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Fighting on for Women's Rights Around the Globe

Photo: Evan El-Amin /

The views expressed here are Kristen Cordell's alone, and do not represent the position of the US Government.

Hours before the first US election results came in, night was falling in Afghanistan. Before going to sleep, my Afghan friend Wagma sent out a tweet of congratulations to Secretary Clinton on becoming the first woman president of the United States. “Tomorrow you will wake up to a new HER story” she predicted to the American people via twitter.

In 2015, I’d seen Wagma in Kabul, and several of her colleagues in Pakistan. At the time, they made predictions about what the Clinton presidency would do to elevate the cause of women's rights in their country (let alone ours). Wagma, for her own part, had met Secretary Clinton in 2010, when she won the prestigious Department of State Women of Courage Award—the photo from that day featured on her congratulatory twitter message. 

This article isn’t a pontification on how having a potential female president could have helped women's rights defenders around the world. It isn't about the missed opportunity to replicate Sweden’s feminist foreign policy or a fully equal representative executive branch a la Canada. Instead, it’s a reminder of why rights defenders abroad and the US fight and why they should keep doing so and a call for the next administration to prioritize women’s rights and security in conflict affected countries.

In the last eight years, advocates have doubled down on the argument that women's rights and equality function as a tool of state stability—as opposed to the argument that those same ideals are a mere moral good. Guided by initiatives such as the United States’ own National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security, bilateral and multilateral programs have tested this hypothesis in varied contexts around the world. In the case of the United States, the government has supported some five million survivors of gender based violence with vital services in more than 40 countries; 60,000 female participants in community and national peace-building processes; and life-saving assistance at birth for over 4.6 million children and 200,000 mothers.

Of course, outcomes are not always positive. The peace agreement widely inclusive of female activists in Colombia failed; peace processes which sought out women’s voices remain incomplete; and high profile violence (often in the name of honor) against female activists remains commonplace.

In looking at successes and failures, we find that while individual woman's needs have improved significantly in post conflict and crisis states during the last decade, there is still so much to do to ensure that individuals can come together to advocate and drive progress forward—not only for their communities, but for their countries as well.

Networks foster connection. The ‘critical mass’ theory states that 30% of women in any institution can move that institution towards greater gender equity policies. One innovative program seeking to do that is the Promote project—a program that applies this theory to build a coalition of women in Afghan government, civil society and economic institutions. Other novel approaches empower women's networks to move ahead of the conflict curve, to get women involved in early warning and community protection. For example, The Peace Exchange, a new online community of practice, highlights Gender and Conflict issues through a robust social media campaign. The platform provides those working in conflict environments with knowledge, tools, and resources to better understand gender dynamics in conflict settings. Another organization, the Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) has created alliances in the name of ending the ability of extremist groups to recruit young men in their communities.

To continue to improve the lives of women (and men) in post conflict context, new programming must go beyond the individual.  Networks and coalitions will need continued funding—not tokenistic financial support that creates infighting, but carefully thought-out and precisely applied incentive funding.  To do this, the new administration should look to the excellent existing tools for gender analysis. For example, Safer Worlds’ new Gender Analysis in Conflict toolkit or the Better Peace Tool, which have been excellent ways to capture needs of women in the evolving effort to counter violent extremism.

This analysis creates baselines, against which to measure progress and safeguard peace and security projects that render women invisible. The Organization for Economic Cooperation on Development have shown remarkable progress tracking gender inclusive spending in conflict over the last five years.

American institutions could also benefit from a gendered analysis of operations and corresponding investments in women's networks—from Congress to the police force, and from Wall Street to the executive branch. We know that these networks help build resilience. It's a lesson relevant to American women as well. We have perfected our ability to lean into opportunities, even when those opportunities seem in conflict. However, I contend that this is a moment for us to “lean across.” The ability to connect across communities with other diverse groups of women may actually help advance gender inclusive public policy.

Wagma was recognized as a woman of courage, but she represents much larger networks of women who display courage every day. Her Twitter post may have been premature, but the work that she and so many others have done remain instructive. Their challenges, their resilience can be a lesson to all of us as well.


Kristen Cordell has worked on inclusion across conflict zones for over 10 years.