How does the Women, Peace and Security agenda work in practice?

Jennifer Mustapha and Yasmin Chilmeran share limitations of the WPS agenda and explore its implementation in Iraq and the Asia-Pacific region

Demonstrators wearing cross-out masks attend a rally for International Women’s Day in Iraq’s southern city of Basra on March 8, 2021. (Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)

The Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda has been a key organizing pillar for policymakers across the world attempting to systematically include women in peacebuilding processes, and address the impact of armed conflict on Women and Girls. Sprawling from large-scale state led National Action Plans and UN policy initiatives, to complex networks of NGOs and community organizations, the Agenda’s implementation has been a highly contested and varied process. In this blogpost, we speak to two authors published in the March issue of International Affairs about the Agenda’s current limitations as well as the ways it is being transformed by the actors involved in carrying out.

What are the limitations of current approaches to understanding Women Peace and Security (WPS)?

Jennifer Mustapha: WPS perspectives can prioritize gender over and above other social categories that inform women’s experiences, especially within the context of colonial histories. An important question is whether the predominantly Eurocentric WPS scholarship risks perpetuating intersectional inequalities along lines of gender, race, geography, income and sexuality. Indeed, the extent to which these inequalities are reproduced in the context of security governance beyond the West remains under-explored by existing research on WPS.

A feminist postcolonial reading can further offer perspectives that highlight how women’s vulnerabilities are also rooted in longstanding gendered relations of power that are exacerbated by contemporary conflict. Furthermore, this can help us understand how neocolonial power relations are reproduced in WPS scholarship; and how this translates to a failure to enable ‘security’ frameworks that improve the day-to-day situations of women in a variety of insecure circumstances.

Yasmin Chilmeran: Given the range of research on WPS, rather than focusing on limitations, it is sometimes more productive to focus on how we can contribute to more holistically understanding the WPS agenda and the different opportunities it presents. I focus on the landscape of implementation and contestation inside a conflict-affected context and investigate the actors attempting to implement the agenda domestically. While we often think about local-global hierarchies when it comes to women’s participation, there has been less focus on local-national relationships and how they can be fascinating sites of contestation of the agenda and the projects, strategies and efforts it engenders. Terms like ‘local’ or ‘grassroots’ are frequently used in WPS literature without much clarity about what or who we are talking about.

Looking at this level of implementation can help practitioners understand the everyday dynamics which influence whether the agenda becomes a useful tool for women. This approach also provides a recognition of the diversity of women’s voices and opinions on subjects varying from the usefulness of the agenda to the kinds of organizations that should be involved in its implementation.

How is the WPS agenda contested, utilized and reshaped by the actors your research investigates?

Yasmin Chilmeran: My research examined civil society actors inside Iraq and their use of the WPS agenda. I wanted to clearly articulate what the ‘local’ meant, and what weight it carried in Iraq’s WPS engagements.

I analysed the different uses of the WPS agenda by different actors and linked these uses and contestations to local, national and global spaces. For example, in a global context, Iraqi women appeared to speak to a global audience about their activism and experiences, and used the WPS agenda and its associated opportunities to ‘call-out’ the Iraqi government on a range of issues.

At a more local level, I saw the creation of WPS Local Action Plans in southern governorates of Iraq as a contestation of the more mainstream conversation about WPS and its implementation. This represented not simply a ‘localization’ of the WPS agenda, but also a strategic positioning of some actors to advocate for implementation of the agenda that was inclusive of their experiences and positionality. This has clear implications beyond the immediate contexts of the WPS agenda as it shows how women’s networks can strategically cooperate to challenge assumed power hierarchies that centre national level strategies, the state and international decision makers.

Jennifer Mustapha: We looked at the complex terrain of national and regional-level WPS developments in the Asia-Pacific. On the one hand, WPS National Action Plans operate as significant public-facing state documents within the context of regional relations, and as highly performative artifacts that carry representations of the national self. On the other hand, we nevertheless see evidence of an increasingly diverse multi-scalar community of practice coalescing around a regional WPS agenda.

Our research suggests that the emerging field of WPS discourse and practice in the Asia–Pacific carries the potential for both convergence and contestation. Overall, there is cause for both cautious optimism and ongoing concern: optimism that the region is working towards the goal of addressing gendered insecurities, and concern that ongoing fissures in these areas of work will have a negative impact on broader regional security relations.

Jennifer Mustapha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Huron University College.

Her article, ‘Women, Peace and Security governance in the Asia–Pacific: a multi-scalar field of discourse and practice’, co-authored with Stéphanie Martel and Sarah E Sharma, was published in the March 2022 Issue of International Affairs.

Yasmin Chilmeran is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Her article, ‘Women, Peace and Security across scales: exclusions and opportunities in Iraq’s WPS engagements’ was published in the March 2022 Issue of International Affairs.

This blogpost was commissioned by Joseph Hills, the Digital Content Editor at International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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