Women’s leadership in conflict and post-conflict societies is characterized by the compounding of everyday, “ordinary,” and “expected” experiences of sexism, threats, and violations that are common to women globally with those that arise specifically from the legacies of political violence. As women’s participation in peace and security has become more visible, the risks to their personal security have become more apparent. It is well known that women who have participated at the Security Council have faced threats to their lives. And worldwide, women in politics, journalism, human rights, and security are being threatened and killed. This trend reveals the dark side of participation, and prompts reflection on the need to integrate policy across the participation and protection pillars more fully.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has begun to recognize the relationship between participation and protection in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, evident in its two most recent WPS resolutions. Resolution 2467, passed in 2019, states that “women’s protection and participation are inextricably linked and mutually-reinforcing,” while Resolution 2493, adopted later that year, notes that women leaders should be able to carry out their roles free of risk and harassment. The UN secretary-general’s report on WPS in 2019 specifically pointed to the need to protect civic space for women’s rights organizations, peacebuilders, and human rights defenders. It called for attention to be paid to the rise in “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic speech by political leaders” and the harassment in digital spaces directed at women in such roles.
If the UNSC and its members are to more concretely address the (until very recently) neglected inter-relationship between women’s participation and key gendered protection concerns and risks that arise for women in leadership at all levels, there is a need to ensure that such a move advances WPS towards its original purpose, that of gender equality in peace and security. This requires a dual-pronged approach that both ensures the physical safety of women who are targeted because of the visibility of their work, while also tackling the pernicious inequalities that determine the very conditions in which participation takes place and that give rise to a multitude of gendered risks for women.
Participation and Protection in WPS: Making the Link
The WPS agenda has become predominantly associated with two central concerns and priorities: women’s participation in peace processes on the one hand, and their protection from human rights violations, particularly conflict-related sexual violence, on the other. However, it is increasingly evident that a wider lens is needed to fully capture the nature of both participation and protection under the agenda. Diverse women in roles such as rights activism, journalism, health, and formal politics, and in contexts as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Sudan experience threats, intimidation, violence, and even murder for playing a role in public or political life. Risks faced by many women on a daily basis include direct physical violence as well as subtle forms of intimidation and harassment that are designed to instill fear and silence women. These forms of violence and intimidation fall largely outside the scope of protection tied to conflict-related sexual violence, yet have a significant impact on the ability and willingness of women to participate in peace and security.
Recent developments in the WPS agenda have centered the participation-protection nexus primarily on women that fall into categories of “human rights defenders” and “peacebuilders.” The inclusion of human rights defenders within this category importantly extends the concern of “participation” beyond the narrow parameters of peace processes and captures the ongoing activism of women at all levels in conflict-affected states. Human rights defenders are also among the categories of women whose work is likely to be most visible because of the ways in which it challenges existing political power structures or social and cultural norms. As a result, their protection is of paramount concern. However, to fully capture the extent of participation in peace and security, and the range of places that risks arise for women, we must use a boarder definition of participation of women in all aspects of peace and security, including governance, transitional justice measures, and peacebuilding initiatives such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Participation in these fora may be driven by differing motivations on the part of different women, and bring about different kinds of risks, stigma, and harms which must be acknowledged. It is clear that, in many contexts, gendered inequalities give rise to barriers to women participating in these sectors, and that these must also be part of the debate on how to advance thinking on the participation-protection nexus.
Because of the high-profile nature of women’s participation—by means of the WPS agenda—and the extent of the reprisals they face, attention to the relationship between participation and protection is largely emerging through a protection lens. This approach is wholly necessary given the conditions of risk under which women are encouraged to participate. For example, while women in public roles in Afghanistan have continuously experienced significant risk, including the risk of assassination, the speed at which the security situation deteriorated in Afghanistan in August 2021 starkly highlighted the extent of this risk. Women’s participation is celebrated internationally by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the media, but the hyper-visibility created by this global attention can also put them at risk within their own home countries. This is a dynamic that requires much greater consideration from governments implementing the WPS agenda and also underlines that obligations with respect to participation under the WPS agenda extend beyond the achievement of some form of formal representation of women. Where women’s lives are placed at risk because of their participation in and support for the WPS agenda, the only defensible response to threats against them is to evacuate those women who seek such measures and guarantee their safety abroad.
While these immediate securitized responses are needed in crisis situations, they must be accompanied by strategies that address the risks faced by the women who remain, such as those in Afghanistan. They must also tackle the root causes and the conditions that create these levels of risk for women in the first place. Efforts to advance the participation-protection nexus must reflect the longer-term principles of WPS to bring about structural change and enable safe participation to occur on terms and conditions set by women, not by pernicious political systems that perpetuate sexist attitudes and structures. This entails taking a much longer-term view of what constitutes risks and protection concerns for women and addressing them much earlier.
Engaging with the everyday realities of life for women in leadership, and the subtle risks and forms of intimidation that they face, highlights the need for a multidimensional protection lens to be applied across participation, particularly one that ensures that protection is crafted to meet the distinctive realities of the diverse range of both subtle and overt risks that women of diverse demographic and political identities face, not just at times of crisis, but as part of their everyday lives. This approach offers a way to enable protection risks to be addressed through the lens of structural change. While initiatives that aim to enhance the physical protection and safety of women, and address reprisals, are much needed, so too is acknowledgment of the need for the UNSC to reorient its focus toward peace, human rights, and equality and tackle the root causes of the protection concerns that arise for women.
If women’s participation is to improve gender equality in the field of peace and security, then it must include but also extend beyond early warning and extraction strategies. That approach needs to go hand in hand with one that invests in systemic and structural change that challenges underlying sexism and misogyny and promotes more equal gender relations. This requires a systemic assessment of the ways in which strategies to promote participation can themselves give rise to protection risks. If the WPS agenda does not recognize the relationship between participation and protection it will continue to perpetuate the binary between the participation of women as leaders with agency and the protection of women as passive victims of conflict.
As WPS moves along a trajectory of interlinking participation and protection, the short-term and long-term strategies outlined need to evolve in synergy. Short-term approaches ensure the immediate safety of women, but to be effective they must be coupled with longer-term strategic thinking. The question of “what happens next” must be addressed. In the longer term, confronting and changing the structural inequalities and conflict-related political insecurities that impede women’s participation is key to reducing the potential for threats and insecurities over time. This is the work being done by women peacebuilders in their own communities. When those women are removed from the communities, that capacity is lost.
The importance of the relationship between participation and protection requires textured analysis, understanding, and response across the array of gendered interests related to the full remit of peace and security. As states begin to engage on the issue of reprisals against the women that the WPS agenda purports to support in leadership, there is a need to ensure recognition of the broad array of protection risks that women face and how they act as barriers to women’s participation. Short-term and long-term approaches to supporting women’s participation are not mutually exclusive choices. Both need to work hand in hand to ensure the physical security of women, on their terms, while also addressing the structural conditions, as they themselves identify them, that make a securitized response necessary.
This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.
Catherine Turner is Associate Professor of International Law at Durham University, UK, and Deputy Director of the Durham Global Security Institute. She tweets at @DrCTurner. Aisling Swaine is Professor and ‘Head of Subject’ for Gender Studies at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin. She Tweets at @AislingSwaine.