The Women, Peace and Security Program is one of the few issues where a wide ideological swath of official Washington agrees.
DOD officials briefed the Congressional Women, Peace and Security Caucus on the department's efforts to ensure the initiative is on track and making a difference in all that military personnel do.
"We know that (the initiative) is fundamental to our mission of ensuring the national security of the United States," said Lisa Hershman, the department's chief management officer. "We have witnessed firsthand the impact of gender on conflict and has seen the direct impact the consideration of gender can have on our operations. Prior to the WPS Act and our strategic implementation framework, our combatant commands were already incorporating WPS into their operations."
From women contact teams in Afghanistan to cultural assessments of burial practices in West African countries hit by Ebola virus, assessing the needs, wants and hopes of women is part of operational planning, she said.
Women are sometimes combatants. U.S. personnel in the Middle East and elsewhere have seen women take an active role in operations against the United States, allies and partners. "Unfortunately, our adversaries use the perception that women are not a threat to their advantage," Hershman said. "That's why we're prioritizing training. Our goal is to advance this understanding throughout the Department of Defense, so that all personnel understand the role of gender in our operations and in the way we work with partner nations."
DOD cannot simply talk a good game. Leaders cannot tell other nations to respect women's contributions without listening to its own populations. "Our plan recognizes there is a relationship between our own ability to implement the intent of the WPS mandate abroad and how we organize, train and equip our own forces and our planning knowledge," Hershman said.
Stephanie Hammond, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs, seconded Hershman's point. She said DOD must exemplify "a diverse organization that allows for women's meaningful participation across the development, management and employment of the joint force.".
This example will encourage partner nations to meaningfully include women at all ranks and all occupations in the defense and security sectors.
Hammond said all of this will help enable the United States, its allies and partners to ensure women and girls are safe and secure and that their human rights are protected, especially during conflict and crisis. "This plan will support and advance the department's ongoing activities to implement WPS, including training personnel and designing engagements with partner nations focused on these important WPS principles," she said.
This is not simply a headquarters driven activity. There are "gender advisers" on the joint staff and combatant commands. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency also plays a large role in ensuring the WPS is observed.
"These personnel advise and train senior leaders, commanders and staff on how to integrate WPS objectives and principles into policies, plans, operations and partner nation engagements," Hammond said.
To date, DOD has reached out to more than 50 nations, sharing best practices on the recruitment, employment, development, retention and promotion of women in military forces.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Rebecca J. Sonkiss, the joint staff's deputy director for counter threats and international cooperation, spoke about how women's concerns and needs affect military operations.
"WPS is not only one of my portfolios, but it intersects with so many other areas on which I advise the chairman," she said. Other areas she oversees include stability operation, humanitarian engagement, countering violent extremism and security cooperation.
"At the joint staff level, our four-person team is focused on integrating WPS concepts into our plans, training and doctrine," Sonkiss said. This provides the rest of the joint staff and the combatant commands with the guidance they need to implement WPS into military operations and activities.
The needs are different in different parts of the world. In the U.S. Southern Command, the program emphasizes women's participation in the security sector during many of the senior leader engagements with strategic partners across Central and South America and the Caribbean, she said.
The U.S. Africa Command has a long history of advancing WPS through its peacekeeping capacity building support to African troop contributing countries, Sonkiss said. "In recent years, the command has expanded its approach into countering violent extremist organizations."
In the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, one core component ensures WPS concepts are included in joint and multilateral exercises. "This helps U.S. and partner nation[s'] militaries practice responding to real-world scenarios that impact women, children and other vulnerable populations," she said.