (Law and Order, as it turns out, is perhaps not the most accurate depiction of the average lawyer’s daily life) I embarked on a new career at the Department of State.  Within months, I was embroiled in efforts to stand up a new Afghanistan Police force, one we hoped could serve the people of Afghanistan, bring security to the nation, and make way for a new, bright, democratic future.

We all knew that the situation for women in Afghanistan was deplorable; what we didn’t know was how best to fix it. Expanding women’s voice in decisions about security seemed like a critical part of the solution, but the Afghan police force had very few women and the U.S. deployed very few female police advisers to serve as role models. The obstacles I encountered when trying to launch a women’s police corp and find ways to encourage more U.S. female police officers to deploy as advisers opened my eyes to the very real barriers that continue to exist when it’s comes to women’s inclusion, both abroad and here at home.

Ultimately it’s not that our leaders think less of women. It’s that despite the rhetoric, inclusion never truly rises to the top of the list when it comes to national security priorities. We might say that women are critical to advancing peace, but I’m fairly confident that they aren’t the main gist of the White House Situation Room conversation about Syria.

Oh, there will be a conversation about women and Syria, it just won’t be the main one. I t will be a special event, at another date and time. Because rather than considering women’s inclusion as a fundamental national priority, we set it aside as a special issue, a women’s issues.” 

Earlier today I received one of those ubiquitous political surveys that closed with the question: “Which of the following issues are important to you?” My options included civil rights, climate, education, foreign policy, gun violence prevention, health care, immigration, jobs and the economy, military/veterans, taxes, and women’s issues.

I pondered my choices, wondering if I was to assume that women’s issues, did not include all the other topics. In which case, I wondered, what are these mysterious issues that only women care about? If there are, in fact, such things as “women’s issues,” then what are “men’s issues?” All of the other ones?

The message this language sends is that women’s issues are not human issues. But I assure you that women, just like men, care about civil rights, climate, education, foreign policy, gun violence prevention, health care, immigration, jobs and the economy, military/veterans, and taxes. And, as a society, we ought to care about women’s ability to influence key decisions in each of those key topics.

Why do we still think that advancing women’s inclusion is a special issue that ought to be put in a separate box? Because that’s the message that box sends. Can you imagine if instead of civil rights the box you checked or didn't said “black issues?”

At George Mason University, where I teach a class on international police operations, I’ve often considered and rejected the idea of teaching a course dedicated to matters of women’s inclusion for this very reason: it’s not about women’s issues. It’s about human issues.

If we want to call attention to the need for parity — political, economic, or otherwise — then let’s do that openly, directly, and loudly. When we speak of security for women, we should truly be speaking of human security. When we speak of national security, foreign policy, or the economy, there should be a presumption that women are part of that conversation.

Sugarcoating a set of critically important goals in a special box with a special name does nothing to advance progress. It only serves to reinforce a still-existing belief that the pursuit of women’s equality is a lesser issue then nearly everything else on that list. Equally problematic, it sends a powerful, destructive message to men that they are not our partners in addressing parity.

We can, and must, do better than this.

Angelic Young is a Truman Security Fellow. The views expressed here are her own.