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Protecting women with more than words

Margot Wallstrom & Dan Smith
Filed on November 6, 2020

(Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo)

Studies of peace processes in the past 30 years suggest that when women have a say in negotiations, there is a much better chance of reaching a deal — and of achieving an enduring settlement.

It has now been 20 years since the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted the Resolution on Women, Peace, and Security (Resolution 1325), challenging the international community to improve the conditions for women and girls, particularly those affected by armed conflict. Specifically, Resolution 1325 established four pillars for global action: conflict prevention, protection of women and girls, women’s participation in peacemaking and peacebuilding, and relief and recovery.

How has the world done? For starters, Resolution 1325 brought women into mainstream debates about peace and security that had long been dominated by men. We now understand much more about the gendered aspects of these issues and have developed a common language to discuss them.

Nonetheless, the progress made in actually improving the position of women and girls has been disappointing. Women and girls are little safer today than they were in 2000. There are more wars being fought, with devastating implications for civilians caught in the crossfire.

Although there has been considerable progress in combating the use of sexual violence as a weapon and tactic of war, these atrocities continue to happen. New data published last year found record levels of political violence targeting women. And while the number of peace agreements making specific reference to women or gender jumped in the years following the adoption of Resolution 1325, half of such agreements still do not mention them.

Resolution 1325’s third pillar, participation, is arguably the most critical. Women must have a say in how peace is achieved and maintained, how people are protected, and how societies are rebuilt after a conflict.

This is not a matter of gender equity for its own sake. Women and girls have unique interests and perspectives that must be considered, and they generally have very different experiences of insecurity and conflict compared to men and boys. For example, forced marriages (often of children) are more likely to happen during conflict and in its wake. Accordingly, female peacekeepers are more likely than their male counterparts to be trusted among these cohorts of conflict-affected populations. Moreover, studies of peace processes in the past 30 years suggest that when women have a say in negotiations, there is a much better chance of reaching a deal — and of achieving an enduring settlement.

But progress overall has been underwhelming. Women lead only five of the 19 UN peace operations active as of mid-2020, and none of the 17 missions and operations under the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Just 14 per cent of all peace negotiators in 2015-19 were women.

Even if we can improve these headline numbers, real progress will be possible only if we can address underlying gender inequalities, too. The fact that women experience conflict differently than men do, and are so often left out of peace processes, reflects unequal gender roles within societies.

For example, consider how environmental crises affect peace and security. In areas like the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, protracted droughts have made fresh water, arable land, and pastures increasingly scarce, with direct effects on the livelihoods of families that rely on herding and rain-fed farming. These conditions give rise to violent struggles for resources, migration in search of more secure lives, and a widespread sense of desperation that local armed groups can exploit.

In these agricultural communities, the structures of work and authority generally imply that women bear the responsibility of identifying and coping with resource shortages. And yet it is generally the men who own the land, do the negotiating, and make the long-term plans and spending decisions. Thus, the challenge issued by Resolution 1325 is as much about changing laws and attitudes that exclude women as it is about recruiting more female peacekeepers and advisers.

All told, the 20-year report card for Resolution 1325 shows only limited achievements. How can we ensure that the one for 2030 is better? To borrow a line from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this must be the decade of delivery. The first, easiest step is for governments, the UN, and the other international organisations that deploy peace operations to set numerical targets for women’s participation, and then to ensure that they are met.

The second, bigger step is to make, or renew, action plans for implementing Resolution 1325. To date, only 86 countries — well under half of UN member states — have made national plans, and some of these are over a decade old. New action plans should seek to boost women’s participation in all aspects of peace and security. Only if women and girls are safer and accepted in decision-making roles under normal circumstances are they likely to be safer and accepted in these roles under the more extreme circumstances of conflict and war.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was the result of women’s activism for peace and justice. Its ultimate aim is to break the cycles of conflict and insecurity decisively, so that prevention, protection, relief, and recovery are no longer necessary. This remains an inspiring and urgent goal.

Margot Wallström is a former UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Swedish minister for foreign affairs, and vice president of the European Commission. Dan Smith is Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. —Project Syndicate





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