Towards More Equal, Inclusive and Flexible Peacebuilding

With a few glaring exceptions, there is broad agreement today, rhetorically at least, on the need to meaningfully engage women in peace and political processes. Women are crucial partners in shoring up the three pillars of lasting peace: economic recovery, social cohesion and political legitimacy. However, recent studies and reports indicate that merely increasing women’s participation in preventing, resolving and recovering from conflict, while crucial for sustaining peace, is not enough. What is needed instead is a wider practice of gender-responsive peacebuilding. But how can institutions like the UN and others make sure this happens?

At the core of gender-responsive peacebuilding is the recognition that peace is a gendered process, one that calls for women’s equal participation and the adoption of a gender equality perspective in all peacebuilding processes and programming. It recognizes that conflict impacts women and men differently and that gender roles both shape — and are shaped by — peacebuilding outcomes. By drawing attention to exclusionary structures and toxic social norms, the adoption of a gender perspective can not only bring us closer to a more equitable peace, it can also support a more durable one by enabling a deeper understanding of the situation and highlighting the root causes of conflict and violence. Rather than rebuilding the structures that contributed to violent conflict in the first place, gender-responsive peacebuilding aims to recover in a manner that helps societies save lives and build resiliency against future shocks.

In November 2021, to inform and support peacebuilders working on these issues, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), a part of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, issued a Thematic Review on Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding, in partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office and UN Women. The report maps good practices, gaps, challenges, emerging trends and priorities for action, drawing on field-level consultations with women’s organizations in Guatemala, Mali, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka; key informant interviews with policymakers, academics, and UN staff; a review of academic, practitioner and policy literature as well as UN Peacebuilding Fund’s (PBF) project documents, evaluation reports and guidance notes. The Review contains key recommendations for policymakers, donors, the PBF and its fund recipients, some of which are featured below.

Strengthen the language of diversity and intersectionality in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) policy discourse: Women are still often treated as a homogenous group with similar experiences and needs. The assumption of women’s sameness repeats problematic gender binaries and fails to account for the fact that gender is often only one axis of exclusion. Rather than referring to ‘women and girls’ — a coupling that seeks to draw attention to gender as an intersecting variable — ‘women’ and ‘children’, or ‘women’ and ‘youth’, should be considered distinct categories, with different needs and agency, and — where possible — referred to separately. Whenever feasible, more precise references should also be included (i.e., women from ethnic or religious minorities, women living in poverty, women living with disabilities). Furthermore, activists have started calling for more nuanced gender-balancing and gender-mainstreaming approaches to better reflect the complexities of gender identities, variations in women’s experiences and needs, and the interrelationship of war with both masculinities and femininities.

“Just having a quota system will not be inclusive; it is going to be exploitative. In Sri Lanka, without the [25%] quota we were not able to raise [women’s] participation … but along with the quota system we need other mechanisms for women heads of household, conflict-affected women — all of them must be represented.” — CSO interview respondent, Sri Lanka

Strengthen conflict- and gender-sensitive responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: Violence continues to accompany the COVID-19 pandemic in many parts of the world. And the pandemic has itself created new fault lines and tensions. The consequences of the pandemic are likely to accelerate violent conflict in many parts of the world, as structural weaknesses and societal divisions are further amplified. To address this, gender and conflict need to be considered as cross-cutting themes in all response measures. It is critical that fragile gains made earlier in gender-responsive peacebuilding are not lost in the current global crisis.

“Resources are increasingly divided between ‘the fight against insecurity’ and ‘the fight against the virus’” — CSO interview respondent, Niger

Increase support to women’s civil society organizations by committing to capacity building targets and providing flexible funding: An area of the WPS agenda that remains chronically underfunded is direct bilateral aid to women’s organizations in fragile and conflict-affected states. Many grassroots women’s organizations expressed concern over the slow pace of global progress in making funding more readily available. This situation persists despite accelerated efforts across the wider UN system. For instance, in 2016 the PBF for the first time made available direct funding to peacebuilding projects by civil society organizations (CSOs) as part of the Fund’s annual Gender and Youth Promotion Initiative (GYPI). The same year saw the launch of the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) as an innovative and flexible funding mechanism for grassroots women’s organizations.

“Support for the grassroots, the communities, the strengthening of their cultural processes within their own contexts, of their own community processes — that is empowerment that must continue … and the work with women, with indigenous women, with rural populations. Listen to those voices, facilitate access to information and political participation.” — CSO interview respondent, Guatemala

Ensure that rigorous monitoring and evaluation frameworks are in place, including improved metrics that go beyond ‘counting’ women and are sensitive to gendered definitions of a peacebuilding project success: Results frameworks often concentrate on narrow questions of merely enumerating how many women participate in a given setting. This metric fails to account for whether the participation was meaningful or tokenistic, and to what extent women’s agency is realized through participation. Instead, where possible, quantitative indicators on women’s participation (gender balancing) should be complemented with qualitative assessments of women’s substantive representation. Women participate across many activities including as mediators, gender experts and community activists, and the recognition of different types of women’s participation and the respective impacts needs to be included in measurement. The recognition that peace can be experienced differently by various groups of stakeholders is crucial to gender-responsive peacebuilding. Peacebuilding indicators that are gender-blind or gender-biased will likely bear little resemblance to lived experiences of conflict or peace. Some promising approaches have begun to emerge in recent years, for example, in a PBF-funded project in Guatemala, where a community consultation process came up with the following indicator: % of people who avoid going to or through specific areas due to insecurity — disaggregated by sex and age. This is an excellent demonstration of how peace at the local level can be measured, with attention paid to the distinct experiences of female community members.

Amplifying the Role of Women: Kyrgyzstan

One example of gender-responsive peacebuilding comes from Kyrgyzstan where the Peacebuilding Fund supported a project to address gaps of basic services and extension of services to informal settlements outside of the capital Bishkek. The absence of these services had been driving grievances and mistrust between these communities and state institutions, and the concern was that mistrust would potentially generate either backlash against the state or, or worse, recruitment by violent groups. Tammy Smith, Senior Advisor at the UN Peacebuilding Fund, explains that the PBF worked through women’s organizations — formal and informal — in and around these settlements in Bishkek to connect them with services and local grants offered by municipality. “We tried to be the connecting point between the really important and dynamic work that was already happening among formal and informal associations of women on the ground,” Smith recounted at the launch event of the Thematic Review in December 2021. “We saw that the result was not just that the role of women was amplified, but in so doing they also ensured greater access to those services which ultimately had the effect that we were hoping to generate from the peacebuilding side — of raising people’s confidence in state institutions and bringing them closer to repair the state-society relationship,” she concluded.



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