7th December 2020


Advancing the WPS agenda through regional governance in, for or by the global South?

The ten United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) which make up the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda represent a revolutionary international instrument to fight for gender justice in armed conflicts all over the world. To address the various challenges for womxn(1) in conflict settings globally, the WPS agenda has identified four main pillars: prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery. These pillars are designed to guide member states of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) into implementing the UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions.

Along with shaping member state governance, the WPS agenda has also tried to guide regional governance in order to address cross-border conflicts. The WPS agenda led to the release of key strategies, such as the African Union’s (AU) Implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in Africa from 2016, and the League of Arab States’ (LAS) Protection of Arab Women: Peace and Security Executive Action Plan 2015-2030. These strategies seek to ensure that there is a knowledge exchange from the overarching global WPS agenda, led from the UNSC which is the centre of power that oversees the progress of the global WPS agenda, to regional-specific contexts. Conversely, regional organisations hope to transfer their knowledge of best-practices back to the UNSC to inform future development of the agenda. With lasting consequences, the second part of this knowledge exchange from global South institutions to the global WPS level is often left unacknowledged by policy and decision-makers.(2)

The UNSC’s support for regional organisations to execute their strategies and policies represents an attempt to listen to best practices from the regions themselves but this effort is often superficial. This imbalanced knowledge exchange reflects a patriarchal pattern of engagement which is rooted in colonialism, where the ‘haves’ inform the ‘have-nots’, imposing their structure of governance and rule of law. Regional organisations should be a critical source of information for the global WPS agenda and the broader scope of the UNSC if they want the WPS agenda to be successful. These organisations are able to gather knowledge and best practices from national and international governance structures and apply them to complex regional dynamics that most actors in decision-making spaces (actors in the global North) are unable to understand.

This article concentrates on illustrating that the colonial heritage of the WPS agenda must be dismantled to achieve its goals. To do so, regional governance structures, such as the LAS and AU, must use their context-specific knowledge to harness their respective agencies. Countering the WPS agenda’s colonial and patriarchal framework is critical not only for the regionalization agenda, but also to inform its wider global efforts.

Civil Society Organisations are Key for WPS Governance

As it stands, the WPS agenda promotes the creation of National Action Plans (NAPs) for each member state. This approach is useful for translating the WPS agenda to the local context of each individual country. Further regionalized policy design, such as the strategies of the LAS and AU, accounts for cross-border conflicts and the broader context of complex histories of political violence that span regions and not just individual member states. For the advancement of the WPS agenda, there must be regional action plans that take into account women and civil organisations living the experience, as well as designated NAPs.

The AUand the LAS, as regional institutions in the global South, are essential to realizing the WPS agenda’s bold vision of peace that encompasses womxn’s meaningful participation, protection and rights. In terms of WPS governance among member states, the LAS and AU have the potential to support the development of NAPs by creating a forum of knowledge exchange in their regions. Through this approach, the NAP method of WPS governance could allow a policy-design that is informed by civil society organisations (CSOs) in the respective regions. For instance, Iraq’s NAP offers comprehensive insight into women in Iraqi society and how discrimination works on the basis of legal, political, and economic structures. Furthermore, it examines society through an extensive network across the Iraqi and Kurdish women’s organisations.(3) With regard to CSOs, the AU and LAS present a channel through which civil society representatives can voice their demands. For instance, regional networks such as the AU’s Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation (Femwise-Africa) and Arab Women Mediators Network are institutional advocacy tools to embrace the context-specific knowledge that womxn from conflict affected areas possess. In addition to that, Femwise-Africa and Arab Women Mediators Network work to enable conducive exchanges between civil society, regional member states and with policy-makers on the global level. All aspects represent a critical bridge to actualize the four pillars of the WPS agenda. Regional organisations are in the best position to bring CSOs together in the forum of knowledge exchange to help build NAPs.

Decolonize Regional Governance

The regional governance of WPS has to be seen as part of the broader colonial context of the UNSC and its relationship to actors in the global South. The WPS agenda certainly represents a hard push towards gender equality, however, it is important to recognize that this agenda was created in an inherently patriarchal and colonial structure. The UNSC is designed to highlight and reinforce global imbalances. This is most obviously portrayed with accumulating significant military power around the five permanent members(4) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) among which are former colonial powers whose power is further cemented through this institution. For instance, France’s Foreign Policy has centred militarisation to exploit its colonies, including through security assistance in its former colonies like Mali.
Thus, although the WPS agenda strives for gender equality, its current lack of understanding patriarchy and colonialism as intersecting systems of oppression prevents a coherent, context-dependent understanding of conflict. This is where regional governance and decolonization of the WPS agenda can play a strong role.

Despite the AU’s and LAS’ various achievements, it is important to recognize that historical colonial power structures still reign, leading to a distinct imbalance in realizing the WPS agenda across the globe, with people in the global North making policy for those in the global South with little understanding of their situation. It is a fact that there is a trickle-down effect of policy-making, starting from the international institutions in the global North, moving to regional governance institutions, and finally reaching states themselves.(5) The global South has mainly been identified as a site of implementation not as a site of policy-design or decision-making, despite the rich experience and knowledge of conflict resolution. This neglect of global South agency results in a toxic dependency in terms of political, financial and normative power. In particular, the financial aspect is a key challenge for regional actors such as the AU and the LAS. According to the Global Study on UNSCR 1325 from 2015, WPS work is chronically underfunded across every institution around the world.(6) When WPS work is funded, the flow of money typically runs from the global North to the global South which carries stipulations and conditions from project conception to implementation. Furthermore, funding that is received is generally not streamlined to national or local organisations, which often further complicates situations.(7) However, in the case of the AU and LAS, the problem is not only the inadequate gender-related budget but the overall lack of funding of the entire institutions.(8) This lack of funding ensures that global South actors are kept strictly in the place of receivers of financial aid and as receivers of norms and good governance support. The more external funding is involved, the less actual agency is possible for governments, CSOs and regional institutions in the global South.

WPS Regional Governance by the global South

Up until today, various colonial patterns and racial hierarchies within WPS governance are influencing how both regional institutions address and prioritize the WPS agenda.(9) These four pillars of the WPS agenda (prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery) are designed to guide regional organisations to adapt the global WPS agenda to create their own specific gender policies embedded within their peace and security architecture. However, they currently stand on a colonial structure that prevents regional change from being realised. If meaningful advancement of the WPS agenda is to occur, then they must occur in a system that is, at the very least, open to balanced knowledge sharing.

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of landmark Security Council Resolution 1325, and while celebrating, we must also look to the future and work on strengthening the WPS agenda. Going forward, it has to be clear this uneven dependency between the global North and the global South will never lead to meaningful agency of womxn in armed conflicts, whether in regional institutions or on the global stage. It is time for global North actors to disrupt these colonial patterns and actively acknowledge the context-specific WPS knowledge provided by regional actors, such as the Arab Women Mediators Network and Femwise-Africa. These organisations are exemplary in providing advocacy and knowledge tools to harness context-specific knowledge. The broader scope of the WPS agenda must expand to include this knowledge in meaningful and actionable ways in order to respond to conflict with the knowledge shared from the global South.

Miriam Mona Müller and Ambika Varma
Miriam Mona Müller works as a Strategic Policy and Research Advisor for the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy. In her capacity as a PhD researcher she focuses on post-colonial theories in the context of WPS regional governance. Before joining the CFFP team, Miriam has worked for almost two years for UN Women Germany.

Ambika Varma is a Women, Peace and Security Specialist and works on various freelance projects. She is a volunteer at the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, the Outreach Coordinator for Women of Colour Advancing Peace and Security (France), and is a Researcher at PIVOT 2020, a Canadian youth-led project aimed at post-COVID recovery.

Follow them on Twitter: @MiriamMonaMu @ambikavar

(1) The term ‘womxn’ is an alternative spelling for ‘women’, used to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women. The WPS agenda has a history of offering privileging cis-gender identities, resulting in a gap in addressing violence and insecurity based on gender identity and sexual orientation. More here: Hagen, J.J.. 2016. Queering Women, Peace and Security. International Affairs. 92(2). p. 313-332.
(2) Basu, S. (2016). The Global South writes 1325 (too). International Political Science Review. 37(3). p. 362–374.
(3) Peace Women (2020). National Action Plan: Iraq. Available from: https://www.peacewomen.org/nap-iraq
(4) Known as the P5, these members of the Security Council exercise veto power over decisions and inherently skew the decision-making power. The P5 members reflect modern day imperialism and often decisions are made or at a standstill as a result of P5 political agendas. More here: Sengupti, S. (2016). The United Nations Explained: Its Power, Purpose and Problems. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/19/world/what-is-united-nations-un-explained.html.
(5) Parashar, S. (2018). The WPS Agenda: A Postcolonial Critique. In S. E. Davies & True, J. (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security. p. 829–39.
(6) UN Women (2015). A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Available from: https://wps.unwomen.org/
(7) Redvers, L. (2015). NGOs: bridging the North South divide. Available from: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2015/06/08/ngos-bridging-north-south-divide.
(8) International IDEA, Community of Democracies & UNDP (2017). Regional Organizations, Gender Equality and the Political Empowerment of Women. Available from: https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/regional-organizations-gender-equality-and-the-political-empowerment-of-women.pdf
(9) Haastrup, T. & Hagen, J. (2020). Global Racial Hierarchies and the Limits of Localization via National Action Plans. In Basu, S., Kirby, P. & Shepherd, L. (Eds.). New Directions in Women, Peace and Security. p. 133-152.

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