Frustrating anniversaries: International Women's Day and international action on women, peace, and security

By Melissa Guinan:

Radhika Coomaraswamy, lead author of the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325
Radhika Coomaraswamy, lead author of the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325

Each year around March 8, International Women’s Day, op-ed pages and Twitter streams burst with celebrations of women’s achievements, calls to action on women’s rights and gender equality. This year, speeches and reports gave a nod to two important anniversaries in 2015: the twentieth anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women and Beijing Platform for Action, and the fifteenth anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), the international agreements that formed the basis of work in gender and security policy. But on a day of rhetoric about the great strides made for women’s rights, we need to take a moment to examine where rhetoric takes the place of action.

In 1995, the 4th World Conference on Women held brought the attention of international leaders to the impact of conflict on women. The resulting Beijing Platform for Action includes a section which affirms that “violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law” among an ambitious set of goals on education, poverty, health, and political power. This article will focus on the peace and security aspects of the Platform for Action, which were affirmed with the passage of UNSCR 1325 in 2000. This resolution aimed to mitigate the effects of conflict on women and promote their inclusion in all efforts in peace and security. In the mid-2000s, some governments, often after tireless lobbying from civil society groups, began creating National Action Plans (NAPs) as a way to unify national efforts on women, peace, and security issues.

By the late 2000s it was clear that the diplomatic efforts and NAPs lacked energetic implementation, and the Security Council passed six additional resolutions on women, peace, and security (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122). Activists worried that each subsequent resolution, accompanied by little substantive change, were only diluting international commitments. They had succeeded in getting the topic on agendas, but was that enough?

Despite many improvements, and the brave work of civil society and involved policymakers, the situation for women around the world falls way behind the hopes of the international community. Women represent less than 4% of the participants in peace negotiations.[1] Twenty-two years after the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner.[2] Women are underrepresented in the halls of power in security policy and according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, hold only 21.8% of parliamentary seats worldwide.

Activists and gender champions – influential policy makers who understand and promote the nexus between gender equality and safe, thriving societies – work tirelessly in a system where issues of gender equality often remain at the margins, as a paragraph in an international agreement, or a diplomatic statement. Each milestone comes about in an environment where, too often, gender concerns remain “ad hoc, dependent of a few committed individuals or small-scale units. Women are still an afterthought in many instances… the feel-good project to make donors and diplomats look good. A box to be ticked, a meeting to be had, a paragraph to be written.”[3]

Typically, anniversaries are a moment to celebrate or remember. But in this year, advocates and policy makers are holding up past commitments and demanding more. Recently, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka wrote:

“Looking today at the slow and patchy progress towards equality, it seems that we were madly ambitious to expect to wipe out in 20 years a regime of gender inequality and outright oppression that had lasted in some cases for thousands of years. Then again – was it really so much to ask? What sort of world is it that condemns half its population to second-class status at best and outright slavery at worst? How much would it really cost to unlock the potential of the world’s women? And how much could have been gained! If world leaders really saw the Beijing Platform for Action as an investment in their countries’ future, why didn’t they follow through?”

Frustration at the inefficacy of efforts for gender quality is logical: international actors are treating at the margins a stated goal that can only be achieved by comprehensive and societal level change. Six structural barriers are impeding arguments and efforts for gender equality, particularly in peace and security issues:

First, it is much easier to give lip service to women’s issues as a public diplomacy project than it is to take action. Governments and policymakers can point to UN resolutions, national action plans, and the diplomatese of “reaffirming,” “recognizing the need,” and “welcoming” action without ever spending the resources and political capital – and while avoiding the inconvenient domestic realities of persistent gender inequality and violence against women.

Second, such a pervasive inequality requires a comprehensive solution, a challenge in any sphere of the policy world. The issues around gender by definition touch on almost everything in society, from sexual and gender based violence to media representation, and from girls’ education to the number of female CEOs. Even in the security field, UNSR 1325 covers the wide range of prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery. While the creation of gender advisor positions and pinpointed efforts like the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative are impressive initial efforts, governments are challenged to face broad policy questions with comprehensive answers.

Third, funding challenges plague good faith efforts. According to the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s March 2015 report on UNSCR 1325 implementation, with the exception of the Netherlands, no National Action Plans include commitments to dedicated budget allocations. NATO’s action on UNSCR 1325, which it has stated is a priority, relies on member state donations in a political and fiscal environment in which most allies fail to meet defence spending goals of 2% of GDP. If funding remains ad hoc throughout governments and institutions, so too will action.

Fourth, empirical data lags behind diplomatic efforts. There is growing recognition that “rather than an exercise in political correctness, the integration of gender issues is being recognised as a key to operational effectiveness, local ownership and strengthened oversight,”[4] but only a small collection of quantitative studies exist to help convince sceptics. The academic literature on the issue “remains on the margins of the international security studies field and suffers from the lack of good empirical data” whether because much of the material is “anecdotal and lacks a systemic and analytical focus” or because existing data is not disaggregated by gender.[5] Researchers are actively addressing this problem, but improved data collection and analysis necessarily will take years.

Fifth, gender inequality persists even within societies and institutions working globally for equality. Women are underrepresented at almost all levels of domestic and international security policy making, a crisis of participation felt even more severely by women from the developing world, minority women, and the LGBTQI community. Activists and policy makers face a paradox of how to work within the current foreign policy and national security system to affect change, while understanding that a truly comprehensive approach to gender equality might just transform how policy making is conducted.

Finally, there is no enforcement mechanism to make nations act on any of their commitments for gender equality. Member states are bound to UNSCR 1325 only by Article 25 of the UN Charter, which says that states need to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council. In the peace and security field, normative goals like gender equality will fall behind geostrategic concerns and security crises in a battle for attention, resources, and political capital.

Because of these six structural barriers, policymakers mark another anniversary having made great gains in getting women, peace and security issues on the agenda, but with much still to be done. This year they will again revisit the 1995 and 2000 agreements, with an implementation report on the Beijing Platform for Action released in December 2014 and an upcoming High Level Review to assess implementation of UNSCR 1325. At the September 2014 launch of a Global Study project to support the High Level Review, UN Women’s Mlambo-Ngcuka was hopeful but realistic, stating that “too often, policy gains, rather than real impact, has been our indicator of success. This must change. We must take stock, and ensure that plans are action-oriented and adequately funded. Simply put, we need more results for women and girls.”

Similarly, the key challenge from the frustrating anniversaries of 2015 will be to the international community to decide if it is truly committed to the cause of women and girls and to translate a diplomatically invested norm into real global change. Faced with structural and societal barriers, any action will require significant political investment. As Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said at a March 3 speech on UNSCR 1325, “ultimately, what it takes is political will. No matter how many documents we sign. If the will to act is not there, we will not move forward.”

Melissa Guinan is a 2014-2015 Fulbright-Schuman Scholar currently in residence at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame (USA), and former program officer at The Chicago Council on Global affairs, she is a member of Women in International Security, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and Women in War and International Politics (WIWIP) based out of King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @MelissaGuinan.


[1] GIZ, “Promoting Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and Peace Processes” (2014)

[2] World Health Organization, “Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women” (Geneva, undated)

[3] Sanam Anderlini. Women Building Peace: What They Do, Why It Matters (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Pub, 2007), 230.

[4] Kristin Valasek, “Security Sector Reform and Gender” (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2008).

[5] Kathleen Kuehnast, Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, and Helga Hernes, eds. Women and War: Power and Protection in the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2011), 2-6.

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