Despite almost twenty years of women, peace, and security (WPS) policy development and commitments, women’s meaningful participation at “all decision-making levels” in peace and security lags due to structural barriers, lack of access to political arenas, and even threats to women who attempt to participate in these processes.
Two years in advance of the 20th anniversary of the United Nations resolution 1325 on women’s full involvement in the promotion of peace and security, an expert group of diplomats, United Nations officials, and representatives from civil society organizations and think tanks addressed challenges and opportunities of the WPS agenda at IPI’s 23rd annual New York Seminar on October 16th.
The event took place ahead of the October 25th Open Debate in the UN Security Council on WPS, and was organized in association with the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN. Marc-Andre Blanchard, Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN, delivered opening remarks.
Ambassador Blanchard said that the WPS agenda is at the heart of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. As such, Canada had established a WPS ambasador, hosted an international meeting of women foreign ministers, launched the “Elsie Initiative” to help overcome barriers to increasing women’s meaningful participation in peace processes, and announced the intention to co-host the WPS Global Focal Points Network with Uruguay in 2020.
Women’s participation allows for more equal solutions, he said. “The WPS agenda has made great strides and we are proud, but there is no room for complacency.” He noted that in the past year, women constituted 8% of all peace negotiators, 4% of military troops, and 10% of police in peacekeeping operations. He therefore recommended that “we must deepen our knowledge and understanding [of women’s marginalization] and remain vigilant. We must be creative and agile in finding effective solutions to reinforce the WPS agenda…Neglect and inertia are some of our worst enemies.”
Fatima Kyari Mohammed, Permanent Observer Mission of the African Union to the UN, highlighted the pressing need for concrete action. “The AU has recognized the value of women,” she said. Along with its member states, the AU has made it a “prime objective” to create practical laws, declarations, policies, and strategies that align with the 1325 WPS agenda. She stated that beyond commitments, Africa also has launched “flourishing practical networks” for women, peace, and development, at both the grassroots and international levels, such as African Women Leaders’ Network and its Group of Friends, and FemWise, the AU’s women mediator network.
Echoing this point, participants in the first panel on women and women’s rights in efforts to resolve conflict noted that the expertise of women peacebuilders has been largely neglected and formal peacemaking efforts continue to be resistant to women’s meaningful participation. To address this, one comment was that women must be willing to carve out this space, since their participation is not always guaranteed.
Some participants employed the term “women’s issues” to describe the significant barriers women face to equal rights, including insufficient medical care and access to voting. One panelist then put forth the counternarritive that referencing “women’s issues” adds a qualifier to make these sound like softer issues. In practice, issues, even those that relate to maternal health, are not only issues that women face, but matters that affect all of society and that require equal participation from men to resolve. The term “women’s issues” and the term “empowerment,” argued one panelist, reinforce the idea that women are passive victims in need of support. In actuality, the panelist argued, women are active participants in society, though they face barriers to expressing the extent of their power.
The participants also made note of a disproportionate focus on protection of women that may obscure areas of the WPS agenda that provide opportunities for women’s participation. At the same time, they noted the need to question basic assumptions about women’s participation such as that women are assets because they have a special “magical” knowledge in solving problems. Rather, it’s about diversity of experience and recognition of the different set of challenges a diverse approach can overcome, they explained.
The second panel focused on women in the security sector, and the third on opportunities for future policy development. One key question put forth was about the absence of women in this sector. Asked what obstacles prevent women’s full and meaningful participation, a participant responded that the small percentage of women in peacekeeping operations is a reflection of the societal inequality on a global scale. Currently, there are 20 female world leaders serving as Head of State or Head of Government. This represents only 6.3% of the total number of global leaders, which is a result of both conscious and unconscious bias, they remarked. While conscious biases against women can include gender-based violence, one example of unconscious bias are slip-ups in the way we talk to our colleagues, like automatically using “Mrs” instead of “Dr.” for women. The secretary-general’s gender parity agenda cannot work without a wider acceptance of the equality agenda, participants asserted.
But it is hard to incentivize mass action and social change when the returns of gender equality are not immediately visible. In addition, there is no one to hold member states to account for enforcing gender parity in the military. Participants noted the benefits of having more women in the military as well as the difficulty of retention due to poor or absent gender expertise in peace operations. One of the many benefits of women’s participation in the security sector is that research shows that there are more reports of gender based violence when there were more women police. This demonstrates that diverse participation opens the door to greater collaboration and trust.
Another key issue addressed was that of integrating women into economic decision-making related to peace and security, conflict resolution, and reconstruction. Panelists pointed out that when women contribute to designing a plan for distributing funds, societies after conflict are more inclusive and can better ensure women’s safety.
Participants issued a call to action: the UN should lead by example, they said. In concluding remarks, participants gave recommendations for the UN, member states, and advocates. For the UN: support the gender parity strategy and WPS in peace operations. For member states: concretely back the WPS agenda in all international fora, including the UN General Assembly , and the Human Rights Council. For advocates: address the miscommunication of juxtaposing merit with women’s meaningful participation.
The seminar was held under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, with the exception of opening remarks.