Why Women, Peace, and Security? Why Now?

Civil society (on the right) monitors Member States and the United Nations at the Security Council's annual Women, Peace, and Security open debate on September 25th, 2018. (Sarah Taylor)

In many of the world’s most intransigent conflicts, women are mobilized to address the most urgent issues in their communities. Syrian women are negotiating humanitarian relief at the local level and are in the top ranks of the Syrian opposition negotiating team. Women in Central African Republic mediate between local armed groups. Former Central African Republic head of state Madame Catherine Samba-Panza co-chairs a senior level network of African women mediators. In Myanmar, Rohingya women are documenting the crimes carried about by the Tatmadaw and women are negotiating ceasefires in Kachin State.

Yet, whether in Syria, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, or almost any other situation affected by conflict, women are also overwhelmingly excluded from efforts to prevent, resolve, and rebuild from complex crises. Their exclusion runs counter to research that increasingly shows that peace processes that substantively include women tend to result in more durable and sustainable peace.

This disconnect between women’s exclusion from formal peace efforts and their active engagement in building and sustaining peace is at the heart of what we know as the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. On October  31st, the anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council  resolution 1325, we take stock of why this agenda is still necessary.

The Relevance of the WPS Agenda

Despite growing out of decades of grassroots activism by women affected by armed conflict, most people associate resolution 1325 as the beginning of the WPS agenda. The resolution has largely guided the formal development of policy for close to two decades.

The WPS agenda has helped to frame crucial issues of women’s rights and roles in an international context and in efforts to build peace. Protecting the legal status of women, ensuring respect for their rights, and ensuring they are able to freely participate in public life—including in formal political processes—are not only commendable goals in and of themselves, but are also indicators of the resilience and strength of a community.

The positive aspects notwithstanding, there are still gaps. In both conception and in policy development, the WPS agenda is less than perfect. Indeed, substantive critiques include its absence of recognition and support for LGBTQ communities, of the lack of clear focus on the specific needs of women with disabilities or of women widowed in conflict. While the UN Security Council holds at least two open debates on the topic every year—one on conflict-related sexual violence, one on WPS writ large—the Council is nonetheless unable to overcome political divides to properly grapple with threats to women human rights defenders, or to address sexual and reproductive health rights and services in the context of armed conflict. Indeed, it often seems that the current WPS agenda is buffeted by international politics more than it has an effect on those politics.

A crucial point in working towards the goals of the WPS agenda is the intersectionality of gendered experiences of conflict and the impact of gender, race, class, and the unique challenges for women with disabilities. These multiple identities often have serious implications for women and girls who are, for example, displaced because of conflict, who are taking responsibility for additional family members because of conflict, or who are excluded from crucial decision making—like voting—because they are illiterate.

Why Now?

For decades, women have been at the grassroots working and advocating for their rights, including in conflict-affected settings. At the international level, that momentum was brought into the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which included in its outcome document an entire section on women and armed conflict. Five years later, resolution 1325 was adopted. Since that time, approximately 70 countries have created national action plans on women, peace, and security. There are now global focal points and six more Security Council resolutions on the issue. There is an ever-growing community of experts on WPS, as activists, policy-makers, and researchers continue to engage in advancing the implementation of the WPS agenda.

However positive the progress in policy, women’s actual roles and rights in peace efforts do not reflect these ambitions. Recent numbers show that between 1990 and 2017, women made up only two percent of mediators, five percent of witnesses and signatories, and eight percent of negotiators. In 2015, the Security Council adopted resolution 2242 calling on the UN and member states to double the number of women in military and police peacekeeping contingents by 2020. However, at the current rate of increase in women’s participation, this goal will take decades to achieve. In one recent discussion where ways of achieving the goal faster were discussed, a UN official noted that at the current rate of change, it will take 703 years for actual gender parity across the peace and security pillar of the UN.

Complicating the matter is that the multilateral system—itself the principal means for safeguarding and supporting the WPS agenda—is under attack. As women human rights defenders face increasing levels of threats and violence and as civil society writ large finds its space shrinking, it is increasingly important that we continue to use all available tools to support women’s rights. While the current WPS policy framework may be imperfect, one of the most important ways to utilize this space is through support women’s leadership. In an ever-more fraught international political landscape, it is increasingly important that national, regional and multilateral actors focus efforts proven strategies to improve women’s full participation in society and to address violence against women: support for women’s leadership at all levels. Often when we speak of leadership we envision the public, formal leaders like Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, the architect of the world’s first feminist foreign policy. But leadership also includes women community leaders who are negotiating humanitarian access on the frontlines of conflict.

The link between women’s rights and sustainable peace is increasingly being borne out in research. Rhetoric from policy makers, activists, practitioners, and researchers also speaks to the potential for transformation in efforts to create and sustain peace—if only we include women. But this does not mean trying to shoehorn women into processes that are in and of themselves broken. Rather it is working with women leaders—from the local to national to regional to international levels—to seek creative, long-term solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Women’s Leadership as the Way Forward

Centering the rights and leadership roles of women in the international community’s efforts to create and sustain peace—and using the WPS agenda to do that—is therefore more urgent than ever.

The multilateral system must continue to grapple with these issues, and solutions must be found and implemented. These encompass everything from political solutions that see women’s rights as fundamental rather than negligible, to long-term funding for grassroots organizations, to dismantling tightly held stereotypes of what women and girls can and cannot do.

In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325, perhaps one of the boldest steps the global community can make is to truly upend how it approaches peace: to move away from ideas of merely including women in broken processes, and to move towards creating necessary systemic changes, built on and unleashing women’s leadership. This has the potential to transform the complex, long-term investment they often make at the community level into tangible dividends for peace and security at the global level.

Sarah Taylor is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute and oversees the organization’s work on women, peace, and security.