Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative
7 Stumbling Blocks to Meaningful Women’s Inclusion in Peace Processes:  A forward looking reading of the SG 2018 WPS report
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The UN Secretary-General (UNSG) presented his 2018 annual report on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 9th of October 2018. The report presents a radical call for action for the UN, regional organizations and its Member States to “walk the talk”, as the gap between normative frameworks and the reality of women’s inclusion in peace processes remains wide: in all major peace processes between 1990 and 2017, women made up only 2 percent of mediators, 8 percent of negotiators, and 5 per cent of witnesses and signatories. The SG stresses the need for the meaningful participation of women instead of tokenized inclusion.

For the first time the SG elaborates on what meaningful participation constitutes for the UN, then lists barriers to women’s inclusion, and relates barriers to the corresponding power structures (paragraphs 26-41). In sum, the SG 2018 WPS report is a critical document that is well worth a read! So what’s next? And particularly, how is the WPS community preparing for changes towards the 20th anniversary of UN SCR 1325 in 2020? 

The persistence of patriarchal attitudes and behaviors remains without a doubt the biggest stumbling block for change. That’s why the WPS community needs smart ways of pushing for change. With this observatory piece, I want to present some observations and suggestions as to why current strategies are not yet sufficiently effective to overcome the obstacles to progress.


1. Patriarchal perceptions are hard to counteract

The biggest stumbling block for women’s inclusion in peace processes is the persistence of patriarchal behaviors and perceptions of key protagonists. Put simply, patriarchy is hard to overcome and is seemingly unimpressed by norms and evidence. It is, therefore, worth asking how the WPS community can better counteract patriarchal structures and discourses in a smart and effective way. The SG states: ‘the exclusion of women is not about culture; it is about power’ (29). This is born out differently in different contexts.


2. Identifying the patriarchal backlash as a reality

There are a number of the arguments put forward to show or ‘prove’ that women’s inclusion in peace processes is just not so important at this time of the process: ‘Now it is about getting the armed parties to sign a ceasefire – no need to include other actors than the armed ones, women inclusion can come later.’ ‘There is not sufficient evidence that women inclusion really brings more peace’. ‘Women are not fit for purpose, i.e. they do not know enough about the subjects discussed at the table.‘ ‘ Women are not sufficiently representative’.

 Sound familiar? You will certainly be able to add a few more of your own…

These arguments are made by skeptical ‘supporters’ of the WPS agenda. Interestingly, these arguments are mostly not identified as patriarchal statements to counteract the WPS agenda, but are taken very seriously by the WPS community. The established normative frameworks and the fact that more than 50% of the population are women are seemingly not sufficient arguments to make WPS experts feel confident. Instead, “logical” counter-arguments are used such as: ‘We need to ask Envoys to consult with women’ – instead of demanding a 50% gender quota for all negotiation delegations; ‘We need more evidence’, instead of pointing to the bulk of existing evidence and acknowledging that the issue is obviously not the lack of evidence but the lack of political will and power dynamics. ‘We need to train the women’– i.e. the need to ‘fix’ the women, not patriarchy, as being the cause of the problem. This does not mean that women and men(!) would not profit from strategic and context-sensitive training. But there is no need for every woman involved in a peace process to become an expert in every possible subject. Instead, what is important for women is to better understand how to push for peace processes to succeed and how to push their way in rather than waiting to be invited.


 3. Invited versus claimed spaces; separate women’s spaces in peace negotiations 

In many UN-led peace processes in recent years, women’s inclusion has been characterized by prioritizing separate, women-specific tracks, advisory bodies, technical committees or consultations over the direct inclusion of women at the negotiation table or in key implementing bodies. This does not mean that women cannot be simultaneously included in multiple bodies and functions in a peace process; but this is not a replacement for direct equal participation. The SG confirms as much in his report: ‘In some cases, this has taken the form of parallel processes or advisory bodies that are unable to contribute to main processes and outcomes’ (29). An interesting observation arises from comparing current peace processes with older ones: Since the start of the push for women’s inclusion and the formation of separate women spaces, women’s organizations have put a lot of energy into filling these invited spaces, and seem to have been less active in claiming their direct representation at the negotiation table.


4. Overcoming conceptual confusion: What constitutes meaningful participation of women in peace processes?

The SG differentiates between gender parity, gender mainstreaming and meaningful participation and women’s influence throughout his report. This, in turn, means that the general – and thus unspecific – call for women’s inclusion is not helpful. Oftentimes, when lobbying for women’s inclusion occurs, it manifests itself as a conflated agenda that makes no distinction between different goals. A much clearer framing of what is meant by what would help to make women’s inclusion more real and understandable. Are we talking about women’s representation, gender mainstreaming or women’s influence on peace processes writ large? Whatever it is, each of these goals requires different strategies. For example, women’s representation can be achieved with a gender or inclusion quota across all bodies in a peace process – from negotiation delegations to consultative bodies or implementation bodies and constitutional commissions. Gender mainstreaming all outcome documents of a ceasefire or peace deal – as the Colombian case exemplifies – can be achieved with formally mandated gender commissions or gender focal points. Women’s influence over the peace process needs multiple strategies, ranging from discrete lobbying to presenting targeted proposals to mass action or campaigns.


5. Women’s inclusion or feminist inclusion?

There is a tension within the WPS community as to which women should be included: Some believe it is about pursuing an agenda that advocates for the inclusion of women no matter what political or other ideologies these women have; in contrast, others believe it is about including more women’s rights activists who promote a feminist agenda. Here again it is a question of what is the goal of women’s inclusion and which strategy leads to which goal. A gender quota will not automatically lead to a feminist agenda at the table as women – like men – are not a homogenous group, but instead hold multiple identities and positions. Including women who are feminist policy advocates requires more than a quota, which isn’t to say that quotas don’t serve other purposes.


6. Preventative reduction of Women’s Demands

Even the language and strategies used to lobby for women’s inclusion can contribute to the narrative that women have to justify their place at the table and at other crucial forums. This can happen through qualifying or justifying women’s inclusion (something men never need to do), exaggerating the need for training to build women’s capacity, focusing on women’s needs rather than strengths, or advocating for quotas that are below parity.


7. Changing the rules of the game, not just the players; excessive focus on formal peace negotiations that hardly work

The traditional way of inviting the key armed actors to the negotiation table and signing a peace deal does not work any more. The reality is that official peace negotiations from Syria, to Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia or Cyprus are stalled and not working. The SG notes (28) ‘We have reached a point where approaches and strategies focused only on the traditional idea of “the peace table” are insufficient. Peace processes often stall or advance only to the level of mechanisms aimed at conflict management’. Nevertheless, lobbying for women’s inclusion into formal peace talks remains a central focus of the WPS community. Would it not be better to instead divert energy into alternative ways of building peace and identifying what women can contribute towards moving countries onto pathways for peace? The SG says that there is a need ‘to acknowledging the changing nature of our efforts to resolve conflict and the need for inclusive approaches to conflict resolution and prevention’ (7). Yet, a discussion is missing as to how the WPS agenda could make use of the sustaining peace agenda to develop an altogether different approach to peace processes. The objective cannot be to just add more women to an evidently malfunctioning system.

It is time for the WPS community – including the emerging women mediator’s networks – to address the aforementioned stumbling blocks for women’s inclusion in a smart and effective way so that in 2 years time, the 20th anniversary of UNSC RES 1325 will not become yet another chance to mourn the lack of achievements relating to women’s inclusion in peace processes, but rather a landmark occasion on the pathway towards women’s equitable and meaningful contributions to peace processes. 


Written by Dr.Thania Paffenholz, IPTI Director