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Women Have a Key Role in Peace & Security. Yet Most Nations Overlook Them in Foreign Policy

Margot Wallström (left), Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. Photo: Reuters

Margot Wallström (left), Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. Photo: Reuters

Many argue that gender-balanced peace proposals could be more successful in conflict resolution. Indeed, gender imbalance could itself be a source of conflict.

Gender has an important role in peace and security, but this is hardly given the importance it deserves in policy conversations. Gender conversations are often seen as side-tracking the core issues of international security and great power competition. But there does not have to be a contradiction between the two. There is a good case to be made for a more gender-sensitive foreign policy.

One indicator of how a society is faring on gender equality is the number of women in leadership positions, particularly in areas that have generally had a poor record in equitable gender representation, such as in security departments or even in the academic study of security, where representation of women is pretty slim even in developed societies. On the other hand, many have suggested that giving greater representation to and empowering women could produce alternate approaches to dealing with issues of international security. Many also argue that gender-balanced peace proposals could be more successful in dealing with conflict resolution. Indeed, gender imbalance could itself be a source of conflict. In addition to the moral issues in leaving women out of consideration when discussing issues that directly impact them, there is also the rational problem of under-utilising half the population.

Resolution UNSCR 1325

While the situation has improved considerably over the decades, there is still a long way to go. The UN Security Council passed a resolution (UNSCR 1325) in October 2000 stressing the obvious links between gender equality and peace and security. UNSCR 1325 is an important measure that has the potential to enhance the role of women in peace and security. The resolution encompasses all aspects of conflict resolution including prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, and countering gender-based violence, especially rape and other types of sexual abuse during conflict. The resolution highlights “the importance of their [women’s] equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace security.”

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Additional efforts including several resolutions in the UN focusing on the role of women in peace and security have been passed, with each of them pushing states and multilateral institutions to foster greater gender-sensitivity, and framing approaches and policies that would strengthen the role of women in peace and security affairs. But more than 20 years later, there are many countries including India that are yet to develop a National Action Plan. In countries like India, women have made a distinct contribution to India’s UN Peacekeeping agenda, which is one of the concrete agendas contained in UNSCR 1325, yet New Delhi does not still have a national action plan.

Thus, despite all the resolutions and anniversary celebrations of the UNSCR 1325, it has been a painstakingly slow journey. Nevertheless, there are some positive signs. There are a handful of states, especially Mexico, that has become a model for many in the Global South in pursuing a feminist foreign policy agenda. In January 2020, Mexico became the first country from the Global South to adopt a feminist foreign policy, which is a remarkable achievement.

In countries like India, women have made a distinct contribution to India’s UN Peacekeeping agenda, which is one of the concrete agendas contained in UNSCR 1325, yet New Delhi does not still have a national action plan.

According to the official press release, the new approach will place gender at the centre of Mexico’s international engagement. This approach, in line with the Mexican government’s policy, will seek “to reduce and eliminate structural differences, gender gaps and inequalities.” This further translates to Mexico pursuing five key principles, “a foreign policy with a gender perspective and feminist agenda abroad; a Foreign Ministry with gender parity; a Foreign Ministry that is free of violence and safe for all; visible equality of women in the Foreign Ministry; and feminism within all areas of the Foreign Ministry.” Such clear policy articulations can be expected to be more sensitive while addressing a number of issues including the peace and security agenda.

But the problem is that we are still talking about a handful of countries. Sweden was the first country to come up with a feminist foreign policy approach, which it said will be driven around three Rs: Rights, Representation, and Resources. Explaining the three Rs, Margot Wallström, Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, articulated the importance of women to “have the same legal and human rights in every country”. It is equally important to check what kind of representation women have “where the important decisions are being made.” Finally on the question of resources, the Former Minister asked if the country has “a gender budgeting” and if the “needs of girls and women” are met.

Sweden has been one of the few voices seeking bigger representation of women in every multilateral platform. It is important to stress the inclusion of women’s issues in discussions at the national and international levels and ensure that women are appropriately represented in all decision-making bodies. Sweden has also made the case, on multiple occasions, to include sexual violence as a major issue. As Sweden has argued, factoring in women’s issues in multilateral agenda will not happen on its own, but needs to be consistently pushed. These have not become normal practices yet and so having women in these multilateral and national platforms and seeking discussions on issues that affect half the population are still very important in shaping an inclusive agenda for the future.

The other two countries that have adopted a feminist foreign policy approach are Canada and France. Canada came out with its new policy approach in 2017. Enunciating the new approach, the Canadian Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, said that Canada’s approach “targets gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls… [thus] positioning Canada at the forefront of this global effort. This is a matter of basic justice and also basic economics.” With the goal of pursuing a feminist diplomacy, France announced in 2019 that gender equality will remain a priority for France.

This still means that there are less than ten countries which have demonstrated their commitment to a gendered approach, a framework that would help in seeing greater participation of women in governance issues such as economic and developmental policies, health policies, as well as security decision-making.

Though there are only a handful of states developing a feminist approach to peace and security, their effort is important because it might influence other states to pursue the same. It is also important to see how these states are able to translate their noble goals into actionable agenda both at the national and international platforms. It is still not clear how a feminist agenda affects multilateral diplomacy and international security. But that there are even a handful of women leading such policy questions is significant. And irrespective of how effective women are in bringing peace and stability, it is far more important for them to have their voices heard, and their perspectives taken into account.

The Pandemic and Women

These issues have become ever more important at a time when the world is suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exposed serious flaws in our existing institutions and mechanisms. What stands out is that once again, as in times of conflict and war, gender inequalities have worsened, with women bearing a disproportional share of the burden. It is important that we address gender issues because if societies are planning for fundamental reforms to avoiding repeating the mistakes in dealing with the pandemic, the inequalities and inadequacies in gender representation need to be addressed.

A feminist foreign policy approach could be useful in addressing issues that are key to women and enhancing the position of women in global and national platforms. This could bring greater pressure to bear on states to perform better, not just in making commitments but in delivering them as well. Such pressure is important because states would like to be seen as championing women’s cause. International normative pressure could thus play an important role in pushing states to pursue such an agenda more seriously. So, the demonstration effect of these issues being discussed at the international level is significant.

Thus, a more gender-sensitive foreign policy approach could create viable space for women in decision-making spaces, which could aid better representation and provide voice to those who have been on the margins. On the ground, this would mean creating an enabling environment that can facilitate broader, comprehensive approaches, innovative thinking, fostering diversity and balance, and embracing inclusion. This approach needs to evolve and develop certain standards at the global level that could make states more accountable to their commitments. These are not easy, and one can just look at the UNSCR 1325 compliance requirements. We still have quite some distance to travel.

This article was first published on ORF.

Disclaimer:Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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first published:July 03, 2021, 10:59 IST