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The next 20 years of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda

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Locally-elected women leaders of the internally displaced persons and refugees in the Central African Republic. © UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard

Phoebe Donnelly, Gretchen Baldwin, Masooma Rahmaty, and Jasmine Jaghab

This year, the international community recognizes the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, the start of the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. Over the years, the agenda has stood as a means to elevate women’s voices and leadership, increase their participation in peace processes and leadership in security institutions, and bring grassroots strategies for peace building to the international level. While the passing of 1325 was a significant step for gender equality, the agenda and its champions have also come under criticism for Western-centrism and its still-colonial framing of the “Global South,” selective or limited implementation of the agenda’s practical goals, and gender essentialism.

The WPS agenda has evolved a great deal over the last twenty years. It has moved forward in some regards, but also faces significant challenges given regressive gender politics both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly. With some member states pushing an extreme agenda against reproductive rights and “gender ideology,” this is a time for WPS advocates to renew their commitments to the goals of 1325.

The anniversary is not just a moment to reflect on the past, but represents an opportunity to look toward the future and address the existing barriers to the agenda’s implementation. The anniversary of resolution 1325 coincides with a global pandemic, a rise in xenophobic populism, significant threats to women’s rights worldwide, and the glaring exposure of fissures in the social contract at every level. As such, global actors must rethink the status quo, which presents an opportunity for a reimagining. One way to do so is to start recognizing women’s leadership instead of just focusing on their needs.

Within the WPS agenda, there is concern and healthy debate around what it means to expand the focus of WPS. What does it mean to include work on masculinities, racial justice, and sexual and gender minorities? There is concern from those who have worked hard for inclusion of women in certain spaces that activism for women will be weakened as the agenda expands. But in fact, we believe the opposite to be true. Widening the focus of WPS will mean creating space for all, whether they are familiar with the institutionalization of WPS or not.

If institutions, organizations, and commitments become more representative and inclusive, they will support the aims of WPS and can achieve the initial goals for gender equality that are at the heart of resolution 1325. This is why it is so important to analyze the future of the WPS agenda. In particular, what is “the new normal” and how can the twentieth anniversary be used as an opportunity for imagination and radical possibility? What trends in gender, peace, and security should policymakers at the UN and beyond be paying attention to, particularly as global systems shift in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? With an inclusive framework in mind, these questions can help strengthen the WPS agenda in a way that will lead to more effective inclusion, protection, and participation of women, by including and working to support other actors and perspectives. In this regard, it is important to consider the future of WPS across three thematic areas: peace as not just the absence of war; expansion and inclusion in the WPS agenda; and gendering traditional security actors and institutions.

Peace As Not Just the Absence of War

Feminist thinkers and activists have rejected the idea of a “negative peace” or peace being only about the absence of violent conflict. Instead, they have pushed for a “positive peace” which includes not just an absence of violence, but also social justice and the “time of not war not peace.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the idea that threats to the global community not only stem from armed threats. In the context of WPS, peace should not only signify peace in the context of global conflict, but include ideas about peace in the workplace, peace in the environment, and peace in the ability to sustain one’s livelihood. A core question then is: whose peace?

Definitions of “peace” usually come from the perspective of individuals in formal positions of power (which all too frequently do not include women). The dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” security is more complex than traditionally perceived and the future of the WPS agenda needs to be working towards a comprehensive and empowering definition of peace. For peace to exist, the inclusion and empowerment of traditionally marginalized voices, including those of women, must be integrated into formal power structures. Ensuring economic security and providing space for women to perform in leadership roles will fundamentally change these structures, and as has recently been shown, women leaders can play an effective role in responding to a crisis.

When we expand an understanding of peace to include not just an absence of armed conflict, it opens up new spaces for the WPS agenda. While National Action Plans (NAPs) are the most commonly used tool for implementation of resolution 1325, there is room to think creatively about more localized possibilities to build upon the legacy of 1325. In this respect, local women peacebuilders have much insight and experience to offer in localizing the continued legacy of 1325, but also require the support of stakeholders and formal recognition of the value of their work.

Expansion and Inclusion in the “WPS Agenda”

To expand understandings of peace, it is also useful to expand the “W” in the WPS agenda to include a broader understanding of gender. This does not mean work focused on women and protection, participation, or peacebuilding will be weakened or diminished. Instead, when more actors are brought into the WPS framework, it presents a new way to support women alongside other actors. Women will at times still need special spaces, frameworks, or protection, as will racial or ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, men, and children. The overarching goal, however, must be to work toward an inclusive gendered framework that acknowledges all of those needs existing at once. By doing so, the WPS agenda can stay attuned to power dynamics and how they harm or embolden different members of the global community, including women. Gender also cannot simply mean “women,” but adding other gendered identities and considerations must also be more thoughtful than simply “adding and stirring”—the perennial frustration of WPS advocates everywhere.

The WPS agenda has only recently begun to incorporate gender and sexual minorities. For example, in the last few years the NGO Working Group on WPS began incorporating language about LGBTQ people into its annual reports. Likewise, the WPS agenda has focused heavily on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) as happening almost entirely against women and girls. This leaves out a wide range of victims, including men and sexual and gender minorities who experience gender-based violence. Though incremental progress has been made toward a wider understanding of who experiences gender-based violence, member states in the Security Council have lashed out against so-called “gender ideology.”

A related and often overlooked aspect of expansion and inclusion is the connection between the WPS agenda and the youth, peace, and security (YPS) agenda. An important legacy of resolution 1325 is that it helped inspire the YPS agenda. Seeing the agendas as complementary and not competitive, thinking more intergenerationally about WPS, will further promote the goals of WPS and YPS.

Gendering Traditional Security Actors and Institutions

As resolution 1325 has tried to expand the membership of traditional security institutions, the international community must examine the experiences of still-underrepresented actors—in particular, the push to increase uniformed women’s participation in peace operations. In what ways have women impacted the security work of the UN? In what ways have women’s roles in security institutions impacted them?

Moving away from the militarization of peacekeeping on the part of feminist policymakers and purported supporters of the WPS agenda, and turning toward a human security approach, is critical. Many argue that the agenda has shifted from its radical feminist roots, instead subverting resistance frameworks and accepting war systems. This has implications in many respects, for example, the stereotypes and taboos that women face in peacekeeping. While the recently passed Security Council resolution 2538 signals that some member states acknowledge harmful stereotypes against women peacekeepers, ongoing research on uniformed women’s roles in peace operations’ engagement strategies shows that sometimes women’s roles at mission are still dictated by age-old assumptions about a monolithic gender identity.

There have been efforts within the UN to connect the WPS agenda with work on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). While attention to gender is a positive legacy of 1325, the link between WPS and CVE is still an uneasy one given the instrumentalization and narrow understanding of women and men’s roles, as well as the lack of data across both issue areas. The international community still has restrictive gendered understandings about victimhood which will be explored throughout the series.

The aim in examining the future of WPS across these areas is to promote feminist curiosity and innovative behavior in policy spaces, and to do so with skepticism and hope. To take the WPS agenda into the next twenty years, the work must stay relevant and continue to push boundaries. This means addressing the fear and shortcomings around WPS while keeping the initial enthusiasm and optimism for a better, more equitable future alive.

Phoebe Donnelly is a non-resident research fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI) helping to lead the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program. Gretchen Baldwin is a Senior Policy Analyst in IPI’s Women, Peace, and Security program. Masooma Rahmaty is a Policy Analyst at IPI’s SDGs for Peace, and WPS programs. Jasmine Jaghab is currently in the WPS program at IPI.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.

Originally Published in the Global Observatory