On June 12, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense released their plans to implement the objectives of the United States Strategy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). Over the years, I have worked on strategies to empower women around the world. After serving as U.S. Ambassador and leading our Mission in El Salvador, I joined U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) as their Civilian Deputy to the Commander and Senior Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD). Having served in the Department of State and the Department of Defense – both institutional pillars in our democracy, each with its own culture and influence – one thing is clear: there is no lasting peace and security without sustained and meaningful inclusion of women in every level of society, political, economic, and security.
At SOUTHCOM, we work with militaries across Central America, South America, and the Caribbean to build professional forces that partner with the United States to improve security in the Western Hemisphere. As part of this role, Admiral Craig Faller, Combatant Commander of U.S. Southern Command, placed the portfolio of Women, Peace, and Security at the senior leadership level to ensure it is a centerpiece of our partnerships in the Hemisphere.
Professional militaries at their core require respect from their citizens to be truly effective and successful. Women play a central role in building that respect. Women’s mediation and negotiation skills, developed through their community outreach, often serve as a bridge between government institutions and local communities. With women making up over 50 percent of the world’s population, women bring diverse and necessary skills to security forces that will help to build the next generation of leaders, both within and outside of the military.
Across the Western Hemisphere, militaries and security forces are reaching that same conclusion. In conversations with Ministers and Chiefs of Defense, it is apparent that the full integration of women is not only the right thing to do, but also paves the path to a more secure and prosperous future.
Women, Peace, and Security sets a bold new standard for all senior leaders within the Department, and with our allies and partners, to meet, and SOUTHCOM is rising to the challenge.
Sometimes, part of our job in both diplomacy and defense is to use our senior leadership positions to make the invisible, visible. For example, on a recent trip to Colombia, we held a session with 50 women from the Colombian Army and their Chief of Defense. It was the last event of a long, hot day and on the verge of being canceled; nevertheless, we insisted that these women matter. One by one, the women began sharing their stories of why they joined the Colombian military. Their stories of struggle and commitment. Their stories of challenge and triumph. All to serve. To serve their country and be a part of improving security for their children and their communities. The room was electric. Even the most skeptical were moved.
Time flew by, and we really did need to get to the plane for the flight back to Bogota. This time, it was the Colombian leadership that didn’t want to leave. They had never met these women. As is often the case in a system separated by rank, these women were largely invisible to those in command. But, as both individuals and as a group, the women showed their worth and power. While structural changes to recruitment, training, and promotion systems are critical, there is also the important piece of lifting up and showcasing talented women across the security sector, which is an important element of WPS.
“One by one, the women began sharing their stories of why they joined the Colombian military. Their stories of struggle and commitment. Their stories of challenge and triumph. All to serve. To serve their country and be a part of improving security for their children and their communities. The room was electric. Even the most skeptical were moved.” – Ambassador Jean Manes
Highlighting structural changes is also essential, as is elevating among their peers those who are leading the way. SOUTHCOM recently hosted the Caribbean Chiefs of Defense and Security Officials. The entirety of the group in the dais was one-hundred percent male. We included a session featuring women, peace, and security on the agenda using the power of SOUTHCOM to signal the issues’ importance. In that session, we highlighted work done by the Jamaican Chief of Defense, Rocky Meade. He shared structural changes made in recruitment and promotion, underscoring the fact that there’s nothing more powerful than to hear from one of your peers how they are leading the way and succeeding in making their society more secure.
Following this presentation, we had another session where other Chiefs then shared their examples. One proudly cited the top five graduates in a recent recruitment class, all women, while another Chief of Defense shared the average dropout rate for basic training in his country is about 15 percent, but it is 0 percent for women. He noted, “Women who start are committed; they don’t give up, and will fight to the end.” As women, we know we still must be better than our peers, that all eyes are on us, and that our success or failure impacts the prospect of other women succeeding in these roles.
When we raise the issue as the United States – when we lead – when we signal that something is important – it matters. We still have much progress to make in the United States, particularly at the highest ranks, which is why showcasing women breaking barriers is still so critical. Being the first is never easy, but it does pave the way. When we have the second, third, even tenth woman in key positions, when it stops being remarkable, that will indicate our success.
From SOUTHCOM, we are committed to promoting structural change that leads to a more secure and resilient Hemisphere and by making the invisible, visible.
About the Author: Ambassador Jean Manes serves as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of the Coordinator of the Foreign Policy Advisory Program (POLAD). Ambassador Manes also serves as Deputy to the Commander at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).