Twenty Years of the ‘Participation Pillar’ in the Women’s Peace and Security Agenda by Katrina Lee-Koo

by Katrina Lee-Koo

Presenting in Monash GPS and AMAN webinar session, 22 October 2020.

When I reflect on ‘the participation story’ over the past two decades of the UN’s Women’s Peace and Security agenda, I find it is a difficult one to tell.  It is impossible to offer a firm or linear account of efforts to ensure women’s meaningful participation in all areas of peace and security decision-making. Gains are often challenged by setbacks, and successes can sometimes be short-lived or difficult to consolidate. But here I’ll touch briefly on three areas where I think we’ve seen some important change.

The first area where we have seen greater sophistication across the WPS landscape is conceptual: what does the “full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all areas of peace and security decision-making” mean and how is it best pursued?  For a long time these were just words and the participation of women in formal peace processes was — at best — a tick-box exercise. For example, following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the formal peace process between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh movement failed to meaningfully embed women or women’s civil society in either the negotiations or the processes to design and implement the peace. This has arguably created a legacy of gender inequality and women’s exclusion from public decision-making.

Over the past decade we have seen thinking on women’s meaningful participation evolve in peace and security sectors.  This includes insistence by women’s civil society that women are not only present at sites of decision-making, but that they can be heard – they have the networks and support to represent women’s and other interests effectively, and their voices are necessary to inform decisions. There is also greater attentiveness to the barriers to women’s participation, including the structural, institutional, cultural, political and logistical barriers.  To some extent we have seen this in Myanmar’s peace process, where donor countries like Australia have actively sought to enhance women’s representation. But the current fragile negotiations between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban show that these gains are far from consolidated.

The second area where we have seen success in advancing women’s participation is in terms of research. Sadly, not everyone in the peace and security sector is persuaded by the justice argument that women’s participation is necessary because equal rights are important. Research and activism provides the tangible evidence of the impact that women’s participation has on peace and security.  It has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that women’s formal and informal participation in communities, policy processes, and governance structures has a positive impact on peace and security.  It increases the likelihood of strong peace agreements, and of those peace agreements being gender inclusive. Women’s leadership plays a substantial and active role in the prevention of violence and reignition of conflict. And the inclusion of women’s knowledge, voices and experiences helps communities prepare for, and recover from crisis.  Because of this growing body of research, the notion that women’s participation brings peace is not a catchphrase, it is a demonstrable fact.

Finally, we have seen some advancement in terms of the practice of women’s participation. We have seen institutionalised commitments to women’s participation through national action plans, the introduction of quotas for women in the security sector, and commitments by states to the inclusion of women’s civil society in policy consultation and implementation.  For instance, the UN has established ten-year targets for the inclusion of uniformed women in peacekeeping operations based on the understanding that an inclusive force improves operational outcomes and is more reflective of the communities it serves.

While this reflects just some of positive accounts of participation in the WPS agenda, there needs to vigilance to protect these gains and agitate further.  While there are many positive stories to tell, progress is too slow, too uneven, and there are many potholes along the way.  Broadly, we are seeing a general shrinking of civil society spaces in our region, especially for women’s groups around issues including SRHR.  We are also seeing a decrease in aid funding around the world, which is undermining women’s work, and a rise in populism and conservatism worldwide that is undermining women’s gains.

This means that while 2020 is certainly a milestone for WPS and an opportunity to pause and reflect, it is in no way reason for celebration. The next decade requires efforts that secure the inclusion of diverse groups of women, particularly under-represented women in all areas of peace and security decision-making.  Let’s hope that, in twenty years’ time, we can end our activism for women’s meaningful participation because it has become both routine and unquestioned.