Advancing Women’s Roles and Rights amid Global Challenges

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The United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) almost two decades ago, and over 80 countries have implemented national action plans to carry out the WPS agenda, yet despite these commitments, the status of women’s roles and rights globally are under threat. In conflict resolution processes, for instance, mediators and negotiators are rarely women, and women’s rights are insufficiently reflected in agreements.

IPI’s inaugural Women, Peace, and Leadership Symposium on September 25th focused on the challenges of implementing the WPS agenda in an increasingly restrictive political context, and especially given the upcoming 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325. The event at IPI was cohosted by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provided a forum for leaders to draw upon the experience of their countries and institutions to lay out an ambitious agenda for this anniversary.

Adam Lupel, IPI Vice President, stressed that the global pushback against women’s rights is a “critical, truly timely topic.” He highlighted Sweden’s pioneering role as the first country in the world to adopt a feminist foreign policy. Pointing to challenges to the multilateral system that pose a direct threat to women’s rights, he framed the discussion around how to build long-term institutional support for women’s rights and roles in all efforts to build peace, asking the panelists: What are the components of a robust women, peace, and security agenda; what are the biggest barriers to achieving them; and what are the key messages to overcome these challenges?

Ann Linde, Sweden’s new Minister for Foreign Affairs, referenced the launch of a feminst trade policy during her time as Minister for Foreign Trade, but said that even with ample support of the WPS agenda in policy discussions, implementing the agenda had proven to be an ongoing challenge.

“We are now working to make sure that attention to these issues is maintained on the ground,” she stated. The international community, she said, is “still failing to fully implement the commitments we have made. We are still failing the women who suffer from the consequences of war, including victims of conflict-related sexual violence.”

Ms. Linde added that because women are always the first to suffer in conflicts, “We cannot rest until women are on the top of the agenda in all the prevention and peacebuilding efforts in conflict-affected countries.” Even when women are at the forefront of change, she pointed out, “they do not get to sit in the room where the future is decided.”

Grace Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said that in her country, “What we have found is that although this crop of women now have these very, very important skills, whenever there is a conflict, they are never included in a peacebuilding process.”

Dr. Pandor said, “We also hold the view that the participation of women should not just be in getting to a point of settlement or peace. We believe that women must get training in constitution-making, in formation of public institutions, and in the maintenance of democracy so that they don’t become marginal after conflict is resolved.”

To address the dearth of women’s voices on peace processes, she said, “We want to encourage the secretary-general and various structures of peace and security in multilateral bodies to have a database of women with these skills and ensure that whenever there are processes to resolve conflict and arrive at peace, that these women are utilized.”

Asmaa Abdalla was recently appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, and is the first woman to hold the position. She said that this was in keeping with the history of women’s political participation in Sudan, where during the early Nubian kingdoms the queen took part in peacemaking. Now, in West Sudan, she added, “We have women poets calling for peace.”

Ms. Abdalla spoke on her country’s progress toward implementing resolution 1325. “We have a comprehensive plan, and national institutions with civil society participation, and strong campaigns against female genital mutilation,” she said, but added that the political atmosphere was not encouraging for 1325. A mark of the change in focus for the government of Sudan, the minister noted their intent to ratify CEDAW, the international binding instrument on women’s rights.

Contributing to this atmosphere, she said, was the lack of engagement by men to implement the resolution, and limited awareness in the country of the WPS agenda. “We need to enhance… the role of the media in raising awareness about 1325 and its positive effects,” she said.

Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said that being the first woman to lead the UN political department was “sort of like being the first man on the moon.” But, she said, the women, peace, and security agenda had grown progressively over almost 20 years, and has had a profound cultural change on the UN. “Gender equality is mainstreamed into our peace missions,” said Ms. DiCarlo. Still, “this work hasn’t been easy, and it is nowhere near complete.”

What’s needed, argued Ms. DiCarlo, is effective implementation. “We have many resolutions, we’ve had many discussions—we need to walk the talk, focus truly on the implementation of what we have already committed to.” She also called out the pushback to WPS measures. “Global backlash against women’s rights threatens the gains we have already made and it certainly threatens our work going forward.”

Kaavya Asoka, Executive Director of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security, agreed that backlash was a threat, saying that there has been more suppression of women human rights defenders than ever before. “Women are facing retaliation for engaging in political life, for peacefully protesting and advocating,” she said. “Given the global rise of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, it is critical that all of you in this room speak out publicly against any attempts at undermining international human rights standards.”

Ms. Asoka pointed out that one barrier to realizing a robust agenda is selective implementation of its different components. “You can’t advance the parts of the agenda that are easiest to implement, or that align with your national interests,” she argued. “You can’t pick and choose. It’s all or it’s nothing. True commitment to WPS requires going beyond symbolic gestures and technocratic solutions. It requires measurable impact on the ground, and the only credible benchmark of meaningful implementation is positive change in the lives of conflict-affected communities.”

Ms. Asoka singled out the example of women’s lack of political participation in Yemen, where both warring parties refused the presence of women’s advisory groups in peace talks. The resulting agreement has no mention of gender, she said. “We saw a 66% child marriage increase, and a 70% increase in gender-based violence.”

Dr. Panor called for a more universal and inclusive approach to women’s rights. “The fact that we discuss women as distinct from every other person is a peculiarity that needs to end. We are part of humanity, and everything that happens in every society must include us because we’re not marginal, we’re not an instance, we are part of society.”

Terje Rød-Larsen, IPI President, gave opening remarks and Dr. Lupel moderated.

Read IPI’s latest Issue Brief on the status of the WPS agenda here>>