‘We must lead by example on gender equality and women's empowerment’, said United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres at last week’s press conference preceding the general debate of the 72nd session of the General Assembly.
‘[It] is one of the greatest human rights challenges and opportunities in our world’, Guterres continued, adding on video, ‘the meaningful inclusion of women in decision-making increases effectiveness and productivity, brings new perspectives and solutions to the table’.
On 20 September, the UN Security Council is scheduled to conduct a high-level, open debate on United Nations peacekeeping reform, considering recommendations included in a 2015 report by the High-level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations.
The report outlines four recommendations for advancing gender equality, focusing on increasing women’s involvement in peace processes, while also integrating gender-sensitive peacekeeping strategies.
Yet in the four essential shifts presented to the UN Secretary General, the High-level Independent Panel did not mention mainstreaming gender across UN peace and security operations. The report relegated gender equality as a subsidiary concern, rather than recognising it as being an essential pre-condition for lasting peace and security.
Women’s marginalisation in peace and security efforts remains one of the most entrenched and glaring examples of gender inequality. As the UN’s System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity—launched 13 September—asserts, ‘the most stark and difficult to address gaps persist in peace operations’.
A sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 shows that women represented less than 4% of all witnesses and signatories to peace agreements. Just 9% of negotiators in peace processes were women and even fewer—2.4%—led these operations as the chief mediator.
While Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security helped galvanise efforts towards eliminating gender discrimination in the field, UN Women highlights the persisting barriers limiting women’s engagement:
‘More than half of peace agreements continue to make no mention of women, UN military peacekeepers remain 97 per cent male, and data gathered by OECD-DAC shows that only 2 per cent of aid to peace and security in 2014 targeted gender equality as a principal objective’.
Gender equality is not limited to increasing women’s participation. It includes gender-responsive peacebuilding strategies that recognise the disproportionate and unique impact of conflict on women.
Conflict spurs elevated rates of sexual violence against women and girls, decreasing their security to the extent that more than 70% of women have experienced gender-based violence in some crisis settings. It is therefore vital that women play a central role in negotiation and peace processes, ensuring women’s priorities and perspectives are integrated into future peace agreements.
Gender equality transcends the moral imperative to protect women and girls: it is also an ‘under-utilised practical tool’ that strengthens a peace process’ chances of success.
As the Council of Foreign Relations’ analysis shows, including women in civil society groups and peace negotiations means the resulting agreement is 64% ‘less likely to fail’. Including women makes peace agreements 35% more likely to last at least 15 years, underscoring why women’s involvement is both a moral and strategic imperative.
By including women from diverse backgrounds in peace processes, parties inject new cultural identities, priorities and perspectives to challenge the harmful norms that perpetuate conflict and gender inequality.
So, where are the women?
Inherently biased structures and social norms restrict women’s participation in mediation and peace processes.
First, intersecting structural barriers—such as inflexible working hours and unconscious bias—hinder women’s advancement in this field, replicating (and often amplifying) existing gender inequalities. Since high-level envoys and special representatives are often senior political appointments, member states must also support women’s career development and nomination for senior UN positions.
Second, women face systemic barriers based on gender stereotypes: the qualities traditionally ascribed to women diverge from the ascendant rules of conflict resolution, favouring negotiation techniques grounded in “rational” and “strategic thinking”, often thought to be promulgated by men.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University asserts, while male negotiators are traditionally perceived as strategic, realist, cool and hard headed, women are conceived inversely as moral, idealistic, passionate and warm-hearted. This simultaneously marginalises women from participating in peace processes, but also perpetuates a restrictive narrative about the mediation techniques at a negotiator’s disposal.
How can we make peace processes more gender-sensitive?
The United Nations is taking bold steps to achieve parity at its senior levels by 2021, demanding this across all employment levels within the next 10 years. Its system-wide strategy promotes temporary special measures to achieve gender equality: insisting hiring managers recommend 50% women and 50% male candidates for all job openings, and issuing warnings to heads of departments/offices/missions if a UN entity fails to meet its 2018 gender parity targets.
However, increasing women’s participation in peace processes is such an urgent concern that the Security Council should consider more radical steps towards integrating gender. UN peacekeeping operations should be conditional on parties accepting the inclusion of women in all spheres. Failure to integrate women’s experiences comprises the very possibility of sustained peace and security.
As the preeminent ‘symbol of the global commitment to transcend… adversarial diplomacy’, the United Nations must lead by example. However, whether UN Security Council members will respect the Secretary General’s call for bold action remains an open question.
Caitlin Clifford is a Masters student studying International Public Management at Sciences Po, Paris.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the United Nations or any of its affiliated organisations.