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When women and power meet

About the author
Nicola Johnston-Coeterier is International Alert’s Senior Policy Advisor.
In 1999, International Alert with the support of over 200 organisations worldwide, launched a global campaign – Women Building Peace: From the Village Council to the Negotiating Table – to raise international awareness and secure a resolution from the UN Security Council highlighting women’s peace-building roles and contributions. Through the joint efforts of NGOs, UNIFEM and supporting member states, the push for the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security succeeded in October 2000. Rosemary Bechler talks to International Alert’s Senior Policy Advisor, Nicola Johnston-Coeterier.
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openDemocracy: Why is UN Resolution 1325 worth working on?

Nicola: ‘1325’ started out and remains a UN Security Council resolution with a whole women’s movement behind it. It is the first Security Council resolution really driven by civil society – women’s groups supported by broader human rights organisations – lobbying nationally, internationally and ultimately globally for recognition at the highest international level of what women do as peacebuilders and the necessity for their participation in order for peace processes to be effective. The resolution is worded in terms of encouragement rather than enforcement. Nevertheless, it was a breakthrough.

“Fighting violent conflict – an online conversation.” To join in the discussion on issues surrounding resolution 1325, see OpenDemocracy’s “women making a difference” blog

Once the resolution was in place, International Alert set out to document women’s peace-building ‘know how’ and gender considerations for international peacekeeping and security issues in the conflict-affected regions where we are engaged. One of the core outputs developed is a Toolkit primarily for women peace actors, which unpacks peace and security policy jargon and gives practical examples of how civil society, and women in particular, are engaging with these issues in different contexts. Since 2000, International Alert and the global campaign have built support and resources for women in peace-building and necessary gender considerations for security and peace at all stages and levels.

openDemocracy: So how would you gauge progress on the fifth anniversary of 1325?

Nicola: Unfortunately, much international policy amounts to little more than sound rhetoric when it comes to the realities in conflict-affected regions. But five years’ lobbying has ensured that this rhetoric is starting to make its impact on national policy and practice. The resolve by some national governments to advocate for and implement 1325 has been central to shedding light on the gendered nature of social and political life generally, as well as the structural inequalities at the heart of conflict.

There are some clear leaders in this field. The Canadians are well known for their support and promotion of 1325. Canada hosts meetings of the Friends of 1325 Group – a voluntary, ad hoc group of around thirty UN member states that regularly meets to promote the principles of 1325 in the main bodies of the UN. Following a Security Council Open Debate in October 2004, the UN’s own plans for an inter-agency Action Plan were joined by a few countries in this group – Canada, the UK, Denmark and Sweden – committing themselves to National Action Plans to implement 1325.

Several Scandinavian governments have strong, systematic gender policies already in place. Germany has a lot of “women, peace and security” initiatives and an energetic Women’s Security Council. Such countries may find that a new layer of reporting doesn’t necessarily improve practice and it can be more effective to focus on strengthening what is already in place. For example, Fiji, which formed its own ten-year gender action plan after the 1995 Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing is a global leader in developing national policy on women, peace and security; and they have made efforts to integrate 1325 into an existing broader gendered framework.

So there are different ways the systematic focus on women, peace and security is beginning to come together.

openDemocracy: Why did the UK adopt the approach of a National Action Plan?

Nicola: The UK was chairing the Security Council in October 2004 when a call was made for a UN systemwide Action Plan for 1325’s implementation, encouraging states to follow suit. Perhaps the UK thought they should lead by example. In at least one respect this is the case: unlike many existing programmes for implementation, the UK draft National Action Plan is building in timeframes and measurements for implementation.

The three different government departments who are members of the Global Conflict Prevention Pool – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – have come together to think through implementation of 1325 and draft this action plan. The MoD, for example, already conducts gender training for UK peacekeepers. But now they are reviewing this training to ensure that it integrates awareness of 1325 and implications for the way they engage with local populations in peacekeeping missions.

A new unit has also been set up to look at how to stabilise ‘post-conflict’ situations: when things are still tense directly after a ceasefire for example, gender will be considered here as one of the planning priorities. And DfID has reviewed its gender initiatives in post-conflict work and is likely to allocate more funds towards gender mainstreaming. They are very supportive towards UNIFEM’s Women, Peace and Security work in conflict-affected regions around the globe, but in the past have had little focus on supporting the critical work of local women’s networks. As a member of the UK Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, we have joint meetings with the Cross-Whitehall (UK Government) Working Group, who have invited us to comment on draft strategies relating to women, peace and security.

On its fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asks, “what has UN Resolution 1325 achieved?” Other articles in the debate include:

Srilatha Batliwala, “Women transforming power?”

Lesley Abdela, “1325: deeds not words”

Jeremy Greenstock, “Illuminating gender – 1325 and the UN”

Elisabeth Porter, “Women and security: ‘You cannot dance if you cannot stand’”

Maj Britt Theorin, “Women among paper tigers”

What has been most vital to progress is creating clear, measurable and realistic objectives for supporting the role of women in ensuring peace and security. Of course, all of us would like to see an end to gender-based violence in conflict situations. But while we aim for these higher goals, we have to break this down into bite-size pieces and say, ‘What can we really do in the next six months?’ ‘Who will do that gender training, and who will identify local women’s groups to work with in each peacekeeping mission? Where will the resources come from?’ and in terms of training, ‘Will you monitor whether people are really implementing what they have learned?’ If not, you are scattering resources to the wind.

openDemocracy: How is progress monitored in implementing 1325?

Nicola: The UN reports yearly, and makes recommendations for improving 1325’s implementation by the UN system and member states. As a UN NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security we have also produced a shadow report each year to reflect civil society perspectives on implementation and to support and monitor progress. In the early years we focused on what civil society had contributed to progress on 1325. But last year, we issued a critique of the gaps between the rhetoric and the reality from the perceptions of women in conflict-affected regions. In our next ‘five years on’ report there will be a focus on Action Plans and mechanisms for implementation.

Many politicians recognise they need groups like the NGO Working Group to ‘hold them to account’, and that civil society has a crucial function both in supporting the member states’ programmes and in reminding them of what has not yet been achieved. As a collective UN-focused group together with supporting member states, we have organised roundtable discussions with Security Council members, bringing in key UN agencies as well as civil society organisations, such as Oxfam, to focus on women’s participation in peace-building processes and how that relates to other priorities of member states, such as conflict prevention, the protection of civilians or children.

There is still a long way to go. 1325 actually focuses on women, not on gender, which to some extent has resulted in it being seen as a soft security resolution. Take by contrast a hard security issue, such as small arms, so crucial for exacerbating conflict – the main risk group there is young men, who account for 90% of the resulting homicide victims globally and who own the weapons. This is also a gender issue. You have to break down the key peace and security headings to see where, within a broader gender perspective, 1325 can be best applied.

In the UK, for example, Cross-Whitehall action groups were very swiftly set up in response to the situation of women in Iraq and prior to that, in Afghanistan. There is much more government openness than I remember previously to consulting with civil society organisations on gender issues, so that they can inform governments’ evolving gender policy in these countries.

The international community realised that if ever there was going to be a test case for 1325 in action, it would be in Afghanistan. But the realities of that situation are quite unrelenting: it is extremely hard to advocate against violence against women, or to work to support women, who wish to participate in the elections, whilst ensuring above all that in pushing for gender equality you do it in such a way that you do not endanger women. You have to work within the realities people are living in order to achieve lasting progress.

openDemocracy: One of the complaints made against the implementation of 1325 in Afghanistan early last year was that up till that point only 0.7% of the expenditure on the mission to that country has been women-related, despite the fact that women are the majority of the Afghan population now.

Nicola: Nevertheless, there are some excellent initiatives underway, despite intractable circumstances. One core issue in post-conflict situations is security sector reform, which involves working with the security forces, trying to make them accountable to civil society. Often, although resources are pumped into this, it neglects the different gender needs.

In the Afghan context, women in some of the tribal areas and even some refugee camps cannot leave their homes unless accompanied by a man – and the majority of men have either been killed or are missing. So the women may be dependent on young boys even to go out and fetch water or food. You have to find a way to reach out to these women using other women, who can go house to house. If you manage to find those channels, you can get hold of invaluable information, which you need if they are to be included in a viable security sector reform strategy or to participate in rebuilding their societies.

At the same time, you have to argue with the men and persuade them, in the terms in which they think, to be more flexible and supportive of their women going out and earning money, which is forbidden in some interpretations of the Qu’ran. You couldn’t really imagine a more difficult test case than Afghanistan.

openDemocracy: Would you say that the UN consults more with women’s organisations on the ground in conflicts nowadays?

Nicola: There are positive examples accumulating. However, it is still not systematic. This is an area in which the UN NGO Working Group has been able to help by linking up visiting UN Security Council delegations in a certain country with representative women’s groups from that country. Our networks are pretty extensive, drawing on women’s groups and human rights groups all over the world. In our observer role in the UN Inter-agency Taskforce on Women, Peace and Security we are granted access to the draft briefs for visiting UN delegations and asked to ensure that gender considerations are integrated into the programme.

openDemocracy: That’s an advance!

Nicola: Yes – although ultimately it should be built into the preparation of the briefing rather than added afterwards by the Taskforce. Gender-awareness capacity needs to come from within, rather than be repeatedly injected from outside. Nothing can replace high-level gender-awareness, whether in men or women.

One good example is East Timor, where the late Sergio Vieira de Mello was in charge of the UN peace-keeping mission. He was very antipathetic to gender awareness until he was persuaded differently by Sherrill Whittington, his gender advisor. Thereafter he would state quite openly, ‘I am a convert. Now I can see how useful gender-awareness can be in these missions.’ The Gender Unit within that peacekeeping mission in East Timor had high-level authority. It was positioned just under the special representative of the secretary general and had access to the required resources to ensure gender issues were considered throughout the entire mission. Subsequently, in most recent UN peacekeeping missions – whether in Haiti, Sierra Leone, Burundi or DRC, it is now more accepted that a strong gender unit is an essential part of the mission.

openDemocracy: But when it comes to percentages of Special Envoys and other high-level UN positions, we are far from reaching the target of 30% women by the end of this year.

Nicola: That’s true – I can think of three women special representatives for the UN secretary general at the moment – out of about thirty-two missions!

openDemocracy: Why is it so poor?

Nicola: People tend to appoint those they know in a small pool in times of urgency. Some say there are not enough women coming forward, but there is a whole database system within the UN to refute that. Thanks to lobbying, however, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) now has had a woman in the fulltime post of Senior Gender Advisor.

It’s not easy. Also, just because a woman is in position, does not necessarily mean conditions will be better for other women, or that there will be greater gender awareness – as you find in politics, or any other field.

What is needed is general familiarity with gender issues and their importance. At International Alert we find that the most persuasive argument for including gender is the cost benefit one: how you can be more efficient in what you do by considering gender issues; how you can move towards more sustainable peace by taking a more gender inclusive approach; understanding that it is not going to work unless you include women; and these are the kinds of resources that women have, and this is how to access them and this is how to better support them…

openDemocracy: And this is slowly yielding results?

Nicola: Problems are now well documented, which makes it harder to avoid difficult issues. Take the issue of abuse by peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, which has been going on for years without any systematic response – perhaps you remember the scandal in West Africa in the early 1990s of sexual abuse by humanitarian workers. Finally such issues are being addressed out in the open by the UN system. The secretary general requested an investigation, a report was produced in March this year and systems of redress are being put in place and monitored. That marks a real shift in accountability. However, even here there are some reasons for cynicism about what motivates this exposé, given attempts in some quarters to undermine the UN. However, addressing abuse cases is critical to the important role of the UN. So, it is some steps forward and a few back – but progress, however painstaking, is being made.

What is still crucially lacking is the capacity for reaching out to strong and truly representative local women’s networks in conflict-affected regions, rather than only going to the usual suspects in the UN system. That outreach capacity is decisive for including women on the ground and growing sustainable peace.

Civil society is the key element in pushing for nations to fulfil the obligations made with 1325. The critical first step in implementing a National Action Plan is in sharing knowledge, developing 1325 as a tool for local advocacy, and developing channels of communication between local leaders, NGOs and national governments.

openDemocracy: Does media treatment of women, peace and security issues help or hinder the process?

Nicola: In Afghanistan, wherever the media gained entry we asked them to enquire: ‘Where are the women and what do they say about the different issues you are covering?’ It is as simple as that in the first instance. If you can get reporters to ask those questions, the way women live, their priorities and the way they are treated becomes more visible.

Of course, there are always the ‘sexy issues’ and the horror stories that nevertheless prevail. But there is a more complex story that needs to be told, about representation and gender. Perhaps the openDemocracy debate can begin to break through the roof-covering a bit to shed light on such issues. Work on 1325 has moved forward. I hope we can use the fifth anniversary to create new momentum, so we can look systematically at its implementation, not just in the national context, but also in cross-cutting issues.

And I hope the content and spirit of 1325 will genuinely become common knowledge, not merely a set of regulations to be applied only by those in the know.


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