Regional security measures include hearing diverse women’s voices

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

Diverse women’s voices are often left out of discussions about security in the Pacific. This is despite this year marking two decades since the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 and urged countries to increase their recognition of women’s roles in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

A broad concept of security in regional policymaking includes the participation of women in conflict prevention and the recognition of sexually based and gender-based security threats. This is in keeping with the growing understanding of the changing nature of conflict.  But gains made on the inclusion of women’s voices in conflict prevention and peacebuilding as well as on women’s rights are being chipped away.

As acknowledged by the UN secretary-general, spaces for civil society are shrinking and attacks on LGBTI people are ongoing, meaning a range of women’s voices are still not being heard. In the Pacific region it’s been said that resolution 1325 is the ‘most advocated and least implemented set of resolutions’. Diverse women’s meaningful participation isn’t fully realised in the Pacific and women still struggle to be heard at the negotiating table in leadership roles.

And yet, Pacific women and women’s organisations have demonstrated their capacity to contribute to stability and solutions by working to improve conditions in local communities and demanding a voice and human rights. The Pacific regional action plan for women, peace and security recognises the need for more women to involved in political decision-making at all levels of society: ‘If women and young women’s contributions are recognized, sustained, strengthened and expanded they can make a significant impact in realizing the Leaders’ vision of a prosperous, stable and peaceful Pacific region and ensure conflict is avoided and peace is sustained.’

The barriers to being heard include not getting sufficient recognition and not having enough resources. A new, dedicated gender focus in regional approaches is creating opportunities to address those barriers. Two examples are the 2012 gender equality declaration of the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program, which has committed to give $320 million over 10 years.

Regional feminist alliances are proliferating and are well poised to influence shifts in Pacific regionalism’s sites of activity and accountability. My research focuses on two recently established feminist alliances based in Fiji, the Pacific Feminist Forum and the We Rise Coalition. Although there are still national and organisational differences among the organisations and people involved in these alliances, they are examples of what I see as ‘negotiating sisterhood’, which focuses on addressing joint problems and desires to influence formal decision-making on gender equality and all women’s rights.

They are having an impact. Pacific women are organising to fight threats to a broad conceptualisation of security and push past siloed approaches to redefine solidarity. This coordinated, diverse Pacific feminist civil-society movement is responding to the climate emergency faced in the Pacific. Pacific feminists from these bodies are speaking with a regional voice at international forums such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women on topics that Pacific regional discussions have otherwise excluded.

Pacific women have advocated for years to disaggregate ‘Pacific’ from ‘Asia–Pacific’ and in 2017 were successful in establishing ‘Pacific’ as its own operating partner in the Women’s Major Group. Further pressure led to civil society having a seat at the decision-making table at the 2017 Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and Meeting of Ministers for Women for the first time. The negotiated Pacific Feminist Charter ensured coordinated positions as part of the recommendations of the 2017 triennial conference.

Pacific feminists have also been raising their voices during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and have been active in calling for access for all to decision-making in cyclone recovery efforts, including the recovery from Cyclone Harold. Pacific feminists are creating spaces for diverse women’s voices to be heard, and a new type of regional voice is emerging in the Pacific on gender-related issues that’s inclusive of previously marginalised voices.

The groups reflect the inclusion of LGBTI, disabled, feminist, indigenous, ethnically diverse, urban, rural, young, older and non-feminist women. Pacific feminists are using the Pacific regionalism framework to suit their own organising, and Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor is now saying civil society must take a part in shaping the regionalism agenda.

Women’s voices collectively continue to be fundamental for advancing Pacific women’s rights and security at the national and international levels. The civil-society forums and alliances that Pacific women have created in the region must be further integrated into formal processes so that their voices continue to be heard.