VICENZA, Italy – Africa boasts the second largest land mass and population among continents as well as the youngest median age in the world at under 19 years on average. With seven coups over the last three years, the battle for power over African people has made international headlines. Among the more positive groups vying for legitimacy and prominence: women.
Recent joint military efforts highlight Africa’s commitment to empowering females, and the pursuit of peace and security throughout Africa is not only a strategic U.S. objective, but one shared by numerous partner nations.
U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa (SETAF-AF) works with military leadership, and specifically women in leadership positions, throughout the continent of Africa to address conflict and instability. This is part of an ongoing peacebuilding effort under the umbrella of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) initiative.
“This initiative acknowledges that sustainable peace requires the full and meaningful participation of women at all levels of decision-making,” said U.S. Army Maj. Teisha B. Barnes, a civil affairs officer with Civil Military Operations (G39, CMO), SETAF-AF.
Barnes emphasized the interconnectedness of security and gender equality, indicating that security is not just about mitigating threats.
“It's about creating conditions for sustainable peace,” Barnes said. “To reach these objectives, we’ve begun to incorporate WPS into all of our training exercises such as African Lion, Justified Accord and Southern Accord."
SETAF-AF’s first exercise of the year, Justified Accord, kicks off Feb. 26, 2024, throughout multiple locations in Kenya and exercise planners confirmed WPS will be a focal point during the staff officer academics portion.
“Kenya is truly a valued partner to the U.S. and incorporating WPS initiatives into the exercise was strongly supported by both nations” said Forrest McKinley, exercises contractor (G7), focused on Justified Accord.
Kenya’s National Action Plan on WPS provides a roadmap for integrating gender perspectives into peace and security efforts within the Kenyan government, military and civil sectors. This includes ensuring women's participation in conflict prevention, resolution and recovery processes.
These policies permeate throughout the Kenya Defence Forces, with numerous women leading soldiers, sailors and aviators in every occupational specialty. Additionally, the same military leadership courses are available to both men and women in all Kenyan branches of the military.
By providing women with access to quality military education, the nation is investing in a future where women are equipped with the skills and knowledge to contribute meaningfully to peacebuilding efforts.
Barnes highlighted the transformative power of education.
"Recently, we conducted the first ever WPS course held at SETAF-AF, taught by joint staff instructors,” she said. “The goal of the course was to ensure that the gender perspective is included in all planning factors from human resources to civil military considerations."
The WPS course, titled “Operationalizing WPS 101,” was held in December at SETAF-AF headquarters in Vicenza, Italy.
“The course was a continuation of work I have been involved in throughout my career,” said class participant Brenadine Humphrey, digital media specialist, public affairs office, SETAF-AF. “We know including women’s perspectives increases the chances for sustainable reconciliation and peace in communities.”
Humphrey shared that while there has been progress in increasing awareness of women’s issues, one of the main dilemmas today is how to put lessons learned into sustainable practice.
“The instructors challenged us to practically apply our newfound knowledge in our own planning efforts, to look for ways we can create an action plan to ensure we are looking at WPS holistically throughout our organizations,” she said. “I hope we do more of these courses, both internally and with our partners.”
Barnes, one of the course instructors, agreed, and emphasized that African solutions should come from African-led efforts.
To that end, SETAF-AF is also working with Zambia to build an all-encompassing WPS program in Africa with Zambia as the lead. To accomplish this goal, multinational collaboration is critical, including partnerships with the U.S. military.
In Sept. 2023, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Africa to meet with Djiboutian, Somalian and Kenyan counterparts in support of security agreements, pledging $100 million in support of Kenyan security deployments.
"It is important to note that through all of the WPS initiatives, I also learn more effective ways to include the gender perspective,” said Barnes. “This initiative is fostered through the exchange of concepts across the globe. Every perspective helps to further create a holistic program."
The involvement of the U.S. military in WPS efforts reflects a recognition of the strategic importance of gender-inclusive approaches to regional stability. This collaboration extends beyond traditional security measures, incorporating a broader understanding of security that encompasses social, economic and political dimensions.
In conflict-affected areas, women-led initiatives contribute to community cohesion, conflict resolution and sustainable development.
For instance, at last year’s multinational exercise Justified Accord, female soldiers were involved in all planning and execution of a two-day medical civic action program (MEDCAP). At two separate clinics, female civil affairs officers teamed with Kenyan counterparts to provide healthcare to over 750 patients in hard-to-reach locations.
Although the MEDCAP was not WPS-led, it demonstrates how WPS efforts continue to evolve in Africa, with the commitment to empower women remaining central to building lasting peace.
As collaborative efforts between nations and communities continue, Africa has the potential to become a model for gender-inclusive strategies that not only address immediate security concerns but also pave the way for a more equitable and resilient future.
“This is definitely a win-win partnership,” concluded Barnes. “Yes, we invest time, money and energy. But we learn and gain just as much from our host nation partners."