from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Women Could Transform the Paradigm for Peace and Security: If Only We Would Let Them

October 23, 2015

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Last week, I hosted a CFR roundtable with Radhika Coomaraswamy, the lead author on the United Nations’ Global Study on the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, to discuss the report’s outlook on the progress, impact, and future of resolution 1325. Held the same week as the launch of her report, the October 15 roundtable with Coomaraswamy confirmed my intuition that promoting women’s leadership through resolution 1325 provides an opportunity for women to transform the paradigm for peace and security, rather than for women to merely conform to the hyper-“masculine” framework of war and conflict that prevails.

My discussion with Coomaraswamy helped crystalize that the last fifteen years have seen tremendous progress in addressing the issues women face as victims of sex abuse and other violations during wartime (as we see with developments in international humanitarian law, including in the International Criminal Court statute), but less progress in increasing the role of women as agents of change. The participation of women has increased in some areas, for example the number of women in parliament has almost doubled globally since 1995, but lagged in others, for instance, women only make up 22 percent of the seats in national parliaments and only eighteen of the world leaders are women.

In fact, increasing women’s participation is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. As I’ve discussed previously, empirical evidence demonstrates that the empowerment of women is correlated with economic growth, prosperity, upward mobility for their children, which helps address the poverty, youth unemployment, and other grievances that are often root causes of conflict, violence, and extremism. Moreover, according to Coomaraswamy, in a piece she co-authored in Foreign Policy, “involving women in peacebuilding strongly increases the probability that violence will end.” Research also shows that women are more collaborative and that such collaboration leads to conflict resolution. Women tend to be closer to “community priorities” which—when reflected in peace agreements (for example addressing ethnic, religious, and other divisions that lead to conflict)—lead to more sustainable peace.

At the same time, Coomaraswamy warns against relying exclusively (or too heavily) on instrumentalist arguments. As she says in the global study on 1325, women, peace, and security (WPS) is a human right. Indeed, WPS should not be instrumentalized in ways that overshadow its intrinsic value as a matter of principle.

The success of WPS will depend on whether or not countries are willing to develop more inclusive processes that allow for community priorities to be reflected, for example through the development of National Action Plans (NAP) (like the one the Obama Administration released in 2011). As Coomaraswamy put it at last week’s roundtable, localization is key. As I’ve argued elsewhere, a more inclusive, bottom-up process follows the feminist methodology of participatory decision-making. Such strategies are actively being practiced by groups such as Women Without Walls (in Nigeria) and Sisters Against Violent Extremism (in India, Pakistan, and Tajikistan).

Participatory decision-making could be more effective in breaking down the societal structures that have long excluded women from matters of war and peace. Drawing on the idea of international lawmaking from the bottom, NAPs could also pave the way to solutions that are more responsive to affected individuals and communities—who will have a greater stake and deeper investment in sustaining solutions they are involved in developing. Thus, these approaches can be more effective as a practical matter as well as more respectful of the integrity of individuals whose lives are affected by peace and security measures.

As Coomaraswamy noted at the roundtable, increasing the number of women in security sectors (including militaries, law enforcement, and peacekeeping) is not sufficient in and of itself. For example, increasing the number of women in the military (or access to combat positions, as the Obama Administration is likely to do this January by dropping the combat ban), should not just be a way to expand the capacity of countries to fight war. Having women participate in security sector jobs is a way to both: enhance the ability of these sectors to respond to civilians (particularly the concerns of female civilians) and lead to more sustainable peace (or demilitarization, as Coomaraswamy put it). Armed conflict involves a form of hyper masculinity and such masculinities continue to function in subsequent peace-building efforts. While increasing the number of women at the table is intrinsically important as a matter of equality, the success of WPS will depend in part on whether the perspectives, experiences, and values that women currently bring to the table continue to be represented. This raises the question: As women step into positions of power, will they continue to bring these perspectives to the table, or will they act more like stereotypical men?

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