The three key challenges facing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda
Updated: Oct 22
Dr. Laura Shepherd and Dr. Caitlin Hamilton
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In 2000, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1325, often described as a ‘landmark’ resolution on gender and conflict. Since then, the Council has adopted a further nine resolutions, for a total of 10 WPS resolutions (with an eleventh expected soon) in the architecture of what has become known as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS) agenda. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the agenda. There will be an event at the UN in New York this month, at which UN member states and entities will reflect on where there has been progress in implementing the provisions of the various resolutions, and where progress is lacking. Here, we reflect on some of the key challenges the agenda is currently facing.
Challenge 1: Funding
Funding has always been a problematic aspect of the WPS agenda and the funding situation is generally woeful. The lack of predictable and sustainable funding represents a significant obstacle when it comes to implementing the WPS agenda.
One way to illustrate this challenge is through an examination of National Action Plans (NAPs). NAPs are a way for states to take the big ideas from the WPS Agenda and put them into a domestic context. Nearly half of the member states of the UN have released a NAP over the past fifteen years (there are 83 at the time of writing); some states, like Norway and the UK, are onto their third or fourth NAP.
We went through all of the National Action Plans, and analysed the budgets that governments were setting out in relation to implementing the NAPs.What we found is that most NAPs have either no or very little specific information about on how the WPS activities are going to be funded.
To translate this graph, ‘0’ means there was no mention of a budget at all; a ‘1’ means that a budget is vaguely gestured at but there is no specification – so, for example, where the activities are to be done under existing budgets in a particular government department. We can see here that, overwhelmingly, NAPs make very little reference to how the WPS activities they contain will be funded.
Essentially, when it comes to funding, there’s not enough of it and the flows of funding that do exist have their own politics that we need to be aware of: according to the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders’ research on NAP financing, “research conducted by GNWP and Cordaid showed that many governments finance the implementation of their NAPs based on shifting national priorities and do not fund all pillars equally or adequately”.
Challenge 2: Civil society and care labour
A second challenge is the extent to which civil society’s care labour sustains the WPS Agenda. This underpins another project that we are working on, which explores the idea that civil society is so un(der)funded that states and the UN rely on the goodwill or passion of people working in this space to make the WPS agenda a reality (keeping in mind that when we talk about a civil society organisation, in many, many cases, we’re actually just talking about a small group of two or three people). Drawing on insights from feminist international political economy, we label these activities the ‘care labour’ of the WPS agenda.
One of our preliminary findings from this research concerns the professionalisation of the WPS space. This is promising in many ways: it makes for more effective and more efficient mobilisation and engagement; it can create a more cohesive approach to lobbying; and it might make civil society more attractive in terms of recruiting talented people. But these processes have also created inequalities and hierarchies: some civil society organisations have the resources, expertise and voice to make them very effective in bidding for funding. Because most of these kinds of organisations are located in the global north, one consequence of the professionalisation of this space is it risks funding for WPS activities either flowing to global minority organisations or flowing through global minority organisations – which then has flow-on consequences in terms of who gets to shape the agenda, whose voices get heard, and whose work is recognised and valued.
For these reasons, our research has identified a great deal of burnout and disillusionment in the civil society sector. Thinking about conflict and violence every day takes a toll; doing WPS work while stakeholders are expecting more and more, while the agenda proliferates to include a greater number of issues, and while you’re not being paid or not being paid very much at all, can be exhausting if not debilitating.
Challenge 3: The 2019 resolutions
The third challenge relates to the two resolutions that the UN’s Security Council passed last year: resolutions 2467 and 2493.
The Security Council usually holds an Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict, under the auspices of the WPS agenda, in April each year. In April 2019, Germany – the then-President of the Security Council – was very keen to pass a resolution on sexual violence. The draft resolution that was circulated (known as a “zero draft”) was concerned with establishing a legal recognition of the needs of victims of sexual violence in conflict contexts (such as effective justice processes and reparations).
The zero draft very reasonably referred to women’s “sexual and reproductive health” (SRH), a category which includes access to emergency contraception and HIV prevention and treatment, among other things. Ensuring SRH for women is a key aspect of protecting women’s rights, especially in the context of sexual violence. The Trump administration, however, objected strenuously to any mention of SRH rights, and threatened to veto the resolution if that language stayed in. As a result, the references to “sexual and reproductive health” disappeared in later drafts, in order to avoid the US veto. In the end, resolution 2467 passed with the US vote along with twelve of the other members of the Security Council, while Russia and China abstained – coming at a significant cost to those needing access to SRH services, as well as to the WPS agenda more broadly.
In October every year, the Council holds the annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security. In 2019, the Debate was marked by the adoption of resolution 2493. This resolution was led by South Africa, which held the Presidency in October, and required so much negotiation that very little of substance remained. The issues around the “full” implementation of the Agenda arose again, where ‘full’ was interpreted by the US representatives to mean the inclusion of SRH rights and provisions.
Further, there were objections to the language around women’s human rights defenders. The work of women’s human rights defenders can be very dangerous, and often makes these people (and their families) targets for attack, with the goal of dissuading these people from doing this work. The protection mechanisms that are in place are patchy and ineffective at best – and at worst, they simply don’t exist. Given the current climate in particular surrounding women’s rights, women’s human rights defenders working on WPS issues are particularly at risk.
In the negotiations, however, China and Russia took against the explicit language of “women human rights defenders”: Russian representatives indicated that they felt it overstepped the mandate of the Security Council; and Chinese officials indicated that civil society effectively had to step in line with the state. In the end, the specific wording of “women human rights defenders” was left out, and the final, adopted part now reads:
“encourages Member States to create safe and enabling environments for civil society, including formal and informal community women leaders, women peacebuilders, political actors, and those who protect and promote human rights, to carry out their work independently and without undue interference, including in situations of armed conflict, and to address threats, harassment, violence and hate speech against them”
In order to give full and meaningful realisation to the WPS Agenda, states need to fight for the people who fight for women’s rights – broadly defined. Plain and simple.
We now have the resolutions and the broad statements of support. But when it comes to a tangible investment by way of adequate resources and on-the-ground implementation of the agenda, states don’t seem to be able to muster up the same level of determination or commitment. The international community has spent the past twenty years telling the world how much women matter to conflict prevention and post-conflict rebuilding. Let us not enter the next decade of the agenda with no more than idle platitudes and empty promises.
About the Authors
Dr Caitlin Hamilton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Gender, Justice and Security at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include the WPS agenda, everyday world politics, and innovative approaches to methods and methodology.
Dr Laura J. Shepherd is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney. She is currently co-Director of the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. Her primary field of research relates to the development and implementation of the WPS agenda.