What Does the New Women, Peace, and Security Index Measure?

Peshmerga women undergo basic training at the Bnaslawa camp in Erbil, Iraq on April 11, 2017. (Sipa USA via AP)

The ambitious “Women, Peace, and Security Index” (WPS Index)—launched in October by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) and Peace Research Institute (PRIO)—makes up for the omission of gender inequality measures in conflict monitoring frameworks, state fragility analyses, political instability estimates, and various indicators from leading think tanks. It is guided by the confirmed correlations between a state’s propensity to use violence to resolve internal or external disputes and high levels of intimate partner violence and discriminatory social norms that justify abuses of women’s rights, low levels of women in the labor force, low levels of women in government, son preference, and high fertility rates that produce unbalanced sex ratios. Ultimately, the justification for increasing the participation of women—and the promotion of gender equality—is this: the security of women and an increase in their participation in public decision-making is a core driver of the security and peacefulness of states.

The WPS index ranks countries on measures clustered in three areas: women’s inclusion (economic, political, social); justice (gender equality in formal laws, informal discrimination); and security (women’s safety at home, in the community, and society). It, refreshingly, combines the measures of gender inequality familiar from many gender equality indices—women in parliament and the labor force—with some that are perception-based like the percentage of women reporting they feel safe walking alone at night, or attitudinal measures such as the proportion of men who do not accept women’s right to work outside the home. There are also some relatively new proxy indicators such as cellphone use as a measure of economic and social inclusion. And for the first time in a gender equality-related index, levels of organized violence are included as a measure of women’s security.

The index benefits from simplicity, elegance, and consistency. There are, for example, just 11 indicators across its three areas, it uses national population-based or survey data, and because it does not process this into ordinal scores, it enables detailed comparisons of countries, as well as the compilation of country rankings—so dreaded by governments, so useful to activists.

But what, really, does the WPS Index measure? In fact, it is hard to answer this question, though there are a few things we can say with relative certainty. The index does not predict conflict, because it already contains a measure of organized violence (the conventional measure of battle deaths per 100,000 people from armed conflict). It clearly contrasts with global peace and security and state fragility indices by incorporating gendered aspects of insecurity. It brings a personal and public security dimension to calculating levels of gender equality. It bridges Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on women’s empowerment and SDG 16 on peaceful and inclusive societies, linking measures of women’s status to aspects of state stability and capacity. Its snapshot of women’s inclusion, gender justice norms, and security is based on absolute figures, not a measure of women’s condition in relation to men.

Relative measures, such as the Gender Gap Index issued annually by the World Economic Forum, can produce misleading and almost absurd impressions. This year for instance the United States was listed 49th out of 144 countries, cheek by jowl with Zimbabwe at 50th, because the gap in economic and political attainment, health, and education between women and men was roughly as wide in both places. But this tells us nothing about the quality of wellbeing enjoyed by women and men. A small gap, such as in Rwanda, which ranks fourth on the Gender Gap Index, could simply mean that women and men suffer poverty or marginalization equally.

The WPS Index provides facts about women’s political and economic social inclusion, the prevalence and social tolerance of gender-based discrimination, and levels of public and private violence. In that sense, it is an excellent women’s empowerment index. But in what sense is it a measure of women, peace, and security?

The broader women, peace, and security agenda is a universal one, challenging our definitions of conflict by linking conflict between women and men in domestic spaces, to the patriarchal extremes that fan the flames of broader social conflict. It links justice for crimes against women to conflict prevention. It is relevant to every country, and also in international relations where foreign and trade policies of individual states can contribute to peace or to insecurity. In that case, a universally relevant WPS index would measure, ideally, militarism (enrollment in military service per 100,000 people, military expenditure as a proportion of GDP, volumes of exports or imports of conventional weapons) and ease of access to light weapons. It might assess women’s participation in national security institutions and in the management and leadership of foreign policy establishments. It would need to assess whether women are free to associate autonomously and influence public decision-making.

An index consistent with the WPS agenda would ideally include measures of some of the driving concerns of UN Security Council resolution 1325, and subsequent, related resolutions.  These include disarmament/militarization, or women’s leadership in peace processes. Here the WPS Index encounters some challenges quite specific to quantifying national performance on women, peace, and security. WPS means very different things in a conflict-affected state than in others. Some of the most crucial indicators of women’s participation in peace and security pertain to just a few contexts—for instance the proportion of delegates to a peace negotiation that are women, or the proportion of post-conflict recovery funding targeted to women’s livelihoods, health, safety.

Others are next to impossible to quantify, such as the nature of engagement by women’s groups with peace negotiators and the quality of a transitional justice arrangement from a gender equality perspective. Indicators of these conflict-specific processes do exist. The Security Council called for WPS indicators in 2009, and since 2011 the annual secretary-general reports on WPS have been populating these 26 indicators, but only in relation to specific situations on the Council’s agenda. These are monitoring indicators, mainly assessing the UN’s effectiveness in implementing its WPS agenda. They are not intended to enable comparisons between cases of peace talks or recovery programs; each one is almost too anomalous to make comparative analysis meaningful.

Indicators relevant to the WPS agenda such as small arms prevalence or recruitment rates to the military are tough to populate, but not impossible, and some are used in existing global peace and security indices. But the WPS Index relies on only one measure of conflict, one that has been criticized by feminist security analysts for male bias: the number of battle deaths. This measure typically registers the mortality of combatants, who tend to be male, and disguises the range and devastation of harms that surviving women experience. In addition, the focus on battle-related deaths limits attention to countries in armed conflict, not those that have conflict-level homicide rates from criminal activity (for instance Mexico), nor those that are exporting the tools of war or even perpetrating violence on citizens of other countries.

We can certainly make a connection between battle deaths in any particular country and the degree of misery that women are likely to be experiencing. But that does not tell us about the degree to which countries not at war might be violating principles of the WPS agenda in their foreign policies. The United States, for example, ranks 22nd out of 153 countries in the WPS Index, a ranking which tells us about women’s relative security within the US, but little about the US contribution to civilian deaths elsewhere. In contrast, in the Global Peace Index, which measures aspects of militarism, relations with neighboring countries, and levels of violent crime, the US plummets to 114th out of 163 countries. Russia, another contributor to state-sponsored violence beyond its borders, ranks 55 on the WPS Index, but 151 on the Global Peace Index.

When thinking about what the WPS Index tells us about countries, these and other contrasts with the Global Peace Index are striking. The two indices concur in placing Iceland at the top along with other safe places like Slovenia, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway. Both put Pakistan, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria at the bottom. No surprises there. But there are notable disparities with at least 30% of countries in the Global Peace Index landing 30 places or a great many more (in either direction) from where they are found on the WPS Index.  That the WPS index ranks Chile, Botswana, Malaysia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Madagascar far lower than the Global Peace Index does, or Jamaica, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Mexico much higher, is interesting. We would expect peace to be experienced differently by women and men; we would expect women to feel a lot less safe, a lot more excluded, than men in some contexts, and this could be an indicator of conflict propensity.

But the divergent national rankings in the WPS Index and the Global Peace Index do not necessarily tell us something new about security by adding women’s experiences of conflict. What they tell us is that different things are being measured, and specifically that the WPS Index is not taking adequate account of how some countries foster warfare, particularly abroad. The Global Peace Index, like all measures of fragility, instability, and conflict propensity, urgently needs a gender perspective. And the WPS Index would benefit from additional measures of conflict (for instance, measures of militarism) so that its understanding of organized violence captures more than in-country armed conflict.

Without indicators for organized violence beyond battle deaths, the WPS Index is less a way of calibrating how states score in terms of women peace and security, than a way of measuring women’s economic, political, and social security. In that sense, it is a great improvement on existing indices of gender equality or of women’s empowerment, but does not yet tell us which countries are able to engage women in making and keeping peace at home and abroad.

Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.