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Women, peace and security and the prevention of violence: Reflections from civil society in the context of the fourth Swiss National Action Plan 1325

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By Elizabeth Mesok, KOFF, swisspeace

Executive Summary

This report is the result of extensive desk-based research, interviews, and continuous discussions with civil society organizations (CSOs) and experts on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE). The genesis for this report emerged in 2016, when the Swiss civil society Working Group (WG) 1325 raised the need to critically assess the linking of the WPS and P/CVE agendas in the independent alternative report Women, Peace and Security: Reloaded. In the context of the fourth Swiss National Action Plan (NAP) 1325, which names Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) as a key priority within its “prevention pillar,” Swiss civil society seeks to better understand the potential ramifications of integrating the WPS and P/CVE agendas. As such, the project, “Civil Society Contribution to the Implementation of the Swiss NAP 1325,” has consulted with civil society experts within Switzerland and beyond to determine how the WPS agenda can promote a concept of violence prevention that is grounded in the principles of peacebuilding and human rights and which contributes to WPS objectives of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000, there is growing global recognition that women should participate in all realms of peace and security including the development of security policies and approaches and further, that such policies and approaches should account for the gendered dynamics of violent conflict. Since the adoption of UNSCR 2242 in 2015, which calls for the integration of the WPS and the counterterrorism (CT) and P/CVE agendas, there has been heightened attention on the gender dimensions of violence labelled “terrorism” and “violent extremism” and increased calls for women’s participation in the CT and P/CVE agenda.

Such calls have been applauded by those who see gender-blind security strategies as harmful to women and women’s rights. However, some WPS actors and feminist activists and scholars have expressed a number of concerns regarding the integration of the WPS and the CT and P/CVE agendas. For instance, there is concern that the integration of these agendas merely instrumentalizes the discourse of women’s rights and gender equality, subsuming the goals of the WPS agenda within the P/CVE agenda. In this respect, WPS becomes a “way of doing” P/CVE wherein states might rhetorically promote women’s empowerment and gender equality but only insofar as it serves a state security agenda and without the sustained, material support actually needed to improve women’s lives. Such an instrumentalization poses the risk of securitizing and militarizing the WPS agenda. In addition, there are concerns that the P/CVE agenda might actually endanger and harm women and women’s rights, much as the CT agenda has. Such harms occur through the shrinking of civil society space, the restriction of women’s rights and freedoms, the increased surveillance and targeting of Muslim communities, and direct violence by security forces. In addition, the promotion of gendered stereotypes and assumptions about women’s agency risk further relegating women’s influence to the domestic sphere, where they are assumed to have greater influence over their children and can act as embedded security agents within their homes and communities. Such assumptions might overly burden women with the responsibilities of violence prevention without addressing underlying structural issues such as gender inequality. In addition, such assumptions entrench stereotypes of women’s inherent passivity and neglect a wider understanding of the gendered dynamics of violent conflict, including a recognition that women can act as agents of violence just as men can act as agents of peace.

As WPS actors and as representatives of Swiss civil society, we are invested in understanding the impact of the integration of the P/CVE and the WPS agendas on civil society, and on women and women’s rights in particular. Given that research on the impacts of this integration is still in its infancy, our project—jointly led by PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG), the Swiss Platform for Peacebuilding (KOFF) at swisspeace, and cfd: The Feminist Peace Organization—draws on the experience and knowledge of CSOs impacted by the P/CVE agenda and working at the intersection of the P/CVE and WPS agendas. Based on extensive desk-based research, field research with CSOs in Kenya, as well as discussion with partner organizations in other geographical contexts, the report offers critical reflections on the P/CVE agenda from a WPS perspective.

Overall, the findings from our research reveal that CSOs working on violence prevention are extremely critical of the P/CVE agenda for a number of reasons. First, the language of “violent extremism” risks contributing to creating and exacerbating the violence it claims to prevent. The lack of definitional clarity and the tendency to conflate “violent extremism” with “terrorism” enables the expansion of the scope of CT measures, resulting in human rights violations including restrictions on freedom of expression. In addition, the language of “violent extremism” and “radicalization” risks further marginalizing and stigmatizing ethnic and religious minorities. Community-based organizations (CBOs) prefer to use language in their violence prevention programming that is context-specific, resonates with their communities, and contributes to conflict transformation.

However, donor-driven P/CVE agendas risk imposing externally devised rather than context-specific solutions. The vast financial resources now available within the P/CVE agenda means that organizations with little or no qualifications are designing and implementing P/CVE programming, posing great harm to communities, discrediting the work of P/CVE, and damaging the reputations of local CBOs who partner with larger international organizations. Community-based actors in Kenya discussed the “transactional relationship” that communities have developed with the P/CVE agenda, and the ways in which the P/CVE agenda is co-opting and depleting local energy and passion for peacebuilding. Overall, the P/CVE agenda is largely perceived by CSOs in Kenya as “an industry” that prioritizes the needs of donors, the international community, and the state over the needs of communities.

Women-led and women’s rights organizations are particularly vulnerable to the influences of the P/CVE industry, as they face greater funding challenges that are exacerbated by donor preference for funding larger, international organizations. In addition, restrictive security measures such as countering terrorism financing (CTF) laws decrease donor risk appetite and make it more difficult for women’s organizations to secure funding. CT measures, including CTF laws, have significantly curtailed the work of CSOs and disproportionately impacted women’s organizations. In addition, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are increasingly targeted by repressive governments and women-led and women’s rights organizations are increasingly “squeezed” between the violence perpetrated by non-state armed actors, state security forces, and increasingly restrictive security measures.

Globally, the expansion of security architecture in the name of “fighting terror” has contributed to the narrowing of civic space and to increasing violations of human rights. The continuation of “hard security” measures such as military interventions and police violence violate human rights and impede the work of conflict transformation and violence prevention. P/CVE has not replaced CT measures and arguably adds greater legitimacy to the expansion of states’ political and legal powers. Enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings (EJKs) perpetrated in the name of “anti-terror” fuels anger and resentment among communities. Further, P/CVE, like CT, is also perceived by many of the communities in which it is implemented as unfairly targeting Muslim communities and as driven by Islamophobia, with particularly negative consequences for Muslim women.

Given the significant critiques and challenges of the P/CVE agenda, interventions from the WPS agenda are necessary in order to promote the inclusion of gender perspectives and women’s participation in the development and implementation of security measures that are in line with the principles of peacebuilding and human rights. Women’s meaningful participation in all levels of decision-making related to peace and security policy and programming is essential for the prevention of violence and UNSCR 2242 provides women a policy instrument with which to argue for their inclusion in developing security approaches. However, ensuring that women’s participation is meaningful requires more than the rhetorical inclusion of women and gender in CT and P/CVE policy.

Further, we found that women’s diverse involvement in “violent extremism” is shaped by political, economic, and social factors including grievances related to state-perpetrated violence and gender-based violence. Effective prevention therefore necessarily requires thorough gender analysis of organized violence and the context in which such violence emerges. Gendered assumptions regarding women’s inherent passivity or lack of agency result in gender-blind security policy and practice, causing additional harm to women and girls, and especially to returnees. In addition, gendered assumptions about women’s unique capacity to influence their children and family members risks tasking women with the burden of acting as security agents in their homes and communities without the necessary resources and protection.

In conclusion, we offer closing remarks on what role the WPS can and should play in relationship to the P/CVE agenda. We wish to move beyond calls for integration, which might result in superficial or rhetorical promotion of women’s empowerment and gender equality and which might endorse a system of militarism that is antithetical to the ultimate objectives to WPS. However, if left unaddressed by WPS actors and feminist perspectives, the P/CVE agenda stands to do further harm to women and women’s rights. Thus, WPS can play a positive role in regards to P/CVE: it can require, or demand, that the P/CVE agenda adheres to the principles of peacebuilding and human rights and that it actually contributes to gender equality and women’s empowerment. WPS actors can insist on oversight of the P/CVE agenda in order to ensure that such security measures are not contributing to women’s insecurity or harming women’s rights. WPS actors can also insist on the continued funding of the WPS agenda in its own right, and not only when it contributes to a state security agenda.

We draw on the perspectives offered by women leaders and CSOs in Kenya who are asking for greater access to security agendas such as P/CVE in order to shape the design and enactment of security. We believe that the experience and expertise of CSOs—and women-led or women’s rights organizations in particular—are crucial to closing the gap between security policy and practice. We must listen to what is actually needed by those engaged in daily violence prevention and create policies which reflect this reality.

At the end of the report we offer policy recommendations to Swiss state actors. With these recommendations, we hope to contribute to the continuous and constructive policy dialogue between state and non-state actors, thereby enhancing Switzerland’s role as the implementer of the Swiss NAP 1325, as a donor agency in international cooperation and funder of strategic partners, and as an influencer of like-minded countries.