Twenty Years Later, a Challenge
By Kirthi Jayakumar
A strange, unnerving turn of events – to put it mildly – brought about by COVID-19 has created a massive socio-political and economic upheaval globally. From tight lockdowns to feminist economic recovery plans, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has had governments thinking on its feet. Several swathes of population groups were forced to bear the heaviest brunt of measures imposed in a one-size-fits-all fashion, of which women and non-binary persons are among the most vulnerable.
Among the several the challenges as a result of COVID-19 and measures in response to the spread of the disease, is a challenge to the Women Peace and Security Agenda, which marks its 20th Anniversary in October this year. The ten-resolution driven agenda aims at the protection of women and girls from sexual violence in times of armed conflict, and the inclusion of women through the promotion of their equal and full participation in peace processes. In spite of its successes, inadequacies, and challenges in implementation, COVID-19 has been one of the more significant challenges for the agenda.
In the name of national emergency
The imposition of lockdowns world over have paved the way for increased instances of domestic violence and gender-based violence. The invocation of emergency powers in several countries in South East Asia and the reliance on security-centric responses to control the spread of the pandemic have caused adverse impacts on peace and security. In some regions, violent conflict has been exacerbated.
For example, in several parts of the Asia-Pacific region, there have been military checkpoints, closed borders, and restrictions on citizen movement. These measures have been implemented by male political leaders and security sector staff, without including women in the process as stakeholders and leaders. The UN Women reported has that in Malaysiathe military has been relied on to enforce orders controlling the movement of people, in Singapore, those with COVID-19 remain under military surveillance, while in Thailand, there are strict censorship laws on what may and may not be published. In the Philippines, there are reports on how the police have been demanding sexual favours in exchange for the freedom of movement of women.
Conflict and communal tensions have also been exacerbated because of COVID-19. For example, in Sri Lanka, the pandemic has augmented ethnic and religious tensions. while in Myanmarand Syria, there is an increased risk of conflict escalation because of the pandemic. In India, one of the strictest lockdowns resulted in a massive migrant crisis, and in adverse impacts on women and non-binary persons. The escalation of violence by the Taliban and the derailment of the peace process in Afghanistanpresents the possibility of a dangerous spiral replacing what may have been a good opportunity for women to participate in the peace process. Israelhas been gearing up to advancing its sovereign control over the West Bank from July 1 this year.
Globally, there has been a massive rise in the number of instances of domestic and gender-based violence as a result of the lockdowns. There is also a rise in police brutality globally, with security sector agencies turning against citizens with brutal violence.
Re-examining the WPS Agenda
In the words it uses, one may easily find that the WPS agenda does not address structural violence or the peacetime-wartime continuum and the occurrence of violence across the board, and that it tends to limit the understanding of gender to women’s experiences alone. However, the very essence of the resolutions lies in the fact that it can serve as a powerful tool to bring change. At its root, the WPS agenda offers a transformative tool to also serve the larger goal for mobilizing for peace through inclusion.
The COVID-19 crisis throws a major challenge to the global economy, society, and polity all at once, especially when viewed from a gender lens. Even as women-led governments are successfully leading the way in COVID response, these measures are being essentialized to their identities as women. Very few lockdown policies have comprehensively addressed the prevalence of structural as well as overt domestic violence against women and non-binary persons. Survivor helplines receive heightened calls – but few have the infrastructure or even the means to provide support to survivors. The need to maintain physical distance to avoid contamination from the virus makes the task of reporting domestic violence and seeking help a difficult leap of faith to make. Shelters are either not functioning or are functioning at limited capacity and cannot accommodate survivors. Even as Resolution 2177 (not within the scope of the WPS Agenda) has called for responses to disease outbreaks to be inclusive of all particular needs and challenges faced by women, very few governments hold themselves to the standard of inclusion they should be adhering to. But when structures themselves are relying on brute force and militarized security approaches, it is hard to find room for political and social empathy for the needs of survivors of gender-based violence. The limitation of the WPS agenda to the binary of treating women as victims and men as perpetrators also serves as a restriction on the acknowledgment and addressing of the needs of male and non-binary survivors of sexual violence and violence at the hand of the security sector.
The pandemic has exposed fractures in the socio-political set up, particularly when it comes to protecting vulnerable people, their rights, and their freedom against sexual violence. It is necessary to hold nations accountable for their non-adherence to the WPS Agenda – especially given that by Articles 24 and 25 of the UN Charter, states are legally bound to obey resolutions adopted by the Security Council. The many crises unfolding within the COVID-19 context – especially those involving violence targeting vulnerable populations – all present pressing concerns that structure has either ignored or has allowed to continue unabashed. It is necessary for a global political introspection to examine ways to operationalize the values of the WPS Agenda, and to prioritize addressing needs of populations that are at risk of and/or vulnerable to sexual violence, especially in times of emergency.