More than 30 women serving with Armed Forces Djibouti, Gendarmerie, Republican Guard, National Police and Djiboutian Coast Guard joined U.S., Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Kenyan leaders for the inaugural Women in Security Symposium in Djibouti City, Djibouti, Sept. 22, 2021.
As part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Women, Peace and Security initiative, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa hosted the event to allow women Djiboutian military and partner forces to strengthen partnerships through open conversation and knowledge sharing. The symposium focused on the incorporation of a gender perspective into peace and security, and helped promote the empowerment of women in achieving security.
The event included a panel of four leaders, each discussing their own experiences related to women serving in the military and with police forces.
One panelist, Lt. Col. Abdirohman Ali Habone, Djibouti Republican Guard, shared her personal experiences serving in the military. Habone spoke of the many challenges she had to overcome, some stemming from the physical differences between men and women. Nevertheless, she said “hard work and having confidence” helped her rise through the ranks, and she encouraged other women to do the same.
Also on the panel was Andrea Tomaszewicz, deputy chief of mission, U.S. Embassy Djibouti, who spoke about the importance of having women serve in positions of power in Africa and around the world, and how women’s increased protection and security is a responsibility for all.
“But the women’s success weren’t without risks,” Tomaszewicz said. “Some faced anger or worse from their partners or spouses who resented their wife’s success even though they benefited from greater economic security for their family.”
She praised women worldwide for their brave contributions, and acknowledged the importance of equal access for women to markets, financial capital and education, and access to programs that protect guarantee women’s rights.
The only male panelist, U.S. Army Col. Timothy MacDonald, operations director, CJTF-HOA, shared how ensuring the meaningful participation of women in all areas of the decision-making process increases operations, and proves that inclusiveness is a combat multiplier by increasing trust and engagement between service members and their leaders.
As a father of two daughters who encourages them to be anything and do anything they want to do, MacDonald said he admires all the women who serve in the armed forces and are role models for young girls everywhere.
“And while I think we are closer to that reality, I do believe that it’s evident that we have much more work to do,” he said.
MacDonald said empowering women in the security sector requires fostering a culture where all service members have equitable access to the same opportunities. This means, for example, helping women who choose to have families to feel included as part of the team before and after the birth of a child, and giving them the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Attendees actively participated in the discussion by posing questions about best practices for leading women in service, maintaining a good work-life balance, how women and men respond differently to crises, and how the integration of female leadership increases readiness.
The symposium included breakout discussions during which Kenyan Army Lt. Col. Irene Machangoh, foreign liaison officer to CJTF-HOA in Djibouti, said there were two things all the women at her table – and likely everyone in the room – had in common that drew them to serve.
“We all believe there is power in the uniform we wear,” Machangoh said. She added that the uniform is a symbol that unites all service members, but also helps women military members especially to visualize their strength. She said the other thing that unites military and police women is the voice of empowerment and encouragement in the back of their minds that constantly tells them to not give up.
Keynote speaker, Brig. Gen. Aida Borras, deputy commander, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, spoke on the many topics discussed throughout the engagement and reinforced the need for promoting a culture that empowers women to lead, and to allow them to prove that sometimes they are best person for the position.
“I believe greatness and excellence always rises to the top regardless of your gender,” Borras said, adding that it will never be easy, but it is possible with a dedication to service. “If you invest in yourself and you help others – be they male or female – you will always be your best, and you will create a team of professionals.”
Borras finished her remarks by sharing with the symposium participants three final pieces of advice: seek out opportunities for personal and professional development; seek out opportunities to contribute in a professional and appropriate manner; and seek out opportunities to mentor others.
“As women serving in the security sector – we are noticed: by our superiors, our colleagues, our subordinates, and the public,” she said. “It is important that we model the behaviors that we desire to see in others. Then find those opportunities to lift up other women so that they can advance and progress in their careers.”
Closing the symposium, official host Maj. Gen. William Zana, commander, CJTF-HOA, reflected on Borras’ comments after she mentioned many examples of women military leaders who have broken glass ceilings and claimed first accomplishments. While both leaders expect that many of the participants at the symposium will likely do the same, Zana said he hoped someday gender representation and equality would eliminate the need as “we collectively break down all barriers so there are no more firsts based solely on gender.”
“We’ve seen that peace and security efforts are far more sustainable when women and other underrepresented groups are made equal partners in the prevention, response and planning,” Zana said. “Much has been done, but there is far more work to do.”
Zana asked the participants to allow the symposium to be a re-dedication to the efforts that all of the countries presently have and a renewed energy to work together to promote women, peace and security initiatives in Africa.
The Women, Peace and Security initiative seeks to highlight the value of diversity and promotes women's meaningful participation across the development, management and employment in armed forces. The initiative aims to work with partner nations to see women meaningfully participate in serving all ranks, and in all occupations in defense and security sectors. It emphasizes the importance of ensuring women and girls around the world are safe and secure, and that their human rights are protected, especially during conflict and crisis.
CJTF-HOA’s Women, Peace and Security committee plans to host the Women in Security Symposium at least annually, and continues to look for other ways to encourage the participation of women in the military to strengthen partnerships and to promote the protection of women’s rights in East Africa.