International women’s day is a prominent event within the international community. Around the world, achievements and current challenges in implementing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda are the centre of attention. This day also provides governments with an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which meaningful participation has been realised. Should this be considered a day of celebration? Or is it just a reminder of how little has been achieved in terms of gender equality?
Women remain sidelined when it comes to peace efforts. A closer look at the facts reveals that between 1992 and 2019, women constituted, on average, 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators, and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes around the world. About seven out of every ten peace processes still failed to include women mediators or signatories. This data shows that women continue to be excluded from decision-making processes and that the international community has failed to develop joint conflict resolution mechanisms. How is this continued failure to include women in peace processes addressed by the international community?
Even though the promotion of gender equality in peace processes is not a new topic, especially considering that the Women, Peace, and Security agenda was first adopted 21 years ago, discussions of gender inequalities often fail to address the patriarchal system they are embedded in. Instead of dismantling the discriminatory system that excludes women, gender inequality tends to be seen as a “women’s issue”. Additionally, whenever women’s meaningful participation is promoted, there seems to be a need to justify why women deserve a seat at the table. Some of the well-intentioned arguments for involving women in decision-making in peace processes have therefore reinforced rather than dismantled traditional stereotypes that hold gender inequalities in place.
One of the most commonly applied narratives is that women bring peace or that their involvement ensures the increased effectiveness and durability of a peace agreement. This argument consequently links the inclusion of women in peace talks to successful peacebuilding. This does not only reiterate traditional stereotypes of women being more peaceful than men, but also implies that there must be a justifiable reason for women to participate; the right to be involved in decision-making that affects them seems insufficient. Instead, women need to offer an added value. The United Nations, for example, frequently calls for more women in their peacekeeping operations to improve effectiveness, heralding women’s role in peace processes and claiming that more women mean better peacekeeping. These incredibly high expectations put the entire burden of successful peacebuilding results on women and identify them as a conflict resolution tool. What happens if their increased participation does not automatically bring peace? Are women to blame?
These are the dominant narratives that are promoted to increase women’s meaningful participation, but realistically, they create conditions for women’s inclusion. No social group should have to fulfil certain requirements to be involved in decision-making processes that will shape their lives.
Institutions consequently seem to be convinced that a larger representation of women in the peacebuilding force can change existing gender imbalances and reach more efficient peace negotiations due to the ‘peaceful’ nature of women. Another common narrative is that gender parity in peacebuilding forces reduces the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse by local conflict parties as well as by male peacekeepers. The reason for deploying female peacekeepers, however, should be based on neither changing male behaviour nor on stereotypical assumptions about their ‘peaceful’ nature. Imposing these highly gendered expectations results in a double burden for women. Traditional gender stereotypes are reinforced, women are made responsible for increasing gender equality, and a high amount of pressure is put on their performance.
The mere presence of women can neither be expected to be the “magic key” to achieving better peacebuilding results nor to reducing gender-based violence in conflict environments. The need to consistently justify the involvement of women in peace processes by listing what their potential contributions could be shows little abandonment of patriarchal thinking. The focus must be shifted to understanding and unlearning the hierarchical systems and structures of oppression that continue to impact women in peacebuilding today. So far, relatively little attention has been paid to how gendered norms are embedded in organisational cultures and how they impact the discourse on women’s meaningful participation – and that is a question of political will.
Statistics are frequently used to demonstrate progress. It is a way for organisations to signal how far they have come in advancing gender equality and promoting inclusivity. Using the number of women involved in peace talks to measure gender equality can be highly misleading, however. Qualitative data can be used to shift the focus away from discriminatory structures and towards the reinforcement of stereotypical narratives that define women as being peaceful, nurturing, passive, and non-confrontational. Practically, an armed group’s propensity to commit violence is very unlikely to be influenced by whether women participate in the peace process or not.
Statistics are rarely questioned when it comes to meaningful participation, but a certain number of women cannot simply be deemed a success in achieving women’s equality. The institutional structures that hold gender inequalities in place need to be urgently evaluated and transformed, which is an important reason why numbers do not suffice.
Even if women are increasingly represented in peace processes, the issue remains that the institutions have not changed sufficiently to achieve real gender equality. For example, why are there so few women in EU peacekeeping? A quick glance at the numbers: out of 12 civilian CSDP missions, not a single one is headed by a woman; and out of 70 Heads of Mission, so far only 6 have been women. Women are equally underrepresented as deputy heads. The EU has adopted many good strategies and agendas for increased gender equality in peace and security; what is striking, however, is how limited their implementation has been. Why is this so problematic? The reputation and credibility of the EU is at stake when advising developing countries on adherence to the WPS agenda while not being capable of implementing them internally.
Since we are not only looking at the numbers, it is also a question of how men in leadership are trained and sensitised to gender-related concerns. Currently, training on gender equality is not mandatory for heads/commanders of CSDP missions and operations; the absence of gender training at the executive level is highly alarming. The training gap in gender competences for mission leadership is especially critical as it can encourage self-reflection, challenge existing attitudes towards gendered stereotypes, and change common perceptions. If there is no top-down approach to counter the structures that gender inequalities are embedded in and peacekeeping personnel receive insufficient and inadequate training regarding gender competencies prior to deployment, there must be a lack of political will to dismantle patriarchal patterns. The EU could set an example and create incentive to implement the promises it has made on meaningful participation and gender equality. That is, however, far from being accomplished and there is a great deal of catching up to do.
So maybe international women’s day should not be considered a day of celebration just yet—it should instead be seen as a reminder of how much work remains to be done.