Young Women Leaders

Thinking Intergenerationally: WPS and the Youth, Peace, and Security Agenda

Participants at an intergenerational town hall for young leaders to engage with world leaders during the UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019. (UN Photo/Laura Jarriel)

In imagining the possibilities of the next twenty years of women, peace, and security (WPS), the emergent youth, peace, and security (YPS) agenda offers an opportunity for WPS advocates to think more intergenerationally about activism, research, and policy design.

In 2015, as the women, peace, and security agenda turned fifteen, a new global agenda was being established premised on the inclusion and participation of youth. The YPS agenda was formalized through the unanimous adoption by the United Nations Security Council of resolution 2250 and recognizes for the first time that “young people play an important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.”

The existence of the YPS agenda is, in part, a legacy of the WPS agenda. WPS opened a space for recognition of “non-traditional” peace and security issues at the UN Security Council, and advocates have had success in challenging gendered forms of inequality and exclusion. There is also a linguistic legacy, in that the language of the first YPS resolution, resolution 2250, echoes much of the first WPS resolution, resolution 1325. More broadly, both WPS and YPS work to address inequalities and structural causes of conflict.

Just as twenty years ago women’s activists challenged stereotypes that naturalized women’s exclusion from peace and security, youth advocates today remind UN, civil society, and government stakeholders that a majority of youth globally are not, in fact, violent. Many young people are actively working to build peace and respond to insecurity in their communities, countries, and regions.

The UN has continued to engage and expand work on YPS through two subsequent resolutions (resolution 2419 and 2535), and made commitments to integrate youth perspectives and issues across the UN system. YPS as an agenda is also rapidly being engaged as a framework by youth peacebuilders themselves, national governments, and regional organizations.

As WPS marks its twentieth anniversary and YPS its fifth in 2020, it is timely to reflect on the alignments and complementarity of these two agendas to imagine how even more inclusive spaces can be created to address forms of exclusion, violence, and conflict that disproportionately affect both women and young people.

Resisting Stereotypes and Silos

Engagement with gender and youth in peace and security often relies on stereotypes that limit who is included and how issues are addressed. While “gender” often stands in for “women,” “youth” has historically referred to young men. These homogenizing categorizations have worked against progress in both the WPS and YPS agendas. While gender is a fundamentally important element of the YPS agenda, young people have been vocal in opposition to the “tendency to simply lump ‘women and youth’ together,” and instead encourage all actors to think in intersectional terms about identities and participation.

Avoiding homogenizing in this way is critical to both agendas. The need to pay attention to gender within YPS has been increasingly noted, just as the need to pay attention to age in WPS has been raised in recent years. The particular challenges facing young women peacebuilders who fall in the overlap, and sometimes gap, of the two agendas, was noted by the 2020 report of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on YPS. The report also noted the exclusion of young women exacerbates the potential violence they face. Paying attention to the heterogenous experiences of young people strengthens the potential to respond to the structural issues that cause differentiated violence and insecurity for women, young women, and young men.

There is also the continuing influence of stereotypes. Problematic dominant understandings of youth which rely on stereotypes and employ a deficit framing of young men as potential delinquents and peace “spoilers,” and young women as uniquely vulnerable and passive limit the participation of youth. The YPS agenda challenges these framings. For example, the 2018 YPS report mandated by Security Council describes this shift as recognizing youth to be “part of the solution not part of the problem.”

A timely example of the impact of such stereotypes in WPS and YPS is the increasing focus on counterterrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE). WPS resolutions (such as resolution 2242) and YPS resolutions (particularly resolution 2250) have seen a growing focus on CT/CVE. The broader securitization of peacebuilding through increased attention to CT/CVE has resulted in “fixing” women in passive positions and as “inherently peaceful;” while assumptions about young men reinforce problematic tropes of delinquency and violence. The YPS agenda explicitly challenges this gendered and ageist “policy panic,” instead drawing attention to the structural barriers that limit young people’s participation, and opening space to recognize the meaningful work young men and young women are already engaged in. There is an opportunity here for those invested in WPS to partner with youth to address the narrowing of attention on CT/CVE issues.

Resisting the siloing of age and gender as distinct, and instead drawing on the established expertise of the WPS agenda alongside the emerging evidence offered by YPS, can help challenge and refute persistent lazy stereotypes about both women and youth.

Expanding Spaces of Inclusion

Work by WPS advocates has highlighted how institutions and structures are often patriarchal, excluding women from participation. However, these structures are also often gerontocratic—where leadership is limited to older adults. The same functioning of power and privilege also keep women and youth away from the peace table, or overlooked in program design and implementation.

Peace processes are a key window into how both women and youth are challenging their exclusion. Research has shown that peace agreements that include women are more likely to be durable and seen as legitimate. While youth are usually not invited to sit at the peace table, they undertake important work holding peace talks accountable. The YPS agenda has focused on ”meaningful participation” of youth in peace agreements, and a 2018 report written following the second YPS resolution, resolution 2419, concludes that including youth in peace processes will result in more inclusive and representative governance structures that will foster more peaceful societies.

However, ensuring that women and youth are including in peace processes or any other aspect of peacebuilding, is not sufficient if their inclusion is tokenistic and they are only allowed to speak of limited issues. If youth can only speak to topics considered “youth issues” by those with power, their contributions are pigeonholed. Similarly, limiting women’s participation in peace processes impacts the likelihood of a gender-sensitive agreement.

The exclusion of women and youth from formal and informal political and social spaces are built on gerontocratic and patriarchal structures that are enduring. Gender and youth- aware perspectives, offered by the WPS and YPS agendas, enhance the ways in which we understand the causes of violence and in framing how solutions are developed to address them.

The Possibilities of Intergenerational Thinking

Thinking intergenerationally requires collaborative efforts by women and youth advocates. It prompts questions about what leadership looks like and how space can be opened for young women leaders in the WPS agenda, and how the YPS agenda can better recognize the heterogeneity of youth, in particular the differentiated gendered experiences of peace and conflict. It asks advocates to think in intersectional terms about inclusion, along both gender and age lines (as well as race, class, disability, sexuality), to ensure a plurality of voices and viewpoints to strengthen responses to violence and insecurity.

From its inception, WPS has a long history of coalition building for successful advocacy including, centrally, the NGO Working Group on WPS. YPS advocates have also centered coalition-building, with youth-leadership at its heart, via the establishment of the Global Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, co-chaired by a youth-led peace network that includes the United Network of Youth Peacebuilders, Search for Common Ground, and the UN Peacebuilding Support Office. The efficacy and success of coalitions in advocating for more inclusive practices and policies is undeniable.

At institutional levels, it is encouraging to see programming and funding taking more inclusive approaches, but more can be done to ensure access for and support of young peacebuilders and working to overcome structural barriers young people, particularly young women, face in securing meaningful support for their work.

WPS and YPS share many goals, yet it is also important to recognize the distinct yet complementary aims of each agenda. Taking both agendas seriously, as complementary, allows advocates, policymakers, and academics to think intergenerationally about the promises and successes of WPS, and help chart a course for the next twenty years and beyond.

Helen Berents is currently an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at the Queensland University of Technology, on the project Youth Leadership and the Future of Peace and Security examining youth advocacy and engagement in the context of the UN’s emergent Youth, Peace and Security Agenda.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.