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Gender equality and international security: two steps forward, one step back

Posted By on March 11, 2020 @ 06:00

This article is the first in a series on women, peace and security that The Strategist will be publishing over coming weeks in recognition of International Women’s Day.

On International Women’s Day on Sunday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced the appointment of Australia’s first ambassador for gender equality. Julie-Ann Guivarra will take over from Sharman Stone, who is currently Australia’s ambassador for women and girls. It’s a welcome move to retitle the role. The new title aligns more clearly with the vision set out in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper, which identified gender equality as a critical component for building international engagement.

The appointment comes at a particularly important juncture for efforts focused on progressing women’s empowerment and gender equality across the globe. This year marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The 2020 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York was to focus on the implementation of the declaration and platform.

However, the annual event—which brings together thousands of people each year from across the world, including perhaps most importantly a diverse array of women’s civil-society organisations—was cut short because of the spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19. Instead, a one-day meeting was held in New York to adopt a political declaration and the rest of the session was cancelled.

It’s unfortunate that a gathering focused on women’s rights was one of the first to fall victim to the expected global pandemic. While the concerns about the spread of coronavirus were legitimate, to many it was yet another sign that women’s rights are the low-hanging fruit.

There were concerns heading into this year’s session that there would be efforts to backpedal on women’s rights. While the political declaration reaffirmed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, it refrained from dealing with more contentious issues such as ‘sexual and reproductive health’. At last year’s session there were heated exchanges and extensive lobbying over the use of terms such as ‘gender’ and ‘sexual health’, and many delegations tried to hold the line on gains that had been made in advancing women’s rights.

In an alarming development, the vice-chair of those negotiations was subject to a sustained barrage of cyberbullying. The US, a traditional ally on women’s rights, was often on the side of traditional opponents such as Russia. Unfortunately, tensions like this aren’t an anomaly.

When Germany sought to negotiate a ninth resolution on women, peace and security in the UN Security Council in April last year, it faced staunch opposition and the threat of a veto from the US to the inclusion of previously agreed language on ‘sexual and reproductive health’. Russia and China abstained on a WPS resolution for the first time. The development led some researchers to question whether it was riskier to try to advance the WPS agenda than to simply work to implement the recommendations that had already been agreed. Despite this, South Africa went ahead with its plans to negotiate a 10th resolution on WPS in October 2019. While the resolution consolidated some gains and was adopted unanimously, it’s clear that as the agenda approaches its 20th anniversary in October, supporters of gender equality will need to address the growing fragmentation among member states.

Part of the challenge is that issues related to gender equality and WPS are still not routinely considered to be relevant when geopolitical crises emerge. In traditional ‘hard security’ contexts, women’s participation is still viewed as easily expendable, with no consequences for the viability or sustainability of a peace deal.

The recently concluded peace agreement between the Taliban and the US has been widely criticised not only for the absence of women in the negotiations, but also for the lack of protections that women and human rights defenders are likely to receive from the Taliban. After 18 years of war, a war that was predicated partly on advancing women’s rights, that’s a step backwards, yet the deal has been lauded as a success by some for bringing an end to the conflict.

Addressing issues that are likely to improve gender equality, such as human rights and violence against women, are often not considered a priority in peace negotiations or rarely implemented if included, despite the evidence that gender inequality is a likely predictor of conflict. A survey conducted by Women in International Security in 2018 found that most policymakers didn’t think that gender was relevant to national security. They also conflated ‘gender’ with ‘women’ or the ‘add women and stir’ approach, rather than understanding that it was about analysis of the relationships between men and women, and power structures in society, which remain largely patriarchal.

Research has shown that the stability of societies is inextricably linked to how they treat women. The inclusion of more gendered analysis in national security is essential to ensuring that policymakers develop more effective responses to a range of security challenges.

For instance, as Australia and other countries put more measures in place to manage Covid-19, they should develop appropriate mitigation strategies to address the disproportionate impact these measures may have on women. Women are more likely to be primary caregivers and will be more affected by school closures. Women are also more likely to be frontline health workers, or to be affected by increased incidents of domestic violence if families are quarantined behind closed doors. We need to move beyond what UK author Caroline Criado Perez has defined as the assumed male default that makes women invisible not only in society, but in our approaches to national security.

Australia has made important progress in furthering gender equality as part of our foreign policy and within the national security community in recent years. But that progress, captured in part by reports on implementation of Australia’s national action plan on WPS, remains too slow (and we’re still awaiting the now overdue release of the next action plan). Some of those efforts have focused on increasing the levels of women’s participation in the security sector and foreign policy institutions, but more needs to be done to ensure that gender analysis is factored into Australia’s national security policies.

In an era in which support for gender equality is fragmenting, including among some of our allies and partners, Australia’s commitment to prioritising gender equality will be tested. It can’t just fall to the ambassador for gender equality, the minister for women or public servants focused on gender equality or WPS to speak out when that’s the case. It’s a responsibility across the government that’s linked to our ability to adequately address the security challenges we will continue to face.

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[1] announced: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/ambassador-australia-gender-equality

[2] foreign policy white paper: https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/

[3] focus: https://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw64-2020

[4] spread: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/news%20and%20events/stories/2020/letter-from-cswchair__2%20march.pdf?la=en&vs=1831

[5] unfortunate: https://twitter.com/RichardGowan1/status/1234522105087168512?s=20

[6] yet another sign: http://www.broadagenda.com.au/home/virus-shuts-un-mega-meeting-amid-rising-criticism/

[7] backpedal: https://www.passblue.com/2020/02/27/as-the-un-womens-forum-looms-the-us-and-friends-hack-away-at-certain-rights/

[8] political declaration: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/news%20and%20events/stories/2020/csw64-politicaldeclaration.pdf?la=en&vs=1220

[9] hold the line: https://www.passblue.com/2019/03/24/the-us-goes-bonkers-at-the-un-womens-conference/

[10] subject: https://www.passblue.com/2019/05/14/the-case-of-harassing-a-un-diplomat-via-1000s-of-text-messages/

[11] negotiate: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2019/04/25/in-pursuing-a-new-resolution-on-sexual-violence-security-council-significantly-undermines-womens-reproductive-rights/

[12] opposition: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/23/united-nations-bid-end-sexual-violence-rape-support-survivors-spat-trump-administration-sexual-reproductive-health-dispute-abortion-internal-state-department-cable/

[13] predicated: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghanistan-us-taliban-peace-deal-anger/2020/03/07/25be7fde-5e46-11ea-ac50-18701e14e06d_story.html

[14] considered: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/towards-equal-peace-australian-regional-investment-gender-equality

[15] evidence: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/fragilityconflictviolence/publication/pathways-for-peace-inclusive-approaches-to-preventing-violent-conflict

[16] inextricably: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/opinion/global-womens-rights.html

[17] Covid-19: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30526-2/fulltext

[18] disproportionate: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51705199

[19] defined: https://www.amazon.com/Invisible-Women-Data-World-Designed/dp/1419729071

[20] too slow: http://www.aspi.org.au/report/australias-implementation-women-peace-and-security-promoting-regional-security