WPS in the New Agenda for Peace: Seeing Patriarchy but Missing Innovation

Taliban members stop women protesting for women's rights in Kabul, Afghanistan on October 21, 2021. (BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images))

The New Agenda for Peace policy brief from United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres was an opportunity to put forward innovative and transformative suggestions related to advancing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (and gender equality more broadly) as part of his recommendations for member states to address global threats and promote peace.  A positive component of the policy brief was the language on “dismantling patriarchal power structures” which illustrates how gender inequality is a systemic problem that cannot be solved by simply adding more women to existing problematic structures. However, while this language is a welcome rhetorical step, overall, the policy brief missed opportunities to demonstrate a broader commitment to advancing gender equality.

Drafting policy language focused on combatting gender inequality and advancing the WPS agenda is challenging considering the polarization of the international community and the global backlash against women’s rights. There are also a few limitations that the secretary-general faced in authoring the New Agenda for Peace policy brief that are worth flagging. The first barrier is that this policy brief was intended to be short, targeted at member states, and focused on the strategic level. The brevity and targeted audience limited the secretary-general’s ability to put forth detailed strategies related to combatting gender inequality.

Additionally, there is a sentiment among WPS experts, especially those monitoring products in the Security Council, that renegotiating WPS texts could open debates that might lead to a loss of progressive language and backsliding of the agenda’s accomplishments amid the pushback on gender rights. Relatedly, there is a sentiment across the WPS community about the need to focus on implementation of existing language instead of adding new language. However, a desire to focus on WPS implementation does not limit the ability to present new ideas that view gender equality as a priority intrinsically linked to the principles of trust, solidarity, and universality that represent the foundation of the New Agenda for Peace policy brief. The barriers described above are challenges that can be overcome, especially because this policy brief was not a document that needed to be negotiated between member states.

As the feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe wrote, “The fact that ‘patriarchy’ is a term so many people shy away from using is one of the things that enables [patriarchy] to survive.” Therefore, the fact that the New Agenda for Peace policy brief specifically suggests “dismantling patriarchal power structures,” is an important first step in weakening them. However, Enloe also reminds us that the public naming of patriarchy, while important, is not enough to take it on. Rather, dismantling patriarchy requires “humble, clear-eyed reflections on one’s own possible complicities” in perpetuating patriarchy. The New Agenda for Peace policy brief does not recognize how those in power (including within the UN, member states, and other multilateral systems) are complicit in sustaining patriarchy nor does it suggest a vision for transformation. Because the discussion around patriarchy is not one of the 12 Action Areas in the policy brief, it has no associated recommendations. The bold language on transforming patriarchy is not matched with concrete proposals, and instead contains a repetition of past UN calls around the greater inclusion of women and more funding to promote gender equality.

Alongside the discussion of patriarchal power structures, the policy brief has language recognizing the ways in which gendered power dynamics are not just affecting women, but “impact and severely constrain men and boys – with devastating consequences for us all.” This sentiment to include men and boys explicitly in the fight for gender equality is in line with the work being done by feminist organizations and could be a positive new focus for the secretary-general.

There is also some language in the policy brief that seeks to avoid viewing women as a monolithic group and instead recognizes the differences in privilege and power for certain groups of women. For example, in the section on dismantling patriarchal structures, the brief notes that women are impacted by compounding forms of discrimination including, “Indigenous women, older persons, persons with disabilities, women from racial, religious or ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons and youth.” Other areas of the policy brief also demonstrate some attempt to mainstream gender by discussing gender dynamics within other priority areas not explicitly focused on gender. For example, as part of Action 7 on reducing the human cost of weapons, the brief notes that the impact of certain weapons, methods, and means of warfare varies based on one’s gender, disability, and age.

Unfortunately, other opportunities to mainstream gender were missed, such as a lack of discussion on Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality within Action 4, which aims to “Accelerate Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to Address the Underlying Drivers of Violence and Security.” This is a particularly noteworthy absence given the wealth of research demonstrating the link between gender inequality and internal violence and between gender inequality and international violence.

Relatedly, the framing around violence in the New Agenda for Peace is not in line with feminist approaches to analyzing violence. For example, in the brief, gender-based violence (GBV) is seen as a “precursor of political violence and even armed conflict.” Immediately after this sentence, the policy brief notes that not all forms of violence are linked to peace and security dynamics. This is limiting because it creates a divide between political violence (public violence everyone should observe and focus on) and gender-based violence (private violence). Most feminist thinkers see GBV as a form of political violence—meaning GBV is not “private violence,” but that its use and impact are deeply related to political dynamics. As described by Laura Sjoberg, “many of the visible ways that women’s daily lives are both impacted and changed by conflict are seen as natural and therefore become invisible.”

The creation of a hierarchy of forms of violence has been concerning for feminist academics, and there has been a historical treatment of gendered harms as less political, strategic, or serious compared to other forms of violence. This raises concerns about the ways in which the policy brief views GBV and specifically domestic violence. This section’s language indicates that gender-based violence is only a priority when it is related to political violence (which is not defined). Although the policy brief notes that elimination of gender-based violence is a priority under the WPS recommendations (Action 5), in other areas the policy brief presents a more limited understanding and approach to gender-based violence.

The most disappointing component in the New Agenda for Peace is the “Action 5: Transform Gendered Power Dynamics in Peace and Security,” section. There is nothing noteworthy or specific to guide member states in strategies to gain progress in terms of gender equality besides a mention of gender parity in national government institutions. Additionally, there is no recognition of the value added in combatting gender inequality by integrating civil society. The lack of leveraging civil society was also a pattern identified in the UN System Wide Review on Gender Equality. Of the 40 groups who provided written submission for the New Agenda for Peace policy brief, only six explicitly describe themselves as women’s organizations.

The secretary-general notes that “incrementalism has not worked,” in advancing WPS, yet incrementalism is what we see in the WPS recommendations. A focus on implementation of WPS does not mean repeating the same ideas that have been repeated since its founding in 2000, but instead would provide strategies or pathways to achieving existing commitments. Also expressing a zero-tolerance approach to some of the patriarchal patterns that have existed within the international community would be a welcome strategy in implementing WPS commitments. For example, despite decades of trying to prevent all-male delegations in negotiations, there has been minimal progress. One example of stronger language regarding implementation of WPS could have been a call to member states to never send all-male delegations to peace talks. While simply including a woman (or women) in these delegations is not transformative on its own, it can be a first step toward transformation and is a visible recognition of women’s right to be included in these political spaces.

The secretary-general’s approach to discussing gender equality and WPS throughout the brief conveys a narrow understanding of women’s agency. Throughout the policy brief, women are primarily presented as beings “in need of protection.” This protectionist approach has also been observed by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) which noted that, throughout his leadership, Secretary-General Guterres has used, “language that prioritized the protection of women, as opposed to their autonomy, participation, and active consultation in the design and implementation of solutions.”

Alongside the protectionist approach, in the New Agenda for Peace policy brief, women’s inclusion is framed as important through an effectiveness lens. The effectiveness approach means that women are seen as important to include, not because they are full humans who have a right to be included in all political and public life, but because including them will be beneficial to securing other goals. The effectiveness approach is not problematic on its own and in some cases might in fact be quite useful (such as leveraging the data linking gender equality and violent conflict), but this approach can be limiting and has not been successful up to this point in time. A more direct approach would be to call on the international community to include women in all political spaces, given that this right has long been established in international law, without making appeals about the benefits including women has for other goals or the reasons women need protection. As the international community approaches the 25th anniversary of the WPS agenda, including women is not an add-on that leaders should continue to justify, but it must become a requirement and a norm.

The New Agenda for Peace policy brief was a moment to set a high bar for prioritizing actions related to combating gender inequality and transforming patriarchal systems. Any language and guidance will likely become less progressive as member states negotiate the Pact for the Future, a document containing specific future-focused actions for peace and security, expected to be negotiated by member states in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future. If the language member states start with is not bold and radical, it leaves little to water down. However, heading into the negotiations for the Pact for the Future, member states can bring language with a more nuanced understanding of women’s agency, seeing them not as victims or as needing to be included because they benefit existing structures or processes, but instead as full human beings whose inclusion is mandated through international law. Member states can also build on the increasing momentum around creating or updating innovative, and importantly, resourced, National Action Plans on WPS. Additionally, member states can express zero-tolerance commitments on continuing “business as usual” and participating in forums that do not include women. Despite disappointment, there is hope that the phrase “dismantling patriarchal structures” can be something member states will grasp onto and begin transforming the international system.

Phoebe Donnelly is Senior Fellow and Head of Women, Peace, and Security at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

This article is part of a series reflecting on the July 2023 publication of the UN secretary-general’s policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace.”