Why 2015 is critical for gender and peacebuilding

The past 20 years have seen remarkable progress for the advancement of gender equality in peacebuilding efforts across the world. This year, three important processes are taking place that will have an impact on any future work on gender, peace and security:

Other important processes include the review of the UN peacebuilding architecture and peacekeeping operations, both of which are under way in 2015.

While successes have been noted, a number of challenges have emerged over the past two decades prompting us to rethink how gender is understood and addressed in peacebuilding efforts. 2015 thus presents a timely opportunity to critically re-assess where we are today, but also to pool together knowledge and expertise to ensure more gender-equal peacebuilding efforts.

Successes and challenges of the past 20 years

While the Beijing Platform for Action, produced in September 1995, presents the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights, UNSCR 1325, adopted in October 2000, was the first resolution to recognise the importance of women’s role and agency in peacebuilding as well as highlight women’s and girls’ needs and vulnerabilities in conflict-affected situations. They, along with subsequent policy documents, urge governments and others to incorporate gender-sensitive analyses and programming into their peacebuilding efforts. These policy frameworks have led to marked improvements in taking into account gender in peace and security debates as well as peacebuilding efforts, and have made a significant difference in the results achieved.

While gender was originally conceived of as a lens for analysing and transforming unequal power relations, in practice it has often been more narrowly defined and translated into a technical ‘add-on’.

In the last decade, donor funding and policy attention on gender, peace and security has been increasingly narrowed down to a sometimes exclusive focus on ‘sexual and gender-based violence’ in conflict. While it was unquestionably important to draw attention to this previously ignored issue, it has sidelined a number of other important gender aspects of peacebuilding.

When the focus has been on other topics, such as increasing political participation of women or overcoming entrenched gender inequalities, gender has unfortunately often been merely interpreted as a ‘tick box exercise’. More emphasis has thus been placed on quantitative aspects, such as the number of women participating in certain events or trainings, rather than a focus on understanding and addressing structural and unequal power relations and focusing on long-term attitudinal change.

This overall approach has resulted in limited success, as insufficient attention has been paid to the quality of participation, structural and other barriers to achieving equality, the role of other social markers, as well as recognising the various forms that women’s and girls’ agency takes in meaningfully engaging with men as men.

A gradual shift towards a broader and deeper understanding of gender

In recent years, the gender in peacebuilding debate has been shifting away from the narrowing of the women, peace and security agenda to incorporate broader gender dynamics.

The importance of taking on a ‘gender-relational’ approach to peacebuilding is gradually being acknowledged. This means taking a broader understanding of gender by expanding it to incorporate women, men and sexual and gender minorities, but also a deeper one, by looking at how gender relates to other factors, such as age, social class, disability, ethnic or religious background, marital status or geographical location.

Importantly, broadening the scope for a more comprehensive approach to gender, peace and security does not mean a move away from working on women’s and girls’ equal rights and empowerment. By adopting more inclusive approaches, taking into account femininities and masculinities, as well as reaching out to men, women and sexual and gender minorities, women’s and girl’s equal rights can be strengthened.

As a key pathway in our new five-year strategic plan, International Alert advocates for these broader and deeper approaches to gender at national and international levels, together with a broad coalition of partners from both the global south and north. We aim to base our advocacy on the insights we gain from our work and research in the field, drawing more global, thematic conclusions where possible while also highlighting context-related specificities.

What does this mean in practice?

To successfully understand and work on gender, peace and security means analysing the broad array of intertwined power relations on the ground that influence gender norms and relations, which leads to having a comprehensive picture of social realities. This means that better tools and mechanisms for analysis, programming and implementation in the peacebuilding sphere can be developed and used. Concretely, this requires:

  • increased tolerance for the complexity of, and time needed for, programming on gender, peace and security – among both donors and implementing actors; and
  • investing more time for thorough research that takes into account the roles played by local masculinities and femininities in conflict and peacebuilding (including sexual and gender minorities).

This requires a re-thinking of how we currently interpret gender, away from attempting quick fixes on the cheap with one-size-fits-all approaches to devoting more time, patience and resources to understanding the contexts and issues where we are working.

At International Alert we believe that peacebuilding can be more effective if built on an understanding of how gendered identities are constructed through the societal power relations between and among women, men, girls, boys and members of sexual and gender minorities. To find out more about our work, visit www.international-alert.org/gender. You can also read our latest research on the topic here.

To mark International Women’s Day 2015, we have compiled stories from peacebuilders around the world who are striving to make equality a reality. Read the stories at www.international-alert.org/iwd2015