Long billed as a watershed moment in international security, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda turns 20 this week. WPS is an ambitious if limited normative framework, which humanitarians have tended to dismiss as the preserve of peace-building and development actors, outside the purview of crisis response. The anniversary, however, is prompting reflection on 20 years of accomplishments, backlash and challenges, making this a key moment for humanitarians to consider what can be learned from WPS.
With ten resolutions and 128 national action plans (NAPs) produced by 82 countries to date, WPS has become the rubric under which the Security Council – a key arbiter of humanitarian assistance and access – ‘does gender’. Through it, the international community acknowledges the unique impact of conflict on women; calls for participation at every stage from crisis to relief to peace-building; and affirms the adage (well supported by research) that peace is only sustainable when women are fully engaged.
We cannot afford to wait for peace talks to bring women to the decision-making table. In places like Colombia, WPS’s language, commitments and international backing have been pivotal for drawing attention to and addressing gendered harms.
Shortcomings of the WPS agenda
That said, the agenda has become increasingly narrow, politicised and militarised, far from its roots in feminist peace activism. The prevention pillar has come to be interpreted as prevention of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), for instance, rather than prevention of war. This focus on CRSV is itself incomplete as it fails to attend to reproductive health – an area where women’s rights are increasingly infringed – but efforts to remedy this gap have been threatened by veto. Meanwhile, there remains a glaring under-representation of women at national and international security tables and attacks on women’s rights defenders are increasing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
WPS also lacks an intersectional lens. There are few (and mostly passing) references to lesbian, bisexual or trans women (six NAPs, no resolutions) or women with disabilities (17 NAPs, two resolutions), despite the heightened and particular risks these groups face in conflict. WPS also reinforces a conflation of gender with women that has been called outdated, binary and heteronormative. Men and masculinities receive scant mention – as perpetrators, spoilers or survivors themselves of gender-based violence (GBV).
So, what should humanitarians do? The Humanitarian Policy Group's (HPG) research shows that humanitarians are always and everywhere engaged in gendered work, but this is still largely absent from policy and programming. With an eye to finally breaching that roadblock, here are three potential inroads for taking WPS back to its radical roots and putting it to work for crisis-affected people:
1. Operationalise the ‘relief and recovery’ pillar
Relief and recovery remains the most ambiguous and under-researched of WPS’s four pillars, but it speaks directly to humanitarian aid distribution and access to services. The UN Strategic Results Framework on Women, Peace and Security sets out global targets and indicators for this pillar that cover financing of gender programming and responding to the needs of displaced people, returnees, people with disabilities, women heads of household, women ex-combatants and survivors of GBV and war crimes, among others – all areas of critical concern for humanitarians. Likewise, the Secretary-General’s Seven-Point Action Plan on Gender-Responsive Peace-building entails provisions on humanitarian access and immediate post-conflict needs.
Humanitarian actors therefore need to fully engage in elaborating and implementing this pillar. Member states’ overwhelming commitment to WPS in principle provides an opening to advance funding for a critically under-resourced area of humanitarian work, as well as a platform to collaborate across the so-called triple nexus of humanitarian, development and peace-building actors. The agenda’s call for radically participatory approaches is also a challenge to humanitarians, who should use it to make relief work gender-responsive.
2. Follow civil society’s lead
Civil society has led the way on broadening and deepening how WPS interprets gender. At the international level, the NGO Working Group on WPS – a key advocacy circle targeting the Security Council – counts on an increasingly diverse range of members, including disability and LGBTQ+ actors. Humanitarians should follow their lead by reading WPS expansively, inclusively and intersectionally as a tool for prioritising and reaching the most marginalised.
Locally, women’s rights groups are the original champions of women’s rights in conflict and critical first-responders in crises that merit humanitarians’ solidarity and partnership. Trusting and investing in them also dovetails with humanitarians’ multiple commitments to locally led humanitarian action.
The NAPs can be a great place to start: 42% of countries have them, they are usually the product of committed behind-the-scenes advocacy by local women’s rights organisations, and many contain concrete commitments and targets that can be supported by humanitarian actors. The Generation Equality Compact on WPS and Humanitarian Action should also be a key mechanism for all actors to closer align humanitarian commitments with WPS.
3. Be part of moving the agenda forward
There is growing consensus that further resolutions are not the answer. Indeed, the most recent resolution simply urges member states to further commit to the nine preceding ones. Implementation is now the name of the game, driven by civil society, which will offer opportunities to make an impact on the ground on the issues that matter to humanitarians.
New and emerging conversations are already tackling how to approach women, gender, conflict and security differently. These debates are also critical for the humanitarian sector, where the notion that gender means women still prevails. Calls to shift toward a new gender, peace and security framework have existed since at least 2015, not only to highlight apparent issues with WPS but also to challenge the framing of WPS as a ‘women’s issue’ rather than a core global concern.
Militarisation, gendered gaps in leadership and cooptation of the agenda all threaten progress on WPS commitments, but they also endanger humanitarian outcomes in the long run. Countering these threats will mean working across sectors, using WPS not as the final word but as a launching pad for more transformative and progressive work.