20 years of Women, Peace and Security: A Call for the Perpetual (Re)Problematization of a Problematic Agenda

Miriam Engeler
Master in Development Studies (2020), the Graduate Institute

Marissa Fortune
Master in Development Studies (2020), the Graduate Institute

Synopsis: On the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325, this piece unpacks feminist critiques of the Women Peace and Security Agenda and argues that applying critical methodologies to studies of peace and security can help diagnose the flaws in WPS implementation and help reclaim the radical foundations that the Agenda was built on.

Keywords: United Nations (UN), UNSCR 1325, Women Peace and Security (WPS), feminism, critical theory, gender, peacekeeping, mediation

Twenty years ago, on October 31st, 2000, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), launching a global policy agenda which over the past two decades has grown into a sprawling field of practice based on the initial resolution and nine subsequent UNSC resolutions.

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda addresses the gender dimension of peace and security through four pillars: increasing women’s participation in decision-making; protecting women from gender-based violence; including gender perspectives in the prevention of conflict; and addressing relief and recovery through a ‘gendered’ lens. The Agenda has rightfully been lauded as a significant achievement in recognizing and counteracting the gendered impacts of war and insecurity. Yet, the translation into international policymaking of what was originally a feminist and pacifist agenda, pushed for by civil society, has been the subject of significant scholarly critique. In particular, critical approaches to the WPS Agenda have argued that it co-opts feminist knowledges into neoliberal governing structures, fails to call militarism and colonialism into question, and leaves gendered power relations unchallenged.

Combining a review of scholarly criticism of the WPS Agenda with two examples of the Agenda’s implementation, we argue that the past 20 years of WPS have been defined by well-intentioned policies and practices which have tended to undermine their own stated feminist objectives in a variety of ways. To underline the academic critiques, we explore gender mainstreaming efforts in UN mediation and peacekeeping troop contributions to unpack how applying post-structuralist methodological perspectives to the WPS agenda can help salvage and redefine the next 20 years of its application in the global policy space.

In analyzing the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ policies at hand, we apply a poststructuralist perspective which departs from an understanding of policies as discursive practices that don’t address objective preexisting ‘problems’, but instead represent and delineate a problem in a certain way, with discursive, embodied and lived effects. Interrogating the way a policy ‘represents’ a problem allows insights into what assumptions – about women, gender, peace and security – underlie the problem representation, and what effects arise from this particular type of representation.

Counting and Adding Women to Mediation – But for What Reason?

Women as lead mediators in peace processes constitutes a policy issue at the intersection of two core problems that the WPS agenda originally aimed to address: the exclusion of women from formalized peacebuilding roles and the lack of women in high-ranking decision-making positions in peace and security. Examining the role of women as mediators in the WPS agenda therefore illustrates several conceptual shortcuts commonly taken in WPS policymaking and implementation.

The UN’s WPS policy documents and the efforts to incorporate gender dimensions into UN mediation activities show that the strategic frameworks for implementing the WPS Agenda conceptualize the promotion of women mediators primarily as measures to enhance the attention to women’s priorities in peace agreements and to act as representatives for other women. Women’s participation as mediators is also implicitly posited as having a range of other positive effects, such as enhancing organizational effectiveness and signaling inclusivity norms to conflict parties. At the same time, UN policies largely leave the highly masculinized structures and role models prevalent in mediation practice unquestioned, and still value an elite background, political gravitas and a capacity for securitized power-brokering as mediator qualities.

This conceptualization of women integrated into a peace process as automatically (and successfully) advocating for gender equality presupposes universal female solidarity and assumes that the integration of a few women into existing power structures will achieve overall progress for gender equality. Yet, while the promotion of women (usually from elite backgrounds such as national leadership or diplomacy) into senior mediation positions might in itself be a goal worth pursuing, positing it as an achievement for the representation of other women affected by a particular peace process applies a simplistic notion of women as a monolithic category with unitary ‘women’s interests’ and ignores differences of race, class, and power among women. Trying to solve both women’s underrepresentation in decision-making and the gender-blindness of peace processes and agreements by simply raising the numbers of high-ranking women does not kill two birds with one stone, but rather constitutes a dangerous conflation of women with gender, presence with advocacy and inclusion with influence.

Applying a critical poststructuralist methodology not only uncovers the assumptions lodged within the examined policies, but also the subjectivities created as a result of it. In this case, the designation of the woman mediator as a representative of a plethora of women at the same time both homogenizes women and separates the women mediator from other women by granting her power, voice and representative status that the ‘represented’ women are denied. Yet, while the woman mediator is expected to deliver transformative results such as rendering the mediation process more gender-sensitive, the subjectivities of mediators that arise from UN policies are still those that conform with masculinized structures of mediation practice. The woman mediator is therefore at the same time expected to fit in and transform, and to share characteristics and interests with other women but stand out from them by virtue of her position.

The resulting double standard applied to women and men in the WPS Agenda has been pointed out by feminist scholars in several other contexts. Laura Shepherd, for instance, finds that the Agenda contains expectations of women being “superheroines, agents of their own salvation, capable of representing the needs and priorities of others and with the capacity to effect positive transformation in their given environments.” Others have highlighted that the Agenda treats women, but not men, as having characteristics based on their gender and promotes women’s participation on the basis of reductionist and instrumentalist argumentation. While a certain pragmatism in the advocacy for women’s inclusion can be valuable, feminist scholars remind us that including women based on assumptions of their contribution to a process can have real consequences for the modalities of their participation, limiting their agency and constraining their area of influence to “feminized tasks” and ‘women’s issues’.

Parity at the Price of Equality: Gender Mainstreaming in UN Peacekeeping

A second case of WPS implementation that highlights several relevant academic critiques comes from the efforts of troop contributing countries (TCCs) to mainstream gender into their UN Peacekeeping contributions with the specific aim of increasing women’s participation. Deconstructing multiple levels of discourse and practice in this area uncovers many examples of the problematic underlying assumptions that have defined the past 20 years of WPS implementation. One such example is the recent effort to create Female Engagement Teams (FET) within peacekeeping contingents. These are envisioned to be platoons of 30-35 women deployed to the front lines to engage with local populations and gain contextual understanding in communities.

The representation of the ‘problem’ of gender inequality here comes back to the common theme of numbers, and the push for numerical gender parity above all else. This solution implies that there is currently a lack of women who are ‘qualified’ for deployment, and so it creates a new subject category that women are ‘fit’ to fill, a feminized peacekeeper: the ‘Female Engagement Officer’. This creates a gendered division of labour where the ‘soft’ work of communication and community engagement is feminized, and combat roles are preserved as a masculine space which women are still systematically excluded from. This method of thinking provides a case study for some of the critiques that have been mounted of the WPS agenda more broadly, specifically the work of Kirby and Shepherd who have cautioned that participation targets fail to address underlying power dynamics, which “helps to reinforce essentialist ideas about women’s pacific nature or their capacities for consensual problem-solving.”

With the creation of ‘Female Engagement Teams’, we can see how this policy, in fact, reinforces binary patterns of thought, essentializes women, and reverts to a sex-division of labour where female bodies are exploited for care work and relegated to undervalued, feminized roles whereas male bodies are assigned higher valued positions associated with physical strength, intelligence and ‘competency’ as defined as the capacity for domination. Because we are able to deconstruct the implications of this policy using a post-structural methodology, we can see that while technically increasing numerical parity on the frontlines, it upholds and reinforces gender disparities while cementing power relations rather than challenging them. Ironically, this can be seen as a tactic of exclusion hidden behind the logic of inclusivity. 


Applying feminist post-structuralist methods to studies of global governance allows critical insights into how representations of problems themselves are a tool for creating policy and re-producing particular narratives about societal norms. In the case of gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping and UN mediation practices, we can see how the problem representations produce subject categories as well as assign roles to men and women based on pre-conceived notions of gender and sex, often times thereby further entrenching these ideas as well as the ‘problems’ that accompany them.

As feminist researcher Cynthia Enloe has observed, “one is often complicit in creating the very world that one finds so dismaying.” This is true in many spheres of life but nowhere more apparent than in the realm of policy creation and implementation. The past 20 years of WPS have been defined by an obsession with achieving numerical parity in peace and security structures, ironically sacrificing the feminist foundations that the Agenda was built on. The efforts to achieve parity in militaries and mainstream gender into security institutions have also diluted the Agenda’s founding pacifism and its radical critique of the structural components of warmaking and peacemaking alike. This is evident in the examples of gender mainstreaming efforts in peacekeeping and mediation that our research has highlighted, although there are a myriad of other examples as well.

Nevertheless, discourses are constantly shifting, and there are still reasons to remain optimistic that it is possible to transform institutions without reinforcing gender stereotypes. This type of transformation cannot be achieved by simply adding more women to current structures, but may be possible by pursuing gender equality, while maintaining an active criticality towards the discourses which unfold around this endeavor. We would like to see the next 20 years of WPS reclaim the radical feminist foundations that it began with. The starting point to this, we argue, is re-gaining a robust critical reflexivity applied in line with feminist post-structural methods of knowledge creation. In the words of Foucault, the task before us is “a work of problematization and of perpetual (re)problematization.”

Image credit: UN Photo

This article draws on the research conducted by the authors as part of their final dissertations in the Master in Development Studies degree at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. For inquiries about methods and content of the dissertations, “Parity, Pipelines and Patriarchy: A Poststructural Policy Analysis of Ghana’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategies in UN Peace Support Operations” and “A Seat at the Table and a Foot in the Door: A Critical Analysis of Policies on Promoting Women as Mediators in UN Peace Mediation”, contact marissa.fortune@graduateinstitute.ch and miriam.engeler@graduateinstitute.ch, respectively.

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