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Looking Beyond Conflict to Address Climate Change Impacts in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

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Since the creation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda with the adoption of resolution 1325 in 2000, climate change has become arguably the most pressing security issue of our time. While the links between climate change and gender are well known, until recently there has been minimal overlap between responses to the climate crisis and the WPS agenda. Critiques of the implementation of the WPS agenda have pointed to a narrowly focused discourse that constructs women as helpless victims in need of protection from war-time sexual violence. Yet, the fact is that preexisting gender dynamics dictate the impact of both conflicts and crises, and gender inequalities are simultaneously exacerbated by climate change. As feminist scholars have continually reminded us, peace is not merely the absence of violence, and the most foundational aim of the WPS agenda revolves around securing a “gender-just and sustainable peace.” Thus, an understanding of the gendered insecurities entrenched by natural disasters points to the need to expand the scope of the WPS agenda in order to address the structural violence of the climate crisis.

The Gendered Impacts and Insecurities of the Climate Crisis

There are many illustrative examples of the gendered effects of natural disasters. Following the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred in December 2004, Oxfam published a report on the disaster’s impact on women in Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. They found that in some areas, women made up over 75 percent of deaths—in the most extreme cases, there were four female deaths for every male one. The report explained that the effects of the tsunami depended on gendered social roles, and varied by specific contexts. For instance, in Indonesia and India, men fishing offshore were more likely to survive as the waves passed under their boats. However, women in India waiting onshore to collect and sell the catch were directly impacted when the wave struck. Similarly, women who were caring for and attempted to save dependents at home when the tsunami hit died at higher rates.

The impact of the 2004 tsunami illustrates the ways in which preexisting gender roles and inequalities in daily life dictate how natural disasters will affect society—essentially, the way we live our lives, which is gendered, shapes how we are impacted. The inevitable intensification of such natural disasters due to the climate crisis demands a greater focus from WPS, as it completely “reshapes the context in which all of our attempts to secure a peace that is gender-just and sustainable will take place.”

However, the risk is that a perspective which only accounts for the way gender roles shape crises could translate into a paternalistic focus on women’s vulnerability and erase the structural insecurity that perpetuates these inequities in the first place. Painting women as victims solely in need of protection from the effects of the climate crisis depoliticizes gendered power relations. Within WPS, this silos the issue into the “protection” pillar—one of the four issue areas of the agenda and the area of damage control—and sidelines potential advances in participation and prevention efforts. Consequently, women are recognized as vulnerable without inquiry into the gendered political, social, and economic factors that entrench this vulnerability. This was highlighted in a case study of the Pacific Islands, in which the WPS framework prioritized gendered insecurities within “hot” conflict and failed to adequately address the structural or “slow” violence that cemented these insecurities in the first place.

For instance, climate change-related threats to human security, such as displacement, health risks, and food insecurity, increase women’s existing burdens and exacerbate “pre-crisis” gender inequality. Even though threats like food insecurity fall outside of traditional notions of conflict-related gender-based violence, they are amplified by climate change and have a profound impact on women’s overall peace and security. Therefore, a broader conceptualization of security means that these gendered threats should indeed be within the domain of the WPS agenda. This exclusion is unfortunately not surprising, as a narrow framing of security also obscures the institutional links between colonialism, militarism, environmental degradation, and violations of women’s human rights that make up the processes of “slow” violence. Without attention to these overarching structures, policy discourse reinforces victimization and places the onus on women adapting to bear the burden of the climate crisis.

The Potential of National Action Plans

A promising avenue to address the structural violence of climate change within the WPS agenda is the use of National Action Plans (NAPs). NAPs, intended as state roadmaps for the implementation of the WPS agenda, represent one of the most concrete policy approaches to linking a gender perspective with response to the climate crisis. Thus far, the WPS agenda has retained a war-time “state security” focus that runs the risk of a militarized reaction, which feminist advocates caution against. The militarization of WPS undermines its transformative potential to address structural violence, such as the role of extractivist capitalism in driving both conflict and climate change. A more holistic approach is necessary, and this represents an opportunity for synergy between the WPS agenda and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in designing NAPs. By using CEDAW’s framing in creating a WPS roadmap, the productive tension between the two policy frameworks creates space for greater accountability and a more cross-cutting approach.

In general, many NAPs originating in the Global North have been critiqued for externalizing WPS, treating women in the Global South as victims, and being used as a racialized foreign policy objective. These same critiques often resonate with NAP language on climate change. One analysis of 80 NAPs revealed that 17 states directly mentioned climate change, either narratively or within their action matrices. Although there was progress in recognition, significant room for improvement remains in terms of threat framing and integrating action.

CEDAW has previously scrutinized NAP content and implementation through shadow reporting and calling on states to adopt plans. Under CEDAW’s monitoring and encouragement, there is major potential for NAPs to encompass a rights-based, inclusive approach that goes beyond vulnerability frameworks and addresses structural violence. For instance, CEDAW General Recommendation No. 37 on the gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change highlights that the vulnerability of women and girls is “constructed and can be reduced,” and emphasizes state obligations in limiting fossil fuels, emissions, and natural resource extraction. This framing is essential in shifting WPS discourse away from women as victims in need of protection, to a focus on the other pillars within the purview of the agenda: prevention, participation, and relief and recovery.

While this four-pronged approach provides a concrete course of action, feminist scholars also caution against projecting a victim/agent paradox and burdening women to lead prevention efforts. At the same time, the WPS agenda’s primary focus on women’s meaningful roles in peace processes could be paralleled with the idea of building a sustainable climate peace with a gender lens. Emphasis should undoubtedly be placed on women’s leadership and participation in responding to climate change, along with an intersectional lens that prioritizes indigenous knowledge and networks. However, an approach that fails to account for broader violent institutions in prevention measures, such as extractive industries and the military as a driver of climate change, falls short.

CEDAW arises to fill these gaps within WPS, and NAPs represent an ideal avenue for collaboration between the two. For instance, holistically integrating CEDAW’s framing into WPS NAPs might include action items on lowering emissions and regulating extractive industries, rather than externalizing climate action as a protective foreign policy objective. Only by taking responsibility for both the immediate and “slow” violent threats of the climate crisis to women’s—and everyone’s—peace and human security, can the foundations of WPS be realized: building a gender-just, sustainable, and positive peace.

Evyn Papworth is currently in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program at the International Peace Institute (IPI).