11/15/2007 11:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women and Security: Canaries in the Mine

In 1995, I traveled to Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. I, and hundreds of other delegates, wanted to build on the work that had come out of the conference in Nairobi 10 years before. On both occasions, our goal was to persuade governments to commit to mainstreaming gender concerns in their policies, and to make gender equality a priority. This week, women heads of state and government will convene for a similar kind of conference, the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit, bringing together some of the most powerful women leaders from over 40 countries -- but this time, the mainstream has come to us.

"Women's" issues such as health and education, overpopulation, the bolstering of human rights, and combating HIV/AIDS have long been segregated as "soft" issues and excluded from high-level security debates. As these issues become the overriding security concerns around the globe, women are uniquely positioned to address them.

Women have often functioned as canaries in the mine; they are the people who sense the first threats of danger. Women in the developing world, in particular, who have exceptional experience managing security threats locally, but whose voices are too seldom heard in global policymaking, have firsthand experience with the global threats we are now realizing; for example, that education of girls and employment of boys can do wonders to prevent terrorism.

We are at a moment in history where the pressing issues of our time require women in leadership, especially as the definition of what constitutes state security continues to evolve. Steadily, the gap between perceptions of state security, understood mostly in military defense terms, and the concept of "human" security, is narrowing. And human security cannot be discussed without involving the half of humanity which is too often ignored in state security dialogues.

To be sure, we want a strong military with an intelligence infrastructure and helpful law enforcement across the globe; but military is just a part of the solution. Women see security as all-encompassing, involving economic, diplomatic and social solutions. They have long known that real security is not only found on the front lines of the battle field, but also hits close to home, right outside our front doors, with daily needs like clean water, access to doctors and schools.

Important institutions, long dominated by traditional male thinking, are finally opening up to include women in diplomacy and security efforts. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which specifically addresses the impact of war on women, and women's contributions to conflict resolution and sustainable peace, has established a standard in this regard, but we can do more. As old establishments are shaken loose by new ideas, qualified women, who in the past may have been sidelined by networks of men entrenched in narrow security mindsets, now have the chance to move into power centers.

At the Summit this week, we will hear from women like Betty Bigombe, former chief mediator between the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army; Olubanke King-Akerele, Liberia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has launched an all-women peace force in her war-torn country; and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who was raised in an Inuit community in Canada and was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work on climate change. As the social and cultural issues long championed by female leaders become an accepted part of the mainstream, we in the United States need more women, to lead and to address this changing face of security.

It is time for our nation to redefine security as so many women already have. And it is time to start asking our canaries in the mine -- women women who want to protect their families and communities -- for a few creative answers.