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Bush School Conference: Women’s Rights Vital to US Security

September 17, 2015

Bush School Professor Valerie Hudson hosting Michele Flournoy

The 14th anniversary of 9/11 was a fitting time for activists and scholars from across the nation to come together and discuss how the status of women affects national and global security, said Bush School of Government & Public Service Dean Ryan Crocker at a conference hosted by Texas A&M.

“None of the 9/11 hijackers were women,” said Crocker, former ambassador to six Middle Eastern nations. “They came from a movement sheltered in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, one of the most repressive regimes in the world when it comes to women’s rights.”

At the conference titled “National Security and Women’s Insecurity: Why Women Matter in Foreign Policy,” famed women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem spoke via video teleconference. She touched on a number of topics including her work fighting sex trafficking, the culture of female subjugation, and the history of gender relations.

“There is the danger of thinking that the way things are now is human nature and cannot be changed,” noted Steinem. “There have been many cultures throughout history where women and men have enjoyed equal status. The kinds of hierarchical structures we are seeing today are not necessarily part of human nature.”

Society views so-called “women’s issues” differently than those which affect men, Steinem asserted. “What happens to men is called ‘political,’ but what happens to women is called ‘cultural.’ Calling it ‘cultural’ is a way of saying you can’t change it. But it’s all political…we need a foreign policy that behaves as if the female part of the population matters.”

Bush School Professor Valerie Hudson, who co-authored The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, spoke of her extensive research on the link between the security and status of women, and the security of nations. She said women’s rights are tied directly to such factors as a country’s food security, economic prosperity, population growth and likelihood of conflict. It’s no coincidence, she added, that the most conflict-affected nations in the world are the nations where women are treated poorly.

Hudson said there cannot be peace between the nations until there is peace between the sexes. “The roots of many things we value like democracy and human rights are to be found in the character of societal relations between men and women,” she noted. “How can you have democracy at the national level until you have shared power in the household? You can’t have democracy in a nation with autocracy in the home.”

Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and co-founder/CEO of the Center for New American Security, said in her experience working with military commanders, she learned that in conflict-prone areas, women are reliable early warning indicators. “When you talk to the women, you get a whole different, more nuanced picture of the society,” she said. “Those commanders who leverage that tend to do better.” She added that women must be present at the table in foreign policy decision-making.

Donald Steinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, an international nonprofit organization that provides education, exchange and development programs in more than 60 countries, mentioned the importance of including all marginalized populations, not just women. “Redefining what national security means is about women, but it’s also about LGBT, indigenous populations, the disabled — we have to redefine who matters,” he emphasized.

It was noted by participants that much progress has been made in the fight for equality, but more work needs to be done. Dr. Sima Samar, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who previously served as deputy chair and minister of women’s affairs in the post-Taliban Interim Administration of Afghanistan, said there have been many strides for Afghan women including their participation in sports, the police and special forces, and business. “But corruption is causing violence against women and human rights violations,” she insisted. “Not all girls have access to education…there is still a strong Taliban presence.”

Several conference participants discussed the importance of women’s reproductive rights; Steinem asserted that reproductive rights are directly linked to climate change because overpopulation affects the environment.

While there are no easy solutions, conference participants agreed that including more women in governance is vital. They also noted the importance of listening to the needs of women in conflict-affected areas, building programs for women to further their education and skills, and holding leaders more accountable to promote the status and security of women.

Other conference participants were Kristen Cordell, senior gender advisor at USAID; C. Christine Fair, Georgetown professor and former UN political officer; Ann Marie Goetz, NYU professor and former UN advisor; the Honorable Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria and chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security; Kathleen Kuehnast, senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Robin Morgan, author and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center; Charlotte Ponticelli, program director and advisor for the American Committees on Foreign Relations; Alissa J. Rubin, New York Times bureau chief; and Micah Zenko of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Hudson’s co-author on The Hillary Doctrine, Patricia Leidl, read a prepared statement by Foreign Policy columnist Lauren Wolfe, who had to cancel her appearance due to illness.

Written by Lesley Henton, Division of Marketing & Communications, Texas A&M University

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