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Reframing the debate around women, peace, and security

Posted on 26/02/2020
By Shreen Saroor

When a peace deal is struck between warring factions, it is widely understood that peace has been achieved. However, when key sections of society—in most cases all women—are kept from the negotiating table, is that peace agreement likely to meet the needs of all citizens? As an individual who has lived through conflict from a young age, I know I have a different perspective on peacebuilding than those who have sat at the negotiating table on my behalf.

‘Unless a society treats its citizens equally, national security does not guarantee security for all’

Trying to address this problem two decades ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. Recognising that women bear unique burdens during conflict and can offer critical insights on peacebuilding, UNSCR 1325 stressed the importance of ensuring that women participate in greater numbers at all stages of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. Since its passage, Resolution 1325 has become the organising framework for thinking about women, peace, and security and is touted by the U.N. Security Council, U.N. Women, and other powerful international organisations.

But while the impetus behind UNSCR 1325 may be sound, does its approach actually make things worse? Unfortunately, yes.

The problem is conceptual. UNSCR 1325 defines security in terms of national security. But national security is not the same as individual security: unless a society treats its citizens equally, national security does not guarantee security for all. If we can agree that women bear a disproportionate burden of hardship and injustice in conflict, our priority should be reforming the structures that create those inequalities in the first place.

Last month, Shreen Saroor (third from right) joined peace advocates from around the world for a roundtable discussion exploring how women could achieve greater representation in peace processes. The event took place in Penang, Malaysia, and was convened by the Commonwealth Foundation.

We know that women face sexual violence in conflict and untold hardships in post-conflict reconstruction.  When lands and resources are grabbed or access to them restricted in the name of post-conflict security, war-affected women can find themselves with no means of livelihood. As a consequence, women can find themselves in unskilled factory labour with no pathway for advancement. The same women who were uniquely vulnerable during the war remain uniquely exploited after it. Recognising their voices in conflict resolution and peacebuilding requires that we look at the broader context. That context includes not just physical security from violence but a transformation of their role in relation to the state.

‘The answer to war’s disproportionate impact on women should not be to deputise women as agents of war’

The drive for greater female representation in the armed forces—although ostensibly about female empowerment—works against women in the longer term, undermining arguments against violence. Indeed, the women’s peace agenda is best served by a reduction of arms and security personnel. The answer to war’s disproportionate impact on women should not be to deputise women as agents of war, but instead to solicit women’s views to reduce violence and reshape the structures facilitating it.

By defining the debate in terms of national security and working for greater participation of women in the security sector, UNSCR 1325’s influence is leading governments and international organisations, including U.N. Women, astray. It is incumbent on civil society stakeholders to argue for an alternative framing.

What women need is not a token seat at the table, but rather a chance to offer real input in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. We need our values and experiences to be heard to dismantle the structures of oppression and violence that leave us uniquely vulnerable. This means a commitment to disarmament, demilitarisation, war crimes accountability, human rights and dignity, livelihood assistance, land rights, cultural rights, inheritance and divorce reforms, and lasting efforts to repair war-torn societies and elevate them to a place better than before. It is in shaping this process that women need to be heard.

How do I know I’m right? Twenty years after UNSCR 1325, impunity persists for sexual and gender-based violence. Even as women have joined peacekeeping ranks in greater numbers, reports of rape and sexual violence against U.N. peacekeeping forces and state security personnel persist. Well-qualified women are encouraged to enter politics, but when they do, they are mocked, their good intentions questioned, and they are distracted in the fight against the same patriarchal, discriminatory, and sometimes militarised structures their presence in politics seeks to change.

What gains are we making in addressing the problems that UNSCR 1325 sought to correct? If we take an honest assessment, it is clear we need a better path forward, one that actually considers women’s perspectives in peacebuilding rather than treating them as placeholders in the same flawed approach.

Shreen Saroor is a human rights activist.


Enhancing the capacity of women to engage in peace processes

International agreements have been in place since 2000 to strengthen women’s inclusion in peace processes, yet women continue to be excluded from peace-building processes at all levels and their needs often go unaddressed.