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A National Security Blind Spot

WASHINGTON, DC – Erin Saltman saw a disturbing trend. For months, the senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue had obsessively tracked the profiles of more than 130 Western women who had joined the Islamic State (ISIS). Saltman and her team noticed that instead of journeying through Turkey to reach ISIS headquarters in Syria, the women were heading straight to Libya. Because women’s roles within ISIS are related mostly to reproduction and consolidating territory, Saltman was able to deduce the reason: “ISIS wasn’t just looking to have combat forces in Libya, but also to build statehood there,” she explained. “We flagged and highlighted that before security forces were aware of it.”

To Saltman, investing time and money to think about the differences between men’s and women’s movement in ISIS wasn’t “about gender equality. It was about having a better grasp on the security issues at hand.”

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It’s a radical idea. Considering the divergent ways men and women might act, think, or respond is not just ticking a politically correct box. It can actually help us craft better policy and identify emerging threats.

Yet many policymakers in the United States and around the world still don’t seem able to grasp that examining the behavior of women and men alike can improve their analysis and their proposed measures. New America recently conducted unprecedented research to find out whether and how, after nearly two decades of research, data, and advocacy has crystallized the crucial linkage between gender and national security, US officials consider it when formulating policy. The short answer is: they mostly don’t.

That’s akin to a nearsighted person choosing to forgo glasses when surveying a new landscape. Ignoring the impact that gender differences have on policy effectiveness is reckless and risky. Many countries, including the US, pay lip service. Nearly 80 countries have adopted a National Action Plan to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which sets forth a blueprint for engaging women in all aspects of security policy. But action plans have not translated into active consideration of the gender-differentiated effects of policies.

According to our research, policymakers think they are overcoming their gender blind spot because more women are sitting around the table. Including more women on decision-making teams, it is assumed, will automatically integrate gender considerations into policy.

That assumption has yet to be proved. Quite the contrary. Consider Germany’s refugee and immigration policies. Although Germany has a National Action Plan, is 11th on the Global Gender Gap Index (which ranks countries on levels of gender equality), and has a strong female chancellor and its first-ever female defense minister, it still failed at first to consider how its policy might have different effects on men and women.

For example, most government refugee shelters didn’t provide gender-exclusive toilets and showers – a disaster for women from conservative Islamic backgrounds. Likewise, the intensive language program the government required for migrants didn’t account for women’s inability to attend class without childcare. Ultimately, such failures made those policies less effective for the entire population, and could lead to long-term security consequences for Germany.

Our interviews also suggest that some policymakers still regard gender-blindness positively: not thinking about the possible gender-specific effects of policies, they believe, contributes to an atmosphere of greater gender equality. But decades of research have shown that inclusion and equality should not mean ignoring differences between underrepresented groups. “The consequence of policy is often the same for men and women,” one respondent told our research partners at POLITICO Focus. “Hearing myself say that gives me pause. I have no idea what that conclusion is actually based on — am I just regurgitating the company line?”

In fact, the consequence of policy often isn’t the same for men and women, in part because they tend to have unequal access to opportunities and resources. But policymakers often claim an absence of data about different impacts, particularly data that can be mapped onto national security objectives. “It’s difficult to break things down by gender impact,” one person said. “Human rights and aid organizations are better at this; our [national security] tools aren’t that granular. And oftentimes, you’re measuring success anecdotally when it comes to things like gender and education data.”

But plenty of research cements the gender and security connection. Data2X, WomanStats, and Inclusive Security are just a few of the many organizations that have made it their mission to gather in global databases this kind of gender-differentiated data and research, providing irrefutable and empirical proof that women’s status is inextricably linked to state power, stability, corruption, prosperity, and many other indicators.

In other words, weak, unstable, corrupt, and poor states are states where women’s status is low. Most policymakers would draw the conclusion that strengthening and cleaning up government and promoting economic growth will improve the status of women. But what if the causal arrows run in the opposite direction?

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Unlike our policymakers, ISIS is not waiting for more data. It actively exploits gender inequality to aid recruitment and operations. In societies where women are treated like second-class citizens, ISIS has an easier time recruiting women with its quasi-female empowerment propaganda, like one image that shows a woman clad in a burqa with the words “Covered girl...because I’m worth it.” Once women have committed, they may be able to avoid suspicion and pass through security checkpoints more easily; security officials and policymakers still overwhelmingly view women exclusively as non-threatening victims of violent conflicts.

International policymakers need to think about gender, too, in the fight against ISIS – and across all other national-security and foreign-policy contexts. It is certainly important to have women at the table. But it is equally important that all policymakers discuss the women who aren’t there and never will be.