This year marks the 15th anniversary of the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and 20 years since the UN Fourth Conference on Women, held in Beijing. While noting the considerable progress on women’s empowerment since those landmark events, Anne Marie Goetz, Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and previously Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women, said there has also been significant pushback in some areas.
“There are an awful lot of important successes to celebrate in the sense that 20 years ago, certainly 50 years ago, it would be unimaginable to feminists to see where we are today,” Ms. Goetz said, in a conversation with International Peace Institute Senior Policy Analyst Andrea Ó Súilleabháin.
“There are women in public office everywhere, especially foreign policy. There’s a woman foreign minister who has declared that she’s promoting feminist foreign policy [Sweden’s Margot Wallström]—that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, actually.”
On the other hand, Ms. Goetz noted that crises such as Syria and Ukraine had put women in a “dreadful position,” and sexual violence remained as bad as ever, or worse.
“Most frightening of all, there are insurgent groups that have made control of women’s rights and mobility a matter of their policy for the future state that they’re advocating and fighting for,” Ms. Goetz said.
She also supported the establishment of a fifth World Conference on Women on the grounds that progress on transnational feminism is “flat-lining.”
“If we look at the CSW [Commission on the Status of Women] this year, CSW 59, there was such fear of engaging in negotiations with conservative states that no negotiations essentially were held at all…So we’re at huge risk of a claw-back and a sense of indifference to women’s rights.”
Listen to interview:
As the UN completes a global study to assess progress [on Resolution 1325], what do you think are the successes to celebrate and the largest gaps that remain?
There are an awful lot of important successes to celebrate in the sense that 20 years ago, certainly 50 years ago, it would be unimaginable to feminists to see where we are today. Women, peace, and security is a topic that’s discussed by the Security Council fairly regularly, sexual violence is a matter that the council is extremely highly seized of, and takes action on.
There are women in public office everywhere, especially foreign policy. There’s a woman foreign minister who has declared that she’s promoting feminist foreign policy [Sweden’s Margot Wallström]—that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, actually. More women in national military and police. There’s a gender perspective in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. There is public discussion of violence against women both in war and out of war, and the extent of international concern on this matter is quite phenomenal, that is actually a huge advance.
In terms of gaps, at one level there’s definitely been a massive rhetorical change, but on the ground I’m not sure that we’re necessarily seeing things improve enough, and in some cases at all. The mounting current crises [such as] Syria and Ukraine—where there’s deadlock on what to do, where there’s massive refugee flows—have put women in a dreadful position. Sexual violence is quite possibly as bad as ever or worse, and most frightening of all, there are insurgent groups that have made control of women’s rights and mobility a matter of their policy for the future state that they’re advocating and fighting for.
In other words, a violent backlash against women’s rights which we had hoped never to see. So, huge advances, but many, many worrying developments which make the work on women, peace, and security and gender equality in crisis response as important as ever.
Women’s participation in peace processes and political transitions is another area where progress remains slow—what do we know about the impact of women’s participation on the outcomes of these processes?
First of all, progress is slow in this area because there’s a lack of political commitment. The international community and the friends of various peace processes, or conflict resolution processes, these actors are responsible for identifying and empowering interlocutors. Interlocutors who come to peace talks are not premade, so the international community has a very significant role in trying to shape a negotiation situation where people come to the table who can be helpful.
There’s very little the international community can do about, for example, a government negotiating party, but there’s an awful lot that can be done in situations like Libya, for instance, where there was a pretty chaotic situation on the ground and the international community came in and enabled a process of negotiation to happen. That process, the fact that that has excluded women to such a high degree, is a sign of the gender bias of international actors.
There’s no reason why they couldn’t look at the people who aren’t holding the guns and consider ways of involving women and showing more commitment to this issue. So many of the excuses that are used for not involving women actually don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Frankly we should be involving them in peace talks quite without regard to what difference it might make, just because it’s involving a more diverse set of actors in conflict resolution with a greater possibility, or probability even, of engineering broader social buy-in to the eventual agreement, which is a worthwhile thing to do in any case.
There is interesting evidence—we know that if women are more involved they tend to raise issues that have to do with social reconciliation, of course with addressing gender-based crimes in war, and there’s some evidence, for instance, a study by Laurel Stone, which shows that if there’s been a chance of negotiating quotas for women in post-conflict governance, it helps to make sure that there’s a more sustained peace after the agreement is reached.
What can the UN do to make space and build leverage for women’s political groups?
Probably that’s the most important question in all the women, peace, and security work. We know that if principles and ideas and standards are imposed from the outside they will be rejected and generate resentment, and the worst thing, really, that can be done around the women, peace, and security agenda is if it’s perceived as an external imposition.
The problem is women civil society organizations are often not well enough developed, they’re not strong enough, they’re scattered, they’re dispersed, they’re in the diaspora in conflict-affected situations. They’re focused on survival activities, they don’t necessarily have the resources to engage in political processes.
So frankly, the most important question we can ask for peace in the world is, “What are we doing to support the strengthening of women’s peace and justice organizations?” First of all, there has to be access to funding for these groups and also access to opportunities. Groups grow, organizations flourish, when there’s opportunities to influence a process. They become strong when they’re needed to be strong, they are weak when they’re ignored and excluded.
So these processes are somewhat self-fulfilling. If we open the door the organizations will come and they will self-strengthen, they will learn to acquire political skills and credibility and develop constituencies. So it’s a matter of funding, and not just at the moment of conflict resolution, but from now onwards in fragile states funding women’s peace and justice organizations.
Gender mainstreaming has become an essential part of women, peace, and security work. Is this something that this year’s review and the anniversary can begin to address?
The global study should address this. It should be asking, “Is gender mainstreaming working to maintain the momentum and the political edge of the feminist critique of security institutions?” It should be asking that. The problem is that it is often constructed as a project of inclusion, and at its worst a project of gender balance in institutions, and it is meant to be something different.
The project of gender mainstreaming, it should be about holding institutions to account for their commitments to gender equality. Holding institutions to account is very different from a project of gender balance or inclusion. It’s a much more political project, it’s very difficult, and I’m afraid it’s a recipe for making the gender mainstreamer very unpopular and nobody likes being unpopular. So they tend to shy away from the more difficult accountability processes. So gender mainstreaming really needs to get back to that original purpose of building gender-sensitive accountability, whether it’s within the UN or within governments, within peace processes, and so on.
You’ve been part of the debate on whether a fifth World Conference on Women should be convened. Why would this be important and why are some gender advocates wary of hosting a fifth World Conference?
I believe we need a fifth World Conference because we’re flat-lining on transnational feminism, actually, worse than flat-lining. If we look at the CSW [Commission on the Status of Women] this year, CSW 59, there was such fear of engaging in negotiations with conservative states that no negotiations essentially were held at all. A document was agreed before the meeting of CSW—amongst lower level negotiators, mission staff instead of ministerial level—that was shallow, frankly, even by negotiated document standards. That, of course, did not advance Beijing, did not fill in gaps, and there are many; its big achievement was that it didn’t erode Beijing. Well, what kind of an achievement is that? Surely we’re well beyond that.
So we’re at huge risk of a claw-back and a sense of indifference to women’s rights. The cautious response to the situation is, “Okay, let’s ride it out. Let’s wait till this wave passes,” but that was also the response to Nazi Germany before World War II, this assumption that it was going to pass. Bullies don’t just pass on, they don’t. Bullies take advantage of diffidence, indifference, and a lack of a sense of crisis and urgency.
I don’t think feminists have ever stood down in the face of conservatism, we’re used to it, this is something we have to fight. If we do have a fifth World Conference I think we have to go into it with an agreement that we don’t erode the gains of the past, that is nonnegotiable, but secondly we have to go into it without feeling that we necessarily have to come to a dumbed-down, lowest common denominator, consensus document.
In other words, if we come to negotiations and we disagree on the future of women’s rights, well maybe that’s because women’s rights have reached a sort of maturity in international relations where we recognize that this is just as fraught and difficult as any other area, and to expect that we can reach consensus is to treat women’s issues as if they are apolitical and unimportant. These are issues that we do have serious international conflicts over. We don’t want to have armed conflict over these issues, but we have to face the fact that there are big international disagreements and matters of profound injustice that have to be addressed.
Thanks so much for speaking with us.