Women, Peace and Security: Conversations at ISA 2015

The last few months have been a bit of a black hole for writing. It’s not that I haven’t been doing any – it’s more that the realities of being a final year PhD student caught up with me. It gets harder and harder to find time to siphon off my excess thoughts. However, I think it’s important to make time to talk about the International Studies Association (ISA) 56th Annual Convention, which I attended in New Orleans in February. I’m doing this because I want to highlight some trends in the academic conversation on Women, Peace and Security, which I think are relevant for a much wider audience. Firstly, some background information (feel free to skim this part):

What is the International Studies Association?

According to its website, “ISA…is the most respected and widely known scholarly association dedicated to international studies.” It connects “scholars, practitioners, and students across the globe.” In other words, it’s a fairly posh club for anyone with an interest in what goes on within and between nations, and who can arrange a ticket and a visa to North America.[1] I found the Convention both intimidating and stimulating. Intimidating because of its size (the programme was 200 pages long, and the conference was spread across several buildings!) and the prestigious names in attendance. Stimulating for precisely the same reasons. Although I was attracted to a lot of panels, I ended up sticking closely to the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) Section, especially the niche on Women, Peace and Security.

What is Women, Peace and Security?

First and foremost, it’s an international legal framework designed to protect women in war and to promote women’s participation in peace processes. It takes its name from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (and the follow-up Resolutions: 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122). It’s also a global movement of feminist activists, academics and policy-makers, plus women’s rights and peace organisations, who are pushing for this framework to be implemented.

In my research, I talk a lot about Women, Peace and Security as a discourse. I see it as an ongoing conversation, often in the form of disagreements, in which some of the leading participants are:

One more note: I use the word “we” a lot in the remainder of this post, which is something my supervisor hates. To clarify, by “we” I mean all those who feel they are a part of developing the Women, Peace and Security agenda, whether that’s through policy-making, advocacy, activism or critique, locally or internationally.

Now, back to the conference…

Among the hundreds of panels taking place at the ISA Convention, a number focused specifically on Women, Peace and Security. As there were so many participants, I’m not going to list out who was there or who said what (if you’re really interested, you can browse the programme), but I think the Women, Peace and Security panels were notable because:

  • They featured a very vibrant mix of academics and practitioners, most of whom had experience in both areas,
  • They drew a small but dedicated audience – by the end of day three, I was starting to see a lot of familiar faces, including some of the pioneers of WPS research.

These two factors led to a lot of stimulating discussions, prompting a lot of reflection afterwards. Below, I single out five themes that I found interesting: Language, Implementation Process, State-Centeredness, Inclusivity and Knowledge Production. These were not the only topics under discussion, but I think they sparked particularly lively and challenging debates. They also struck me as very relevant to the work that many women’s organisations are engaged in at the grassroots, including those I’ve been observing in the South Caucasus.

  1. Language

Who are we talking about when we say “women”? For some, it’s anyone with a female body. For others, it’s someone with feminist principles. Does a “feminist” approach to Women, Peace and Security mean that empowering women is the core aim? Or does it mean producing gender analysis (perhaps in order to justify feminist interventions)? If gender relations are at the heart of social change, do we not need to talk about “Gender, Peace and Security”? Should we have  a sub-agenda on “Men, Peace and Security”? Are “gender” and “feminist” approaches necessarily different? What is the political significance of each of these words or phrases in diverse local contexts?

  1. Implementation Process

How do we implement the Women, Peace and Security agenda? This question revealed a lot of consensus around the fact that WPS has come to be seen as a technical procedure, carried out by gender experts, and lacking or losing the power to transform conflicts. How do you prevent the potential of UNSCR 1325 from being watered down by militaristic governments or organisations such as NATO? How do you preserve the energy and idealism of women’s and feminist organisations in the struggle for peace around the world? How do you make sure that their voices are the ones that come across in peace processes? Is WPS a red herring or can it still be useful?

  1. State-Centeredness

Another issue, closely related to the previous point, is that most of the energies in the WPS campaign are going towards National Action Plans, which rely on the State for adoption and implementation. This overlooks the fact that many of the world’s conflicts involve disputes over borders, or simply don’t recognise them (think of transnational “terrorist” organisations, as well as counter-terrorist strategies). Do National Action Plans reinforce structures that create and sustain conflicts? What is the long-term value of a NAP in connecting women across borders? One of the cases that was very interesting to hear about was Cyprus, where women from both parts of the divided island came together to form a Gender Advisory Team to assist in the peace process.

  1. Inclusivity

One of the words I heard over and over again at this conference was inclusion, and I have a feeling it’s going to become even more popular over time. It’s used to refer to getting women to the negotiations table, but also to critique the standard peace process design, which excludes a lot of groups, and not just women. So the question is, should feminists be arguing more for broadly inclusive and gender-just peace processes, instead of focusing on getting women involved in the current format? What other groups do we need to take account of? This also addresses the problem of inclusion/exclusion within feminism: how do you make sure that you are hearing from women representing different ethnic, religious, political and age groups?

  1. Knowledge Production

Something I really like about feminist academia is that it’s (usually) not afraid to say that the real experts in something are the people who live with those experiences. So, there was a lot of talk about how we can do justice to local knowledge within global academic circles. A point that stuck with me was that it’s important to document the resistance to Women, Peace and Security (including from women’s and feminist groups) and to make that part of our framework for understanding the potential, and limits, of UNSCR 1325. Why do some groups choose to ignore the Resolution and avoid WPS language? What alternatives have they developed for advancing women’s rights in conflict situations? How successful are these alternatives?

Getting back to the local

Two things strike me as I think about these five themes. Firstly, I don’t think that any of them will exhaust itself soon. Women, Peace and Security is very much about trial and error, and learning from experience. It’s about reshaping concepts, as feminist ideas (and often feminist bodies) move between academia, activism and policy-making. This makes it a very vibrant field, and an energetic one. Secondly, as stimulating as these conversations are, the real challenge (it seems to me) is figuring out how they take effect in local contexts. Every one of these points has an “answer” if you travel to a particular place, and this is turn says something about the international system.

That’s not to say that the answers are easy or obvious. Often, these themes are subject to the same level of criticism locally as we see in academia. The pressure to develop concrete strategies can close off certain avenues of debate, or ensure that these only take place off the record. The power relations between researcher and researched are far from being adequately addressed in theory or in practice. However, I do believe that with openness, honesty, and willingness to listen, we can do a much better job of understanding not just how Women, Peace and Security operates in diverse contexts, but what are the mechanisms by which we – yes, we – can strengthen the transnational feminist agenda.

[1] For more on ISA’s problems with privilege, see the debacle over this year’s Sapphire Series, and the Ruby Series which was proposed as a response.


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