Women, peace, and security

Soumita Basu and Akhila Nagar


The United Nations (UN) Security Council is the primary deliberative body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. As such, when it adopted resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in October 2000, the initiative was hailed as a landmark event in feminist peace politics. The resolution acknowledged the need to recognise and promote the role of women in building peace; it also called for the protection of women and girls from conflict-related sexual violence. These provisions were not particularly novel for feminist organisations, local as well as transnational, that had sought to draw attention to the gendered nature of war and peace processes for much of the twentieth century. Some of these organisations, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), were involved in the drafting and advocacy for the passage of the resolution (Cockburn, 2007; Cohn et al, 2004; Naraghi Anderlini, 2007). However, the fact that the Security Council, which has traditionally followed narrow interpretations of peace and security in relation to inter-state armed conflicts, civil wars, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, was finally paying attention to gender concerns was considered to be radical and noteworthy. Subsequently, the Council has adopted nine follow up resolutions on WPS, that have built on the thematic agenda laid out in resolution 1325: resolutions 1820 (2009); 1888 (2009); 1889 (2010); 1960 (2011); 2106 (2013); 2122 (2013); 2242 (2015), 2467 (2019), and 2493 (2019). These ten resolutions, along with numerous policy mechanisms that have been developed at the UN and beyond, are collectively referred to as the WPS agenda.

Since the passage of the first WPS resolution, gender appears to have been “mainstreamed” into international peace and security policy making, with highlights such as the establishment of the Office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2010, appointment of Major General Kristin Lund as the first female Force Commander of a UN peacekeeping mission in 2010, and, as of December 2019, the adoption of National Actions Plans (NAPs) for the implementation of WPS resolutions by 83 member states (PeaceWomen, 2020). The citations for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and for Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad who were awarded the Prize in 2018, included references to resolution 1325 (NobelPrize.org, 2020a, 2020b). These, more popular, acknowledgments illustrate the relevance and reach of the WPS agenda.

Yet, efforts to implement the resolutions have been stymied by limited allocation of funds (Coomaraswamy et al, 2015). Advocates also have been concerned about the lack of political will demonstrated by member states and key UN agencies towards ensuring that inclusion of the WPS agenda is not an afterthought during policymaking. Further still, critics have argued that the resolutions provide “gender legitimacy” to militarised notions of peace that delineate the Council’s work (Otto, 2004), and that these have been employed to justify the interventions of powerful countries in the global south (Puechguirbal, 2010; Otto, 2018).

With the aim to present a feminist review and critique of the WPS agenda, the rest of this chapter is divided into three sections. The first section interrogates the key themes that inform the WPS resolutions. Section two focusses on the subsequent policy outcomes of the resolutions, particularly at the UN. The third section evaluates the efforts to implement the WPS agenda, bringing to light the contestations that have emerged in this process. As will be evident in this chapter, there are concerns that the WPS agenda has lost its transformative potential due to its absorption into the “business-as-usual” approach to peace and security policies. In light of both the initial motivation that drove the WPS agenda as well as its growing relevance in the policy world, it becomes imperative to reclaim the resolutions for advancing feminist peace politics. Feminist analyses of the WPS agenda thus remains crucial.

Women and peace and security: key themes

The formal title of the ten resolutions is “Women and Peace and Security”. The meaning attributed to these terms, separately and together, provide the frames within which the provisions of the WPS resolutions relating to women’s participation and protection have been laid out. The analysis here focusses on UNSCR 1325, given its significance as the first resolution. Subsequent changes in the thematic agenda are discussed in the latter part of this section.

Notably, the title refers to women, an identity category, and not gender which is a more contested term at the UN and beyond. Gender is, however, invoked a number of times in UNSCR 1325: “as a perspective, and also as a prefix to ‘sensitive training efforts’, and ‘based violence’”, and in relation to “gender considerations” and “gender dimensions” (Shepherd, 2008, p. 120). In effect, “women” and “gender” are used interchangeably, thus masking the understanding of gender as “relational, discursive, and socially constructed” (Henry, 2007, p. 65). As feminist researchers have noted, this kind of conflation hides the power relations underlying the masculine/feminine binary wherein feminine values — and, by association, women — are placed in a subordinate position (see Ferguson, 1991, p. 326). Further, in such an iteration gender is presented as the only marker of identity for a woman and “class, ethnicity, ‘race’, nationality, and sexuality” (Henry, 2007, p. 64) are deemed less important, removing questions of intersectionality from the discourse (see Ziirn, 2020).

(Re)conceptualising gender as a discursive power relation rather than a sole and fixed identity marker reveals the ways in which gender essentialism operates in UNSCR 1325. Puechguirbal (2010) notes that “gender essentialism defines women in three conflating categories—women as vulnerable, women as mothers, and women as civilians” (p. 172). Women’s inclusion within the realm of conflict resolution and peacebuilding then rests on the assumption that women are inherently peaceful and pacifist. They are understood to be in need of protection, and as victims; their agency is confined to their “use-value” (Cohn et al., 2004). This also limits the representation of men, who are absent in the Resolution itself, as perpetrators of violence or as protectors of women (and children) (Santos et al., 2013), ignoring the multiple ways in which men too are affected by conflict. These representations of both women and men fundamentally affect, and are symptomatic of, the manner in which peace and security is conceived of, within the context of the WPS agenda.

As with international politics more broadly, “peace and security” is understood as the absence of war in UNSCR 1325. Such a formulation makes invisible the gendered nature of war, which can be explicated through further attention to two related concepts — violence and militarism. For feminists, violence does not only relate to physical harm but includes a broad range of structural inequalities that form a “continuum of violence” against women (see Yadav and Horn, this volume). Growing militarism in states and societies has exacerbated the intensity of such violence; Eichler (2019) notes, “at its core, gendered militarism constructs feminised populations in need of masculinised protection” (p. 160). Militarism is intrinsically tied to Security Council policymaking, and this has important implications for the WPS agenda. The Council has “cemented the idea that securing international peace relies on military strength and the securitisation of states” (Otto, 2018, p. 114).

Jansson and Eduards (2016) have argued that “Resolution 1325 does not confront the structural roots of gender inequality, including entrenched understandings of patriarchy, masculinity, and militarised power” (p. 592). Whereas mainstream security discourse identifies the state as its referent object, a feminist understanding of security aims at not only eliminating all forms of violence, but an elimination of militarism in itself, thus providing an alternate and transformative vision of security. However, the way in which UNSCR 1325 is discursively (re) produced, as outlined in this chapter, serves to legitimise war and militarised security. Such militarised understanding of peace does not conform to ending wars in themselves, but rather the practices within warfare (Coomaraswamy et al., 2015). The prevalence of these articulations of the WPS agenda has led Cora Weiss (2011) to proclaim that the agenda was not founded to “make war safe for women”.

The concerns outlined above have, at best, been partially addressed in the subsequent resolutions. Indeed, the trajectory of the WPS agenda since the passage of UNSCR 1325 has been somewhat uneven. The second WPS resolution, UNSCR 1820, was not adopted until 2008 and focussed — notably — on protection of women and girls from conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Advocates argued that the resolution built upon a key component of UNSCR 1325; critics contended that it reflected the narrowing of the WPS agenda, to the aspect that was most in line with existing frames of peace and security (see Cook, 2009). In any case, there has been a disproportionate focus on protection from sexual violence, as reflected in the provisions of most of the subsequent WPS resolutions. This has led to conceptual advancements such as recognising the prevalence of CSRV also against men and boys in UNSCR 2106 as well as policy innovations, including the establishment of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict as laid out in UNSCR 1888. The “participation” component, i.e. recognising as well as increasing the participation of women in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, has also received some attention, especially in resolutions 1889 (2009), 2122 (2013), and 2242 (2015). On this issue too, however, there have been concerns, as the rationale for greater participation appears to be instrumental rather than rights-based. Thus, for instance, the call for raising the number of female peacekeepers is linked to the (evidence-based) assertion that their inclusion leads to fewer cases of sexual violence by male peacekeepers deployed at UN missions; the liberal argument that women should have the right to participate, without discrimination, in public life (including as peacekeepers) has little traction in the policy arena.

The nine follow-up resolutions have expanded the scope of the WPS agenda in additional ways. UNSCR 1325 made no reference to women’s economic rights, even though issues like livelihood and inheritance are central to rebuilding lives post-conflict. Resolution 1889

includes provisions in this regard. Conflict prevention finds some focus in resolution 2122, which makes note of the Arms Trade Treaty and also calls for increasing women’s participation in disarmament efforts. Conversely, provisions in UNSCR 2242 that bring countering violence extremism and counter-terrorism into the WPS agenda have been critiqued for making women doubly vulnerable within their communities (Ni Aolain, 2016; see also Brown, this volume). Further, advancements in the WPS agenda are not necessarily secure. It has been reported that reference to “sexual and reproductive health” in initial drafts of resolution 2467 was removed due to the threat of veto from a conservative US government; the term had featured in resolution 2106 and would, therefore, not have been a new addition to the agenda (Sheikh, 2019).

Ultimately, the themes of the WPS agenda outlined here matter the most when the agenda is implemented. The resolutions have the potential to offer concrete policy responses that account for gender, both in terms of the differences in how women and men experience armed conflicts as well as a challenge to prevailing understandings of peace, security, and violence. In order to make the WPS agenda meaningful in these ways, advocates have emphasised that requisite funding and political will are crucial. However, in this respect, the record has been less than encouraging. As such, the ebbs and flows in the WPS agenda go well beyond the provisions laid out in the text of the resolutions.

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