• The Gender Security Project

Twenty Years of the WPS Agenda: Doing Foreign Policy with Feminist Norms

By Sahana Dharmapuri, Director, Our Secure Future



Image credit: CLIO Visualizing History (Link)


Dear Reader,

I was asked to write about the 20th anniversary of WPS and how much we’ve accomplished. I thought an examination of what hasn’t happened might be a place to start, but then I remembered this story, which is pre-pandemic, and actually brings to light something very special about the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda—its success in establishing the policy framework and tools of a feminist foreign policy.

Let me set the scene for you in the Fall of 2019. I was attending a security conference at one of those non-descript hotel convening rooms where people come from military institutions all over to share their work and ideas. I was asked to speak about teaching Women, Peace and Security. My co-panelist was a male professor from a military academic institution. In typical fashion, our panel on “women” drew an audience of mostly women and a handful of men. All were from military institutions. I recognized many of them as colleagues and gender advisors who work on Women, Peace and Security as their full-time job.

I began first. I gave my talk and stuck to my script. I have been giving talks to military audiences for quite some time on gender equality and WPS, so I have made an effort to learn their language. For example, when prefacing my work on Women, Peace and Security, I don’t say “Women, Peace and Security is about gender equality.” I start with, “Women, Peace and Security increases the operational effectiveness of missions.” Both statements are true. One just works better with a military audience. Or so I thought.

When my co-panelist gave his presentation about diversity and retention practices in the military, I almost couldn’t believe my ears. Here was a former Marine, a career military officer and professor at a highly respected war-fighting institution using the words, “intersectional examination” and “gender analysis” and…the F-word… “feminism.” And, to my utter surprise, all the heads in the room were nodding their assent.

WHAT?!, I thought. This is AMAZING. Never in a million years would I have believed that I would be the one speaker with the words “operational effectiveness” coming out of my mouth at the same time a dyed-in-the-wool military man would be saying “intersectionality” right next to me! And that we both would be discussing using a gender analysis! In the military!

Well, Francis (Fukuyama), you were wrong. Women and men are not damned to behave like chimpanzees on the geopolitical stage. Humans can change. And they regularly do. That is what socially constructed gender roles are all about. And this has a big impact on the way we view security, both of the individual and of the state.

So, if you want to know how much Women, Peace and Security has changed the field of security and foreign policy in the past two decades I think my personal anecdote is a good indicator.

One only has to look at how much the field has incorporated some key feminist concepts and practices into their daily work and language, to see that world affairs—and the people who run them—are starting to change in ways we can’t imagine, don’t expect, and are still invisible to us. But they ARE feminist transformations in the making.

To be clear, the contributions of Women, Peace and Security to international relations so far, do not lie in counting the number or percentage increase of female peacekeepers, or female negotiators—although these are milestones and important goals to have. The real contributions of the Women, Peace and Security agenda for the past twenty years is that it has allowed more policymakers and practitioners to examine and question unequal power structures—and change them from the inside out.

Twenty years of security transformation is evident in international structural change globally. For example:

1) The increased use and application of a gender perspective in foreign policy decision-making globally by international, national, multilateral and regional institutions and instruments of foreign policy;

2) The increased attention and support for more women in key decision-making roles within diplomacy, defense and development policy machinery; and

3) The increased adoption of feminist foreign policy tools by State actors, such as adopting National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security, and changing military command structures to incorporate Military Gender Advisors at the Strategic, Operational and Tactical levels.

Multilateral and state institutions that promote foreign aid, diplomacy and defense now require gender analysis to inform their strategic objectives, operational plans and policies, and the implementation of these policies and plans. Examples include everything from multilateral institution initiatives, like NATO’s adoption of a Women, Peace and Security mandate in 2009, to the US domestic adoption of a Women, Peace and Security Act in 2017. This law directly impacts US national security because it requires a gender lens and the increase in women’s participation in core national security institutions: defense, diplomacy and development.

As feminists pointed out even earlier than that, foreign policy, or state behavior, is a reflection of the humans that govern it: in this case, maximizing power by states is a state behavior when the state is run by men. WPS requires us to change that by including more women who can govern states, and a gender perspective in the mix. Over the past twenty years, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that this has been an unpopular project.

And yet, despite the odds, women leaders all over the world have stepped up even under the most daunting and dire circumstances. In 2020, we recognize the key roles women have played in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria, as well as in Burma and Belarus. As Belarus opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava, Afghan Mayor Zarifa Ghafari, or female Rohingya leaders can attest, these roles came with significant personal risk.

It is all well and good to include women in foreign policy decision-making at every level, however, does that really change the way decisions are made? Do the values, priorities, and processes for decision-making in foreign policy agenda change?

The answer is yes. Today, feminist foreign policy tools are in regular use by militaries and government institutions. What are these feminist foreign policy tools? Gender analysis, the employment of gender advisors in security decision-making, and the creation and implementation of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security.

The WPS mandates to apply a gender analysis to security threats and risks because it is not a rigid policy mechanism but instead WPS is a tool to view policy formulation critically and to implement it more effectively. Using the critical eye of a gender analysis, policymakers must learn to scrutinize destructive power hierarchies that they swim in institutionally and question everything from patriarchy to racism to militarism. Military personnel learning how to do a gender analysis learn to question everything, even militarism. A gender perspective provides both a critical analysis of security problems and transformative solutions that help to steer away from unintended negative consequences of decisions that do not include the needs and priorities of everyone affected.

Similarly, the addition of gender advisors within defense, diplomacy and development institutions has not only increased the effectiveness of peace support operations but also has broadened the umbrella of state security to include human security concerns. Today, Sweden, Ireland, South African, and other countries have Military Gender Advisors. In addition, the United States now supports Gender Advisors at the US Combat and Command Centers in its different regional theatres.

Perhaps one of the most unsung victories for feminist foreign policy is the adoption of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security by more than 80 countries in the world today. The concept of the National Action Plan actually originated from the feminist Betty Reardon, who proposed “People’s Action Plans” that would create a more inclusive and transparent security decision-making process by engaging civil society on matters of security. National Action Plans are the blueprint for any type of a feminist foreign policy because of what they focus on: the priorities reflect agenda setting by women-led peace organizations. And they provide feminist foreign policy a means to embed feminism into foreign policy institutions. This is reflected in how National Action Plans are created--not just that they exist. The great feminist innovation in foreign policy and security, is the creation of the process of decision-making based on consultations and regular dialogue with women-led civil society. Why? Because, the process to create a National Action Plan on WPS is a democratic, inclusive, non-violent, human-rights-based approach to domestic and international security.

Gender analysis, gender advisors, and inclusive processes like WPS National Action Plan formulation inform the structural power differences within established security institutions, in order to transform those power differences overtime. So much so, that eventually that system will pump out a red-blooded-war-fighter who can speak about intersectionality and diversity as key to national security interests without blushing, as I witnessed firsthand.

After twenty years, the real contribution of Women, Peace and Security agenda, and all those who have championed it, is the establishment of a feminist security framework on which our current debates about “What does a Feminist Foreign Policy Look Like” are based. Women, Peace and Security has changed both policy and practice. It has changed State normative behavior to actually take action to promote gender equality and it has changed State beliefs about the usefulness of equality between the sexes to the security interests of the State.

And the work has just begun.

I hope that someday I will be speaking about Women, Peace and Security where men and women fill the room, where conversations about equality and feminism are no longer about whether these are relevant concepts, but more about how we can solve geopolitical problems through dialogue and the protection of human rights.

In an age of flying cars, gene-editing to cure cancer, and the mining of the moon, I believe that Women, Peace and Security is one of our greatest foreign policy tools, and feminist legacies.

Today, we are not just thinking about how feminist ideals can be realized in foreign policy. We are doing foreign policy with feminist norms, thinking, and behavior because of Women, Peace and Security.


About the Author: Sahana Dharmapuri is the Director of Our Secure Future, a program of One Earth Future Foundation. From 2006-2016 she was an independent gender advisor on gender, peace, and security issues to USAID, NATO, The Swedish Armed Forces, the United States Institute for Peace, International Peace Institute, and other international development organizations. Ms. Dharmapuri was a writer-residence at the Carey Institute for Global Good (Winter 2016) where she completed her first book, Women, Peace & Security: 10 Things You Should Know. She was appointed a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (2011-2013) and she was an Investing in Women in Development Fellow at the United States Agency for International Development (2003-2005). She has published widely on Women, Peace and Security issues including with CNN, Christian Science Monitor, The Fletcher Security Review, Hedaya and The Center for Global Counter-Terrorism, Women’s E-News, Human Rights Quarterly, The Global Responsibility to Protect Journal, The Global Observatory, The Alliance for Peacebuilding Online Journal, the Louisiana Literature Review, The US Naval War College’s Women, Peace and Security monograph series, and Parameters: The Senior Professional Journal of the US Army. She received her Bachelor’s and two Master’s degrees from the University of Chicago.

© 2020 by The Gender Security Project