AFRICOM-led forum discusses women’s roles in global security, peacemaking
Story by Rick Docksai
Africa’s women are disproportionately the victims of their continent’s armed conflicts, but they have also been increasingly leading the way in recent years in ending conflicts and negotiating peace.
This was the consensus of participants attending the “Women, Peace and Security” forum consisting of women military officers, defense analysts and conflict-resolution specialists from the United States and seven African nations.
Building Regional Security
The forum examined women’s roles as soldiers and civilian activists in building lasting regional stability.
The forum was organized by U.S. Africa Command’s command, control, communications and computer systems directorate (J6) and took place Sept. 19 at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at Fort McNair here.
The Africa Center is a Defense Department institution, established and funded by Congress for the study of security issues relating to Africa and serving as a forum for bilateral and multilateral research, communication, training, and exchange of ideas involving military and civilian participants.
‘It’s Also a Dialogue’
“Today is an opportunity to talk about peace and security issues with female leaders from a diverse part of Africa spread across the continent,” Ben Crockett, associate dean of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said in an interview. “And it’s also a dialogue. This isn’t just the United States providing some PowerPoint briefings. This is an opportunity to hear from them and have a two-way conversation.”
The attendees included 12 female military officers from Botswana, Chad, Comoros, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, and Uganda. All 12 were military communications specialists visiting Washington as part of the Women’s Communications Forum, an annual training program run by AFRICOM, according to Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Hector Milan, communications program manager with AFRICOM’ S Engagements and Exercises branch.
Established in 2014, the program explores communications technologies and practices in use within the U.S. military and participants’ home-country militaries, Milan said.
“A main goal for this program is to show not only what do we have, but why do we use it, and how we can work together,” he said. “We want to give the partners ideas that they can take back to their countries and implement.”
He described a past attendee who created her own cybersecurity program after the event, and another who convinced her military superiors to start producing maternity uniforms for women personnel who were mothers-to-be.
More recently, the program has broadened its curriculum to include wider discussions about peace and security, said Malgorzata Makuchowski, also a program manager for AFRICOM’s Engagements and Exercises branch. She explained that the forum featured these discussions.
“We wanted to take these events to a higher level and implement peace and security into the program, as well as professional development,” Makuchowski said.
Including More Women in Peacekeeping Efforts
Forum attendee Neyla Arnas, a senior research fellow at the Defense Department’s Center for Strategic Research, discussed the benefits of including more women in peacekeeping efforts. She referenced a study showing that women civilians are more likely to report crimes -- especially sex crimes -- to same-sex security officers and generally confide more in female personnel.
Arnas also said that peace accords are statistically 35 percent more likely to last 15 years or longer when they include local women as meaningful participants from the very beginning. She attributed this to women participants calling attention to social issues that heavily impact prospects for peace, such as health care and poverty relief.
“Women enlarge the scope of those agreements to include the broader set of critical societal priorities and needs required for lasting peace,” she said. “They’re thinking about the accords not only as the cessation of violence, but what they mean in terms of reintegration of combatants, education, social welfare programming -- those types of notions are better integrated into a peace agreement.”
Negotiations for Peace
Shannon Smith, professor and director of engagement at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, described in another presentation instances of women making more headway than men in brokering peace negotiations, as well. For example, in south Sudan, she said, local women leaders have started community-to-community dialogues that caused some warring factions to cease fighting in order to talk.
“Local women were able to cross a border to create communities to build peace among the south Sudanese, and they did so in ways their male counterparts have never been able to,” she said.
Women’s roles in their countries’ armed forces were also a discussion topic, Smith said. Women remain a small presence in Africa’s militaries, she said, and the question of women serving in combat remains controversial in Africa as it is in other parts of the world.
Smith noted that the United States’ military opened up many combat roles to women just last year.
“I think it’s something that’s continuing to evolve, and I think that understanding the role that women are playing in the uniformed services is maybe one piece of changing minds and opening up opportunities,” she said.
Smith said she hoped the forum’s attendees could help advance the cause of women within their countries’ militaries and across society in general.
“Every country is different,” she said. “But you are all women leaders, and you are all rising women in your systems. And, it’s going to be up to all of you to create the change that you want to see.”