Stephenie Foster's mission is the empowerment of women, especially to strengthen gender equality and women’s leadership and the establishment of a diverse understanding of security.
This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".
Stephenie Foster was the advisor on women and civil society at the United States Embassy in Kabul in March 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on his first visit since taking office. He had been to Afghanistan many times as a senator, but this time, in addition to the usual meetings with American troops and Afghan government officials, he had an encounter that made a particular impression on him: with a group of Afghan women entrepreneurs in fields ranging from agriculture to technology.
For years afterwards, in speeches, op-eds and other venues, Kerry returned to that occasion, especially the story of the CEO of a software development firm in the western city of Herat: ‘The local authorities did absolutely everything they could in order to stop her dead in her tracks,’ Kerry told an audience at Georgetown University in Washington DC later that year: ‘They even pressured her family to close her company. But she … absolutely refused to be intimidated.’
It was Foster who organised that meeting in Afghanistan.
‘It had a big impact on one person,’ Foster recalls. ‘But that one person had an ability to magnify those voices.’
The mission of empowering women
Seeing that influence spread was especially gratifying for Foster, who came to the mission of empowering women via a visit to Yemen twenty-three years ago. She went on to help manage State Department policies and programmes for women and help write the second US National Action Plan under UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. After leaving government in 2017, she cofounded a firm, Smash Strategies, that advises on gender equality and women’s leadership for major corporations like Google, international organizations such as the World Bank and non-profit organizations including the UN Foundation.
Foster began her career in a San Francisco law firm, where she became the first female litigation attorney to make partner. She then moved to Washington DC to serve as chief of staff for US Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.
It was during that time that the National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan US organisation that works with local organisations worldwide to strengthen democratic institutions, asked Foster to travel to Yemen for ten days in 1997 to help on a project to support the skills of women running for office.
The visit was pivotal. Not only was Yemen beautiful and fascinating – she has been back five times and travelled to all parts of the country – but also, women ‘have fought really hard for their rights there’, Foster says. ‘It’s a really important place to think about when we think about women’s roles in peace and security.’
‘I got really interested in understanding more about women in other countries and how they interacted with the power structure, how they interacted with the systems in which they lived, what their roles were in terms of community building and stability’, Foster says.
She expanded her global work training women on political participation and economic empowerment, and then took the job at the US Embassy in Afghanistan in 2012. From there, she joined the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, established just a few years earlier under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There, in addition to working on the National Action Plan, Foster continued to advocate for getting women into the room when Kerry or other high-level officials travelled abroad. ‘It’s often the case that people who are making decisions don’t always think about the differential impact on women’, she says, ‘or they think it’s sort of a secondary thing that should be dealt with later.’
Navigating bureaucracies and turning policy into action
Foster’s skills in navigating bureaucracies and turning policy into action have been important in implementing UNSCR 1325, says Kathleen Kuehnast, director of gender policy and strategy at the US Institute of Peace. The ability to work from the top down complements the activism of women in conflict zones and elsewhere around the world.
‘She understands the importance of these kind of policy frameworks and how they can drive change’, Kuehnast says.
Retired Ambassador Donald Steinberg, a long-time advocate for women’s leadership in the US and abroad and former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, considers Foster the consummate facilitator, able to work across party lines, even amid today’s political divides. ‘She clearly was one of the people who got it’, he says.
Foster sees attitudes evolving on women’s roles in peace and security.
‘Twenty years ago, we thought a lot about protecting women and girls – that women were victims and needed to be protected’, which she says remains important. ‘But we’ve evolved to understanding that women need to be empowered and be part of the process where decisions are made.’
Her own understanding has evolved, too. ‘We know, through research, that men and women globally perceive security and talk about security differently’, she notes. Women see even physical security more broadly than military security or law and order, but rather in terms of issues such as their safety within or outside the home, depending on the circumstances, or their and their families’ economic security.
Security as a multifaceted concept
‘I realise in doing this work that it’s important to look at security as a multifaceted concept’, says Foster, who speaks often these days in venues focusing on economic equality and security, such as her participation on a panel at the November 2019 Global Meeting of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Paris.
She sees the growing discussion now about ‘feminist foreign policy’, and sees ‘a lot of synergy with [UNSCR] 1325, because they’re both about ensuring that women’s voices are part of decision-making, and they’re both about bringing those voices into the corridors of power.’
She hopes that, as time goes on, political and economic leaders as well as the public will come to understand even more that the involvement of women and girls in their communities and in conflict prevention and conflict resolution is essential for everyone’s well-being.
‘I hope 1325 has at least twenty more years’, Foster says. ‘My birthday wish is really that people around the world see this as an important way of ensuring that there is more security and stability.’