The United Nations and its agencies have prioritized women’s rights for decades and recognized the impediments to gender equality globally. Numerous resolutions, agencies, conferences, and declarations have been adopted, established, held, and written. Often, however, the actual work and effort expended towards achieving greater gender equality falls on women alone. Worse still, gender equality is viewed by some in a limited sense as a “women’s issue” that is not really of concern to men.
But whose battle is gender equality? It is everyone’s battle, and it is critically important that men understand that this includes them. Gender equality is a universal agenda and its absence has profound consequences for all of humanity. There is perhaps no area where this becomes clearer than in relation to matters of peace and security.
Research has found that “the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.” While we still do not fully understand the complex relationship between gender and security, we do know that there is a strong correlation between “gender inequality” and the occurrence and reoccurrence of armed conflict. This has been found in a number of empirical studies, whether measuring conflict between states or within states.
And we know that during conflict, dangerous gender dynamics are pervasive. There is an increasing recognition of the particular violence that is used against women and girls in conflict zones—both as a byproduct and as an intentional weapon of war, including the use of sexual violence, as recognized in the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
After conflict, or in the continuous process of building peace, the role of women is essential. Researchers, policymakers, activists, and practitioners are increasingly recognizing the potential for societal transformation in efforts to create and sustain peace, if only we ensure women are substantively engaged in these efforts.
Statistical reports have found that when women are included in peace processes as witnesses, signatories, mediators, or negotiators there is a 20 percent increase in the probability that any agreement will last at least two years, and a 35 percent increase that it will last at least 15 years.
So the research is clear: women’s security and gender dynamics are critical to preventing conflict, resolving conflict, and rebuilding after conflict. This is an issue that impacts us all. And we have known this connection for some time. In 1915, over 1,000 women gathered in The Hague to appeal for the end of World War I, forming the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In the intervening decades, understanding and support for women’s roles in all peace and security matters has grown. This includes, for better or for worse, the UN Security Council formal link between gender equality and the maintenance of international peace and security via its resolution 1325 in 2000.
What Should Be Done
While women’s involvement in peace processes is longstanding, we also now have a better understanding of why women’s substantive participation in peace processes increases the potential for these processes to succeed. This is in part because if women meaningfully participate, peace processes are less likely to be simply a negotiation about power among men with guns, but rather to include broader issues about how to build a sustainable peaceful society. The participation of women in this way does not mean trying to squeeze them into processes that are in and of themselves broken. Rather, it entails working with women leaders—from the local to national to regional to international levels—to seek creative, long-term solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Inclusivity is the key.
The fact remains, however, that women and girls are far too often targeted for violence in armed conflict, and are simultaneously excluded from efforts to prevent, resolve, and rebuild from these complex crises. We need to systematically listen to them, learn from their leadership, and ensure their voices are included in the prevention and resolution of conflict, and in the building of peace after conflict.
Fortunately, it is not all bad news. There has been progress. As nearly 20 years has elapsed since the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and 25 years since the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, we can reflect on the significant progress made globally on many aspects of women, peace, and security work. This includes political commitments at the national and multilateral levels to devote funding to increasing women’s leadership.
For example, the agreement of Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality is a true milestone and is directly related to SDG 16 on peace, justice, and strong Institutions. But SDG 5 needs to be implemented. There is still a lot more work to be done, including in the crucial area of ensuring women’s leadership at all levels and in all peace and security fora. In an ever-more fraught international political landscape, it is increasingly important that national, regional, and multilateral actors focus on proven strategies to support women’s leadership. This means both formal leaders like Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, but also women community leaders who are, for example, negotiating humanitarian access on the frontlines of conflict, or working to ensure women voters and women candidates can participate freely in elections.
But women leaders face significant challenges, not least that women human rights defenders face increasing levels of threats and violence. Furthermore, as the multilateral system is itself attacked, the principal means for safeguarding and supporting the Women, Peace, and Security agenda is also increasingly compromised. This all underscores the critical importance of supporting women leaders.
Unfortunately, the data is not encouraging here. In peace efforts 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 UN and member states were asked to double the number of women in military and police peacekeeping contingents by 2020. At the current rate of increase in women’s participation, this will take decades if not centuries.
We can and must do better. We cannot wait to let these changes happen on their own: reform needs to be purposeful and deliberate, intentional and determined.
We must recognize that we live at a moment of contradictory trends, and that our work does not happen in a vacuum: there are headwinds. We have forward—though insufficient—progress on women’s rights and political participation, at the same time as a rising, dangerous backlash in some quarters, with the potential to send the world precipitously backward on a number of indicators. Human rights, in general, are currently being challenged the world over.
Leadership is critically important both at the highest levels and at the grassroots, and so it is bridging these communities that can produce the most innovative solutions. Call it a hinge moment of history, call it a moment of both risks and opportunities, call it what you may, but make it a call for action.
Based on remarks given by IPI Vice President Adam Lupel at the Council of Europe World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg on November 21, 2018, and research and writing by IPI Research Fellow Sarah Taylor.