In October 2010, I was honored to be at the UN Security Council meeting where Secretary of State Clinton announced that the United States would prepare its own National Action Plan to implement commitments on Women, Peace and Security.   Having served on the UN Civil Society Advisory Group on Resolution 1325 and as an adviser to UNIFEM’s executive director, I saw this as an historic step in mobilizing the U.S. government’s efforts to protect and empower women and girls in the context of armed conflict.

Over the past year, I’ve been pleased to work with colleagues at the White House, State, Defense and other agencies – along with our civil society friends in the U.S. and in conflict-affected countries – to identify the concrete and measurable actions incorporated in the National Action Plan announced by the President today.

From experience in Angola, South Africa, Haiti, Central African Republic and beyond, I know first-hand the importance of empowering women to be catalysts for positive change in armed conflict and displacement scenarios, and ensuring their participation in peace negotiations and post conflict reconstruction and governance.

In particular, the systematic exclusion of women from the negotiation of peace agreements and implementing bodies is a principal reason why so many of these agreements ultimately fail and countries return to conflict.  Unless women are present, issues like accountability for past abuses, psycho-social support for victims of violence, restoration of health and educational systems, reintegration of displaced persons and refugees, and trafficking in persons are often inadequately addressed.     When the momentum for political reconciliation or military disengagement starts to wane, women who have viewed such peace processes as only for the benefit of the armed combatants have little incentive to press the parties to see these processes through to the end.

At USAID, we’ve already taken key steps to address these problems.  Every USAID project proposal must have a “gender impact statement”; we have a tough new anti-trafficking code for ourselves and our development partners; gender is incorporated as a cross–cutting priority for all our initiatives in food security, global health, climate change, democracy and governance, economic growth and humanitarian relief; and we have funded the participation of women in peace processes and reconstruction conferences around the world.  We also brought on a senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment – the remarkable Carla Koppell – who is working with Caren Grown, Sarah Mendelson and others to insist that gender is in our agency’s DNA.

I view these steps as the down payment on an “IOU” we owe to women faced with conflict around the world.  We look forward to working with host governments, civil society groups, partners, friends, and, most importantly, local women on the ground.  It is their wisdom and expertise we must rely on to succeed.  The guiding vision must be, “Nothing about them without them.”