October is the month in which trees in northern countries turn gloriously vivid shades of red, pink and orange. But the magic is fleeting, and soon the reality of cold, overcast, rainy days and messy pathways takes over. Similarly, at the United Nations, October is the month of the dazzling General Assembly gathering and for feminists, usually the occasion for the special session on Women, Peace and Security at the UN Security Council.
This occurs around the anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, which, for the first time, mandated the inclusion of women in conflict prevention and peace processes. The air is thick with good words and great resolve. Like autumn leaves, they too are soon overtaken by realist national security-driven foreign policy.
In late September, the Secretary-General presented his report on ‘Women and Peace and Security.’ This year’s report begins by acknowledging that covid-19 has had a disastrous impact on world peace (“the number of people forcibly displaced owing to conflict, humanitarian crises, persecution, violence and human rights violations had grown to 82.4 million”). While we have seen evidence of the impact of women’s leadership, women have experienced rising levels of violence. As feminist peace activists have pointed out, recent events in Afghanistan show how little progress we have made in including women, taking women’s rights seriously, or even protecting women human rights defenders.
The report moves from its prefatory listing of horrible statistics to discussing the relationship between military spending and gender inequality. “Amid a global pandemic, unprecedented stress in meeting people’s social, economic and health needs and a 3.3 percent contraction of the global economy, global military expenditure increased by 2.6 per cent, totalling nearly $2 trillion in 2020.” This happened as most humans are still waiting for vaccines, even advanced countries are running out of hospital beds and health workers are operating in unsafe conditions.
Military spending outstrips social spending, especially in low income and undemocratic countries. That is, while countries were busy arming themselves, they were unable to shore up their public health capabilities, and as we saw with the rising levels of sexual and gender-based violence (not just domestic violence but also child marriage, child sexual abuse and trafficking), had not built adequate victim support services and facilities. Furthermore, we are seeing globally a pushback on sexual and reproductive health rights, including access to contraception and safe abortion. The Secretary-General’s report points to the falling funding for gender violence risk mitigation and to women’s rights organisations in general with this observation, “In 2016, the total operating budget of 740 feminist civil society organizations worldwide was $106 million, less than the cost of one F-35 fighter plane.”
In general, we speak much less about arms control and disarmament these days, as if ignoring old clothes now forgotten in the back of a closet. But legal and illegal small weapons proliferate, and we know that despite the (dubious) argument that ‘guns don’t kill,’ in fact the availability of guns ensures that humans will use them to settle both interpersonal and communal disputes. Where large entities like the state spend money on their militaries, and corporates on securitising their operations, for individuals, guns become the language of coercion in interpersonal relationships—whether through incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual violence in the context of a riot or a military operation. The more guns, the more violence; the more violence, the less justice or democracy. Still, we hear very little about controlling illegal firearms or about the apparently easy availability of firepower to mobs, when our politicians speak.
Over the years, statements by UN officials bear an ever-greater resemblance to the language of feminist activists, such as this one: “Gender equality is a question of power. But power will not redistribute itself equally in a male-dominated world.”
Since 2000, when UNSCR 1325 was adopted, two common measures of women’s inclusion have been the official inclusion of women in peace processes and the inclusion of provisions relating to women, girls and gender in peace or ceasefire agreements. Progress is incremental despite evidence that when women and gender issues are included, the agreements last longer.
The visuals we have seen from the Syrian and Afghan peace processes are evidence of this. In both cases, the argument that there are no qualified women is laughable as women mobilised resources and support to bring them to the venues where talks were taking place to hold parallel events, brief the press, lobby delegates and protest their exclusion. Women speak for themselves and loudly but we choose to overlook them.
The inclusion of women in peacekeeping operations is another measure the UN and countries advocate. In this year’s statement during the Women, Peace and Security session on 21 October, the Indian Permanent Representative mentioned the widely acclaimed women police peacekeepers that India sent to Liberia. This was from 2009 to 2016. As far as India is concerned, the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda applies primarily to our peacekeeping deployments. We are not at war and we have only disturbed areas, no internal conflicts. While feminists, whose decades of advocacy led to the adoption of 1325, would argue that its central premises apply to a range of complex emergency situations, governments are not persuaded to go beyond the letter of the resolution which mentions conflict specifically.
This literal approach also isolates conflict-related sexual violence from the everyday experiences of misogyny and harassment women face. This reports states that in 2020 alone, 2,500 verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence were committed across 18 countries. This is not counting the opportunistic violence facilitated by covid lockdowns and the rise in violence provoked by the hardships and distress of the last two years, such as the increase in child marriage. But even more frustrating is that we are willing to consider bodily harm to women as unacceptable, while being sanguine about the daily gender discriminations faced by those who are not cis men in patriarchal societies and treating threats to women human rights defenders and other outspoken individuals in public life as if they are just an occupational hazard.
In contrast to this narrow reading, the UN Secretary-General’s report discusses the economic impact of covid, political participation, climate change, access to justice and extremism. In other words, it expands the scope of the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda to reflect the point that sustainable peace depends on consistent access to justice and equality for all peoples across all spheres of life.
Two weeks ago, in a webinar on Afghanistan, three action points were identified for civil society in the region: humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan as Afghans face a hungry winter; assistance for Afghans in distress in India and Pakistan, especially getting them legal recognition as ‘refugees’; and the plight of those who had come to India for medical treatment and are now stranded and running out of money. All these are consistent with the broad reading represented by the Secretary-General’s report. But, even as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda turns 21 on 31 October, how will we begin to reach our governments to take its concerns and values on board?
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, author, peace educator and founder of Prajnya, a non-profit that works in the area of gender equality.