Study Hall:  Opening Policy to a Wider Range of Women’s Aspirations

29 Oct

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. Susan B. Anthony

Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others. Amelia Earhart

There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it. Alice Paul

Under the leadership of France this past Friday, the Security Council debated once again the merits and deficiencies of its Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (based on SCR 1325) now in its 17th year.  As in the past, the debate included more women’s perspectives than is normally the case around the oval, where the US is now the only reliable women’s voice to be heard at many Council meetings, albeit supplemented on occasion by female diplomats from Ethiopia, France and Sweden.

If our twitter feed is any indication, this debate gets at least as much attention from the UN policy community than any other.  In the presence of a large group of WPS advocates, one diplomat after another takes the floor to plead for attention to various aspects of this still-unattained agenda – from the persistence of gender-based violence employed as a tactic of war to the impediments still blocking pathways to participation by women in all aspects of political life (including media) and, more directly germane to SCR 1325, in all peace, mediation and conflict prevention processes.

Thematic Council discussions such as this one create different levels of obligation for UN member states.  Unlike country-specific crises that dominate much of the Council’s agenda, obligations under the rubric of Women, Peace and Security are equally binding on Council members themselves.   There is no “standing above the law” in these instances as the five Permanent Council members are as responsible for national implementation of “1325” as any other member state. There is no threat of veto to hide behind during this discussion, no implied perch of moral superiority from which to judge the behavior of other states.

No, we are all in this together, playing by the same rulebook, seeking a similar relief. And yet by many yardsticks that we respect, our rhetoric on “1325” over 17 years continues to exceed our progress.   Yes we have Security Council debates, UN Women and National Action Plans; yes we have seen women squeeze through some archaic professional barriers to find their rightful places in our hierarchies; yes we have seen women taking highly visible leadership at the UN on matters such as the sustainable development goals and on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; yes we have raised the costs for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and other UN staff; yes we have exposed some habitually abusive men within and beyond our overly hormonal entertainment industry; yes women can drive a car (more or less) in Saudi Arabia.

All good as we know; and all insufficient as we also know.   As the quotations at the beginning of this post attest, women (and some men as well) have been immersed in the gender equality struggle for a long time.  Alarmingly, we are now in what appears to be a time of situational retrenchment, unwelcome movement which is being (intentionally or inadvertently) stoked in part by a defiant national leader accused of serial acts of abuse all of which have summarily (even publicly) been dismissed as  “lies.”

Global Action has had a longstanding though not entirely untroubled relationship with the WPS agenda.  We were an early voice for the full integration of women in disarmament affairs as well as in efforts to prevent, identify and prosecute atrocity crimes. Moreover, we have been a longstanding supporter of Women in International Security in its New York and West Coast (US) Chapters, a group which seeks to give voice to the growing number of women who offer security policy and protection to communities far beyond our elite policy centers.  An overwhelming percentage of Global Action’s staff, interns and fellows have been women. And we have openly mourned the abuse of women by peacekeepers and other “protective capacities” as well as called attention to what seems to us to be the willful disregard of remarkable resumes and experiences by more and more women whom we most pointedly need — not only in our leadership but in those many challenging interfaces where decisions by our political leaders simply miss-read their intended beneficiaries, in part because we don’t have enough skilled and compassionate people asking the right questions at local levels.

But as we have noted often, being a woman is not a skill set, but rather an opportunity to see the world differently and organize – also in a different voice —  our responses to structures and behaviors that offend, including of course the structures from which we benefit and the behaviors for which we are directly responsible.  Our relationship with this WPS work is “not untroubled,” in part because it still seems too much about us, our policy clichés and institutional reputations, our bureaucratic limitations and shortcomings of political will, our sometimes too-facile ascription of our own gendered dramas as somehow instructive for others.  We work at the UN in densely political space, a place where apologies and thoughtfulness are painfully rare, where so many believe they could achieve their own “stardom” if not for the malevolence or indifference of other (allegedly almost entirely male) rights deniers and their institutionalized coercions.

There is surely more to this WPS story than makes itself known in UN conference rooms. Earlier this week, I was privileged to see an exhibition of photography by Lu Nan, an artist of stunning vision and compassion for his artistic subjects.   Part of his mounted trilogy  was focused on “everyday life” on the Tibetan plateau.  The “stars” of his photographs were men and (primarily) women, families across generations who went about their many labors (including labors of love and care) with what Nan referred to as “unstudied poise.”

Lu Nan is not one given to sentimentalizing his subjects, but he has found a way to enter the worlds of people who have every reason to keep him at arm’s length, people like the wind-swept women of Tibet who somehow find ways for themselves and their communities to lead something approaching what Nan honored as “lives of peace and transcendence.”

I’m not given much to sentimentalizing either, but while looking at the weathered faces of these older women and their extended families, I wondered who was watching their backs?   Who was advocating for their meaningful participation in a wider social and political life?  Who was honoring them for guiding the horses pulling their plows, for planting and harvesting amidst the ceaseless plateau winds, for convincing their children and grandchildren (perhaps especially the girls) that the cycles governing their lives have things to teach others, that their “fate” is not principally in the hands of state authorities, nor of first-world bureaucrats and our clever resolutions.

While it may not be literally true in all settings and circumstances — as mentioned this week by Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström — that “more women means more peace,” it is surely the case that the “poise” of women in so many contexts and settings worldwide is considerable, integral to “lives of peace,” and still mostly “unstudied.”   While we fuss in places like New York with our ambitions and our status; while we do what we can to balance our leadership teams, address security threats from state and non-state actors, and end predatory practices by our erstwhile protectors; while we make passionate speeches at the UN in part to brandish our gendered bona fides and in part to cover up our gendered policy limitations; there is still so much for us to learn from others, still so much inspiration “out there” to help us become a better version of ourselves.

We don’t have as many answers here at the UN as we sometimes like to think. With this in mind, It isn’t at all clear to me that we are paying close enough attention to the wind-carved faces of the women behind the plow, the women who daily make the case for “peace and transcendence” to their extended families and communities.  We need to look again.

 

 

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