Women in Sharga, North Darfur, prepare food at the village’s SAFE Center. (UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran)

The past year has raised many questions for those focused on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, as well as highlighting issues that feminist activists and scholars have been discussing for decades. Linked to all of them is the question of how to define security within WPS. As a result of some of its early language and the contexts of its earliest applications, the WPS agenda has often centered on ongoing conflict situations, including contexts where UN peacekeeping missions are present.

However, there are security issues beyond conflict that the WPS framework can and should be applied to. Increasingly, traditional framings of security have been challenged by actors within the UN system, beginning with the United Nations Development Programme’s 1994 Human Development Report. The report evoked a new concept of global human security that is universal, people-centered, comprised of interdependent and cross-border factors—such as famine, disease, pollution, terrorism, and ethnic disputes—and is “easier to ensure through prevention than later intervention.”

Through a human security lens, today’s most pressing threats, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic and the accelerating climate crisis, pose direct challenges to international peace and security. While these threats have begun to feature more frequently in international security discussions, their gendered impacts, as well as the importance of ensuring women’s equal and meaningful participation in prevention and mitigation efforts, remain largely absent. As a cross-cutting (and potentially transformative) agenda, WPS can be operationalized to respond more holistically, equitably, and sustainably to both traditional and non-traditional threats to international peace and security.

Gendered Impacts of COVID-19

The social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to threaten progress toward achieving gender equality. Around the world, violence against women has increased; access to sexual and reproductive health has been hampered; and women have experienced disproportionate job and income losses due to their overrepresentation in low-pay, low-security sectors, such as accommodation, food services, and manufacturing. In 2021, 47 million women and girls will be pushed into poverty, widening the gender poverty gap, and it is estimated that more than 11 million girls may never return to school. Lockdown measures and school closures have also upended the already tenuous balance maintained by many women between paid and unpaid labor. Left unaddressed, these short-term repercussions could increase gendered gaps in access to education and financial security, and stymie women’s participation.

Yet, these stark outcomes have brought new attention to the importance of gender analysis and responsiveness and the value of women’s leadership. The pandemic has also drawn attention to the largely untapped issue of health security, and its intersections with gender. For example, women make up more than 70 percent of health care workers around the world (meaning, among other things, that they will be largely responsible for administering vaccines), which continues to put them at significant risk during this pandemic. Furthermore, the outsized role that women play in both the formal and informal care economies means the burden of taking family members to receive the vaccine, among other health-related tasks, will often be the responsibility of mothers and female caretakers. These realities demand that their voices are made central in COVID-19 mitigation and recovery efforts. A gender-responsive recovery will need to acknowledge and relieve the overwhelming burden placed on women in these efforts. Given their widespread representation across healthcare and other care-related work, women must be closely engaged in efforts to address global vaccine inequity.

When considering responses to future pandemics, as well as the ongoing response to and recovery from COVID-19, women’s protection concerns are also paramount. Over the last year and a half, women’s safety has been seriously compromised by lockdown restrictions that expose them to higher levels of sexual and gender-based violence. Women also face, in many parts of the world, limited mobility and decision-making power which may preclude them from traveling to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, thus putting them at risk of serious illness.

Gendering the Climate Crisis

While there is a great deal of evidence of differentiated, gendered impacts of climate change, it is less frequent that policies and reporting address the overlapping threats that climate change poses to peace and security. Within the WPS agenda, the only resolution that mentions climate change is UNSC Resolution 2242, noting “the impacts of climate change” and reiterating the need to “increase attention to women, peace and security as a cross-cutting subject in all relevant thematic areas of work on its agenda, including threats to international peace and security…” Women are valuable leaders in climate security and have an equal if not greater stake in protecting the environment. The agricultural industry offers many examples of the intersection of gender and climate-related concerns; it has been devastated by the effects of climate change and is, by global average, becoming increasingly feminized. Women make up over 40 percent of agricultural workers and over 60 percent of livestock keepers in the Global South, where climate change is having its greatest impact. Policymakers and international mediators should use the WPS agenda, including WPS national actions plans, as a framework to inform how women’s participation can help to address climate-related risks.

In addition, protection of the environment through comprehensive gender-responsive adaptation and mitigation strategies also protects the gendered populations that are impacted by climate degradation. Such a strategy would require recognizing men and women’s diverse adaptation needs, encouraging equitable participation in decision-making processes, and ensuring equitable access to resources. Climate security should be within the purview of the WPS agenda, and its pillars should be operationalized in such a way that strategies to protect the environment also protect women and their livelihoods.


The WPS agenda has, at least in name, been applied within UN peacekeeping policies. However, more work is needed regarding how security is defined for UN peace operations, as well as whose security is considered, and how gender relates to these questions. Gender assessments of security risks in peacekeeping settings should include a broader array of potential risks to human security. As of 2020, six of the ten largest peace operations are deployed to countries with the highest levels of exposure to climate change, the consequences of which can exacerbate conflict, tensions, and protection risks. Likewise, the gendered protection threats related to the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. Peace operations can (and do) respond to both of these threats through, for example, environmental risk mitigation and COVID-19 awareness in host communities.

Enhancing women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace operations will likely be critical to missions’ abilities to implement gender-responsive approaches to traditional and non-traditional security threats in the field. However, recent research shows that uniformed women experience challenges to their full participation in peace operations due to myriad issues. Among these are sexual harassment and assault at the hands of their fellow peacekeepers, unsafe or ill-equipped camp conditions for women at field missions, barriers to the recruitment of women into national defense structures, and biases against women—including stereotyping them as wives and mothers. Without addressing these challenges in tandem, pushing for increasing uniformed women’s participation in peace operations will fall short.

Assumptions about women’s innate abilities or needs (and, in turn, assumptions about men’s innate abilities and needs) can impact the outward-facing roles they play in field missions. Women peacekeepers are sometimes relegated to administrative roles, despite their infantry training, or excluded from patrols due to a perception that they are at greater risk of physical violence than their male counterparts. Additionally, men peacekeepers are effectively understood as being without a gender identity, with “gender” becoming synonymous with “women.”

As a “people-centric” approach to peacekeeping grows, as well as an emphasis on peacekeeping intelligence as a component of mission mandates, missions’ community engagement has come to the fore. For uniformed personnel regardless of gender, this requires employing a sometimes unconventional skill set including those skills related to interviewing, cultural competency, and language. As the UN increasingly focuses on community engagement, assumptions about host communities’ needs and preferences have emerged with very little input from those communities themselves.

As troop-contributing countries (TCCs) increasingly commit to recruiting and deploying more women in their militaries and police forces, growing political will behind the WPS agenda has created an opportunity. For effective gender-responsive policies, it is important to integrate the voices of uniformed personnel and host communities into the policies that affect them. Integration strategies like the recent rollout of A4P+, the UN’s Action for Peacekeeping priorities for 2021-2023, emphasize “gender as a cross-cutting issue,” which may help to institutionalize gender across all aspects of UN peace operations more systematically and sustainably.

However, WPS advocates—in particular those who have been involved since its grassroots beginnings—have warned against the hyper-militarization of peacekeeping and, by proxy, the WPS agenda. In tandem with this institutionalization, policymakers should exercise caution in not expanding uniformed components’ roles in such a way that they over-militarize peacekeeping and securitize issues—such as environmental risk mitigation or humanitarian responses—that are better left to civilian components.

Next Steps

The COVID-19 pandemic and growing recognition of climate-related security risks have presented the international community with an opportunity to reevaluate what is considered a threat to international peace and security, and how gender should be included in the response. When it comes to the protection pillar of WPS in particular, the focus should not only remain on women and girl’s vulnerability, but should also recognize their agency.

WPS is not a distinct component of the UN’s work, but a cross-cutting agenda that intersects with peace and security, human rights, and development—including the 2030 agenda’s goal on gender equality, which seeks to holistically address gender inequalities and ensure women’s equal participation. Moving forward, more needs to be done to explore innovative ways of defining and operationalizing the WPS agenda and to integrate the broader view of human security into its policies and programs. While positive steps have been made in this direction, the challenge lies in implementation.

This is the first article in a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. The series runs through October.

Phoebe Donnelly is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI) and Head of IPI’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program. Gretchen Baldwin is a Senior Policy Analyst in IPI’s WPS program. Masooma Rahmaty is a Policy Analyst at IPI’s SDGs for Peace, and WPS programs. Phesheya Nxumalo is currently in the WPS program at IPI.