Victory of form over substance? #UNSCR1325 at 11

UN Security Council adopts UNSCR 1325 (2000) UN Photo by Milton Grant

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security celebrates its 11th birthday this week. In the world of peace and conflict, 1325 finally put women, peace and security as a composite issue on the global policy map.  It instructed the world of diplomats, politicians and generals that women are agents, not only victims, who require their place at negotiating tables as equal partners in the effort to prevent and resolve conflict, protect and promote human rights and end impunity for some of the worst crimes of war, in particular those of a sexual and gender based nature.  But Antonia Potter and I ask: is it so far a triumph of form over substance?  


 UNSCR 1325 put the issue of ‘women, peace and security’ firmly on the international agenda. Suspicions continue, though, that 1325 might just be a triumph of form over substance, with the best progress limited to the bureaucratic level where the gender quality of rhetoric on peace and security has greatly improved, and a phalanx of gender advisers now exist in international organisations. 

But on the ground?  Women mediators from international organisations remain a very rare breed – of the EU Special Representatives, for example, only one of 40 has been a woman and the AU has never fielded a women peace envoy. Women are increasingly participating in peace processes, most often through civil society, yet there is a marked tendency to assume firstly that ‘women’ have a monolithic view – and that they speak only to their experience of victimhood, not as stakeholders in the post-conflict set-up.   In countries likeAfghanistan, the ‘culture’ argument is routinely cited. In response an Afghan NGO, the Afghan Women’s Network declares “it is no longer enough to set quotas and speak about women’s rights without fully engaging the removal of negative practices and policies safeguarded by culture or government entities”(Civil Society Monitoring Report on UNSCR 1325, 2011, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders).

Women’s participation in public life post-conflict has generally increased – at least superficially – thanks to 1325-inspired quotas in parliaments and governments. But  in many of these cases – likeAfghanistan or Nepal– women may sit in parliament but are prevented from taking full part in decision-making.  The Afghan Women’s Network says “women lawmakers stay away from controversial issues that affect Afghan women, such as independent women’s shelters, to protect themselves from being labeled culturally or religiously subversive or not to seem extreme”.  So, without follow-through, these quotas may become worse than useless: women can be seen, so job done.  But they are not heard and they may even be more vulnerable than they were before.  Is this progress or window-dressing?

The positions which women occupy in government also require careful scrutiny: Ministries of Women’s Affairs or Gender abound yet are rarely cabinet positions and are usually without a meaningful budget.  In Afghanistan’s Ministry for Women’s Affairs, all the senior staff are women, but there are no senior women in, for example, the Ministry of Defence.  Only two other women head ministries in Kabul- Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled, and Public Health.  Once again, women’s participation is cosmetic and limited to the ‘feminine issues’; women’s voices on the issues which affect women –the economy, defence, security and agriculture – are unheard. A striking example is that the National Transitional Council in Libya comprises 43 posts – of which one is held by a woman: Women’s Affairs.

 Women are visible and vocal in civil society organisations – often through women’s associations. Yet again, in many places (Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo) women’s organizations are increasingly arguing that they don’t want only to discuss ‘women’s issues’.  Yes, fighting impunity for sexual and gender based crimes is vital; yes, ensuring women’s needs are catered for in post conflict economic packages for victims is crucial.  But why doesn’t anyone want to discuss with them what they think about upcoming elections (DRC), the withdrawal of international troops (Afghanistan), the new constitution (Egypt’s constitution making committee has no formal women’s representation)? 

It is time to take stock.  In the 11 years since 1325, how much has women’s participation in public life really improved? Has international understanding of sexual violence swung from denial and silence to a rhetoric in which women in conflict are identified primarily as victims of sexual violence rather than stakeholders in society? Whatever the answer, the solution is almost certainly not another resolution.  It has taken 11 years for 1325 (and its successors) not to be fully implemented – surely it is now time for follow-through.  Otherwise, women may vote with their feet and reject wholesale the political institutions which close them out.  And that would be catastrophic for everyone.

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