The COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in lockdowns that have led to a global surge in incidents of gender-based violence, has underscored the need for a much broader understanding of what defines security, according to Jacqueline O’Neill, Canada’s first ambassador for Women, Peace and Security (WPS).

Hundreds of women join in a march ahead of Liberia’s presidential election, in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 9, 2017. (Jane Hahn/The New York Times)
Hundreds of women join in a march ahead of Liberia’s presidential election, in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 9, 2017. (Jane Hahn/The New York Times)

Noting that the pandemic has shown the importance of the work that has been done for decades by WPS advocates, O’Neill said: “That’s what this work is all about. It is recognizing that all of the guns and tanks in the world are powerless in the face of a disease and weak health systems, of big portions of populations facing violence in their own homes committed by intimate partners, and much more.”

O’Neill delivered pre-recorded remarks at an online event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security (U.S. CSWG) on October 20. The event marked the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution, adopted on October 31, 2000, represented the first time that the Security Council had addressed the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls. The resolution also recognized the critical role women can, and do, play in peacebuilding.

“COVID shows us that our definition of security is much more relevant,” said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a member of the U.S. CSWG. “If we are spending $880 million on a hypersonic drone and we don’t have PPE [personal protective equipment] and masks, there is something wrong in our country and elsewhere,” she added.

Anderlini participated in a panel discussion with Rita M. Lopidia, executive director and cofounder of Eve Organization for Women Development; and Bonnie Jenkins, founder and president of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation. Kathleen Kuehnast, director, Gender Policy and Strategy at USIP, moderated the discussion.

Despite UNSCR 1325, Kuehnast observed, “women remain undervalued in peacebuilding … and seriously underrepresented in peace processes;” while Anderlini contended women “have always been central to war and peace, it’s just that they have been taken for granted.”

‘Windows for Change’

Amid the pandemic, O’Neill finds reason for optimism. “The pandemic is creating windows for change,” she said. She sees potential for a lot more nuance on gender-related issues. For this, she said, “we need much more nuanced data because ultimately we need much more nuanced policy solutions.” Moreover, she added, there are now significantly more conversations about power and inequality, and young people have higher expectations of their governments.

Describing the pandemic as a “transformative moment” that has shown the critical role women are playing as first responders to the global health crisis, Anderlini said: “We have the answers, we have the precedent. It is just now putting that precedent of good practice to make it standard operating practice as opposed to reverting back to exclusion being the norm.”

Resolution 1325

Anderlini helped craft UNSCR 1325. She believes that 20 years since it was adopted, the reason the WPS agenda remains relevant is that there is a “universality of experience.”

The Security Council “sparked a global policy revolution” with UNSCR 1325, said Kuehnast. The resolution “laid a foundation for government and also civil society to place women at the center of peace processes, and as essential builders of peace,” she explained.

O’Neill admitted being struck by the fact that UNSCR 1325 has been translated into more than 100 languages often by female peacebuilders. But despite the growing work around WPS, “We are still not seeing the changes we need in terms of investment in prevention, impacts on peace processes themselves, and justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and so much more,” she said.

Citing the example of Afghanistan, where the future of women’s rights hangs in the balance as peace talks with the Taliban proceed in fits and starts, O’Neill said Afghan women are still struggling for significant and direct representation in the negotiations.

Lopidia, who participated in the conversation from Juba, South Sudan, recalled her own experience navigating war while working to build peace. She described being inspired by UNSCR 1325. “It was the wow moment for us,” she said of the time she learned about the resolution. “We ran with the resolution, mobilizing women to participate in the elections, in the census, as well as in the referendum of South Sudan,” she said. Lopidia is the recipient of the 2020 USIP Women Building Peace Award, which honors the inspiring work of women peacebuilders.

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, Lopidia was full of optimism for the future of her young country. That optimism was quickly dashed as South Sudan slid back into a familiar cycle of conflict. Lopidia used UNSCR 1325 to advocate for women in the peace process. “We had a plan A and a plan B,” she said. “Plan A was basically if things work well these are the priorities of women: to ensure women participate, the issue of transitional justice, the issue of protection of women, and reparations for women. But if it doesn’t work then we have to up our game on advocacy.”

Eventually, and as a consequence of the work of organizations like Lopidia’s, women in South Sudan were able to participate in peace negotiations and their rights were reflected in the peace agreement. “All this we were able to do because we used the resolution as an advocacy tool,” Lopidia said. But she noted with dismay the lack of political will to build on these gains.

A Raft of Challenges

O’Neill ticked off a list of challenges presently facing the world: the rise of authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism; strongmen exploiting the pandemic to crack down on opponents and citizens’ rights; a regression of women’s rights; backlash toward gender equality; the rise of China; climate change; and cybersecurity threats.

“We are still, quite frankly, wasting our time still having to make the case that there are deeply gendered dimensions to those issues and that women need to play a direct and significant role in every aspect,” O’Neill said. 

Bonnie Jenkins, who is Black, said that early in her career she was struck by the lack of diversity in the policymaking community. “So many of the areas of peace and security affect women of color predominantly around the world and yet we were not at the table,” she said. This was the catalyst that led her to found the NGO Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation.

Women as Peacebuilders

Anderlini described female peacebuilders as “a community of practitioners” who “have the courage and the compassion to say ‘I have to talk to the other side. We have to find the humanity in each other even if they have been perceived or presented as the worst evil.’”

Women will go to any extent to further their goals for peace and justice, Anderlini said. She recalled how in Sierra Leone elderly women bared their buttocks to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels—an act that is considered a curse in West Africa—in an effort to convince them to move toward peace.

“Peace is not hard, war is hard,” said Anderlini. “Women constantly are trying to create normalcy … Our predisposition is to be peaceful and to try and coexist. And that’s what we should be elevating.”

Jenkins said it is equally important to acknowledge the role of women who are working on policies that promote peace and security.

Lopidia observed that it is women who bear the brunt of war. She cited experience of South Sudan where women have suffered the loss of male relatives, livelihoods, and homes as a consequence of war. “Women are peacebuilders because the consequences that come with conflicts are too huge,” she said.

Lopidia finds reason for hope in UNSCR 1325. “We have this resolution and it still gives us hope as women all over the world. We are able to connect with each other,” she explained. “We should continue with the exchanges and build on the women’s movement to bring change in the world.”

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