Is New Zealand really a WPS champion?

This article is part of ASPI’s 2020 series on women, peace and security.

In 2018, New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark encouraged countries in the Asia–Pacific to ‘identify their strengths and champion areas of expertise’. He said New Zealand’s strengths and areas of expertise were ‘humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; women, peace and security; and building capability through training’. So, the WPS agenda has been presented as a key area of government interest and investment, and popular rhetoric suggests that New Zealand is a staunch champion of the WPS agenda. Does the evidence support that claim?

New Zealand was somewhat late to the fray in launching its first WPS national action plan, due in part to a complacent attitude that the promotion of women’s empowerment and gender equality was something New Zealand already did well. When it did produce a plan, in 2015, it focused on providing diplomatic support for WPS initiatives and enabling international deployments of New Zealand women.

Proposed public reporting on WPS achievements hasn’t eventuated, making evaluation of even these narrowly defined objectives tricky. The lack of information is compounded by the subjective question about how much New Zealand would need to be doing to be able to genuinely claim to be a WPS champion. Some improvements have been made, but they could also be viewed as low-hanging fruit.

For example, clearly identification and allocation of resources is vital for successful implementation of WPS action plans, but early commentary on New Zealand’s noted that the government ‘isn’t putting any money where its mouth is’. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade contributed a total of NZ$18.2 million over the 2015–16 and 2017–18 reporting years for activities whose main aim was to further gender equality and women’s empowerment, but that is just a small portion of the aid budget—New Zealand’s aid program is budgeted to spend NZ$2.2 billion between 2018–19 to 2020–21.

In the New Zealand Police, responsibility for formulating and implementing WPS initiatives was delegated to one staff member alongside other responsibilities, and the organisation declined several opportunities to engage in WPS activities due to competing budget priorities.

The NZ Army initially employed a special projects officer to oversee WPS implementation (a position that was later changed to a NZ Defence Force role) and a part-time position was added last year to better engage with the new Pacific Defence Gender Network, launched by the defence ministry in cooperation with the government of Samoa. Some minor, and increasing, investments have been made to help promote WPS initiatives, but it’s not clear whether that will be enough to support the claim that New Zealand is a ‘champion’ of the WPS agenda.

The gender balances in the police force and NZDF have improved, though achievements are uneven and depend on interpretation of gains made. The number of women employed in constabulary roles and in senior ranks in the police, for example, has clearly improved in recent years. Starting from a mere 6.5% in 1989, the proportion of women hovered at around 18% in 2015, and then in 2018 female recruits outnumbered male recruits in some intakes.

Importantly, given that the national action plan specifically focused on boosting the number of women deployed offshore, the proportion of women in international policing roles has also improved (from 17.7% in 2016 to 26.2% in 2017). However, it’s difficult to gauge how significant these changes are when so few NZ police are deployed offshore. An increase from one women to two serving in a senior role offshore acts to double the figure, for example. Similar issues arise when considering military deployments.

In the NZDF, women comprised more than 20% of deployed forces in 2015, and the proportion increased over the next three years. But the deployments were small, at around 270 personnel in total. Retaining high numbers of women would be much less likely in larger deployments, and the general need to increase the number of military women remains pressing.

In 2014, just before the national action plan was released, it was reported that the number of women in military uniform had been falling for a number of years. After concerted efforts, the numbers increased a little each year from 2015 to 2018, though there were, and still are, variations between and within services. The army, in particular, has struggled—female representation dropped to 12.8% in 2018, with especially low numbers in the combat corps. Meeting the target of ‘more women deployed’ could in future be constrained by these structural realities.

Evidence for the assertion that New Zealand has championed the WPS agenda is therefore patchy. So, where to from here?

Discussions with police and defence personnel, reinforced by the nature of recent recruiting material, confirm that increasing women’s participation is a priority for both organisations.

Yet that is only one corner of the puzzle. Broader attempts to more deeply ‘regender’ government organisations—which would both support increased participation of women and shift the focus to broader gender issues—would deliver positive results. The Royal New Zealand Navy’s headline-grabbing decision to bring in gender-neutral grooming and appearance guidelines, as well as the awarding of a Rainbow Tick to the NZDF, suggests that some regendering is already underway.

A move away from the ‘othering’ that dominates the framing of the 2015 national action plan would also be beneficial. New Zealand currently has the worst domestic violence statistics in the OECD, and yet the action plan is all about helping others with their gender-based violence issues. Owning our own shortcomings—something Canada does better in its latest plan—would serve to emphasise that gender equality does indeed remain an unrealised goal that we are all still striving for.

A Strategist article last year asked what it is that really makes for an effective national action plan. Miki Jacevic’s piece suggests that increased inclusivity, particularly of civil society, and frequent reporting are important for successful plans. These elements are still lacking in the New Zealand context and are two simple improvements that authorities can make as they look to revise the plan in 2020.