Our Responsibilities to Protect and to Promote

4 Mar

Editor’s Note:  The following was written by Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a student at the University of Southern Maine and a contributor to several RtoP-related projects in New York and elsewhere.  Dylan wrote this to coincide with the opening of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 10. GAPW, mostly through the efforts of Melina Lito, has done extensive work exploring WPS-RtoP relationships.

The project of promoting and facilitating gender equality has been and continues to be a daunting undertaking. With millennia upon millennia of learned and institutionalized gender inequity, it is little wonder that this challenge persists.

There is good news however. Since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, the United Nations has worked actively and ardently on the “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS) agenda and there has been substantial progress. Despite this progress, there is still much work to be done in advancing the cause of gender equality and in addressing the unique and disproportionate burdens shouldered by women and girls in conflict situations.

Resolution 1325, the canonical WPS report published by the UN Secretary General in 2002, and subsequent Council resolutions (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122 – text available at: http://www.peacewomen.org/security_council_monitor/) all enumerate the various and diverse array of obstacles and hurdles faced by women in matters of peace and security. These obstacles span the gamut from second-class social statuses in some societies to assumptions about the appropriate “place” of women to employment discrimination to enforced domestic or sexual slavery. There are two broad categories that emerge as central to the WPS discussion: the imbalance of female representation in positions of leadership and decision-making and the continued persistence of gender-based and sexual violence. Both are crucial in tackling the malaise of gender inequity and yet each contain within them potential pitfalls and drawbacks.

The horrors of gender-based and sexual violence are undeniable and such ravages demand redress. Women and girls are often primary targets in the midst of conflict as a means of waging psychological, emotional and physical warfare against a perceived enemy. The visible and invisible scars of such violence are unimaginable, except to those who bear them. It is vital to acknowledge the disparity in the way in which men and women experience war and conflict but it is equally important to resist the temptation to essentialize women and girls as occupying the exclusive role of helpless victim. Such unintentional characterizations, most often resulting from genuine compassion and concern, can nevertheless be destructive to the aim of affirming the agency and dignity of women and girls more broadly. After all, if you are only fit to become a victim then how can you possibly be anything else, for instance, an effective peace activist or negotiator?

It is far more important to achieve gender balance and inclusivity at all levels of institutional, organizational and societal structures. Such structures can vary in nature widely, from legislative bodies to dispute resolution entities to peacekeeping missions to UN organs. The critical point is to internalize gender sensitivities and responsiveness within all contexts, be they post-conflict transitions or peace negotiations or economic development efforts. It is widely understood that the exclusion of women from positions of leadership and decision-making prior to conflict in a given community will likely be mirrored in post-conflict settings. The UN is often a presence in all phases of conflict and can serve a vital function in leading by example. The obvious concern to deal with in these efforts is tokenism and patronization, which must be avoided.

Gender does not refer primarily to biology or physiology. It is a social construction, informed by the particular values, customs, traditions and assumptions attendant to a given community or society. The important thing to note, and something that the Secretary General noted in his report in 2002, is that these social constructions are learned and changeable. As is true with any other idea or conception, the law of dynamism is at work. Ideas are not static but rather are subject to constant reinterpretation and re-imagination. It is the provision of new ways of thinking about gender and the revision of old ones that will ultimately yield the lasting and sustainable changes to gender norms that currently form the core of discriminatory and repressive conditions across the world.

As already mentioned the UN is in a position to lead the way in the WPS movement and is doing so in some positive ways. The goal of 50/50 representation among men and women at medium to upper-level official positions within all organs and entities is a work in progress but laudable in that it is a codified and stated objective. Annual reports from the Secretary General on the continued advancement of WPS and its constituent line-items helps track progress and highlight gaps. The appointment of women to prominent high-level positions – including Mary Robinson, former High Commissioner for Human Rights and now Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, and Jennifer Welsh as the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect — function as good-faith efforts to ensure that women have seats at the various tables that form the basis for global governance. The creation of UN Women, an entity dedicated to the promotion of issues that affect women uniquely and to presenting policy prescriptions and analyses aimed at mitigating those issues, is yet another substantive and promising endeavor toward achieving the broad mandate set forth by the WPS framework.

It is also important to recognize the indispensable role that civil society plays in actualizing the WPS agenda. As an emblematic example, consider the efficacy of a coalition of women’s groups in Kosovo in 2013 that lobbied successfully to identify women and girls who were the victims of gender-based and sexual violence as war victims, thus rendering those affected eligible for compensation and reparations previously only available to mostly male combatants. Such activism and civil engagement highlights the power that women possess in catalyzing change and asserting their agency and relevance in post-conflict and transitional justice environments.

The UN and other official governance bodies do not possess sole proprietorship over WPS as a norm or its policy extensions. The goal of promoting gender justice belongs to us all, at every level of society and in every nation in the world. The lack of said justice is one of the most durable and pervasive disequilibria to afflict humankind and its ultimate resolution requires collaborative and innovative solutions. The first step is to recognize that women play diverse roles in all peace and security contexts, ranging from Sierra Leone women organizing peace marches to Guatemalan women facilitating community-based dispute resolution processes. Women are potent agents of positive change but of course they can also be both victims and perpetrators in the midst of armed conflicts. Regardless, women must be included in all processes designed to resolve such conflicts and must be consulted in crafting gender sensitive and responsive policies in all policymaking efforts. Normalizing the presence of women in positions of leadership can help undermine traditional assumptions that relegate women to secondary roles and lay the groundwork for new societal understandings about gender, which are essential to achieving gender equality in the long run. Peace and security and the maintenance thereof wil only be feasible when women are equal participants in all phases of relevant endeavors. Until then, advancing the WPS normative agenda and leading by example are the most vital and viable means of reaching the goal of gender justice.

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