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  • Writer's picture Sandra Colín

Women, Peace and Security in the European Union: reflecting on the last 21 years since the passing o

The absolute invisibility of the effects of armed conflict on women and girls, plus their discrimination in all the post-conflict stages was a steady situation in the international agenda before the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) on October 31st, 2000.  With the adoption of the now legendary Resolution 1325, it was clear that there was a need to change the approach to peace processes, giving a greater role to women in peacebuilding and conflict prevention. Moreover, the resolution helped positioning women as key agents of change in building sustainable peace, stating “The women, peace and security agenda is about ending conflict, not making it safer for women.”

With the 21st anniversary of the adoption of the UNSCR 1325, it already seems to be a generally accepted idea to include the urgent gender approach in the international security and defense agendas. With that being said, it is imperative to take a closer look at one of the most important global players for the adoption of the WPS agenda, an actor that has made conflict prevention and peacebuilding for a better and safer world a central pillar of its foreign policy: the European Union.

Where is the European Union standing on the implementation of the WPS agenda? 

Resolution 1325  represents a watershed political framework. It addresses the impact of war on women and the importance of women’s full and equal participation in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction. Likewise, it acknowledges the relevance of women and gender transformative approaches to negotiating peace, and reconstructing war-torn societies for sustainable peace. Within the next steps to take for the implementation of the UNSCR 1325, the latter encourages the UN Member States to ensure the representation of women in mechanisms and institutions for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict. Furthermore, it urges them to increase the budget and logistical support for gender-sensitive training efforts. Nevertheless, little guidance is given on how to implement it, leaving space for interpretation and responsibility on the implementation to each UN Member State. To complement the UNSCR 1325, in 2008 the UNSC adopted Resolution 1820, recognising that sexual violence is often widespread and systematic and can impede the restoration of international peace and security. 

The Treaty on the EU (TEU) sets the roadmap for the EU Member States’ commitments within the Union, stating that gender equality and human rights along with solidarity, freedom, and rule of law are at the core of the EU’s values. In the present challenging international scenario, mainstreaming of gender equality policies relies as a constant challenge specifically on peacebuilding and non-violent conflict resolutions as women keep being seen as victims rather than active participants and agents of change in peace processes. For the counterattacking of the latter, the meaningful involvement of global actors that take ownership of and implement the WPS agenda is crucial. 

Per Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Article 42 of the TEU strengthens solidarity between the EU countries by outlining the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), which provides the Union with the operational capacity to deploy missions and operations that rely on military and civilian assets from EU Member States, promoting aid and assistance. Currently, the EU has 17 ongoing missions/operations, 11 civilian and 6 militaries with around 5,000 people deployed. The overall objective of the operations is to ensure peacekeeping and conflict prevention by strengthening international security. The foregoing hints at the global responsibility and leading role that the EU plays in the adoption of the WPS agenda. 

After the adoption of UNSCR 1325 and 1820, the European Council has constantly expressed the commitment of the EU and its Member States through collective efforts for the full implementation of the WPS agenda. Under this precedent, the EU has come up with various policies that provide guidelines for the implementation of the latter and the constant monitoring of said agenda in each Member State. In 2008, the Council of the EU adopted two documents as a commitment to promote the role of women in peacebuilding and enhance, within its internal and external policies, the implementation of the UNSCR 1325. These documents are the Comprehensive Approach (CA) to the EU implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 on Women, Peace, and Security. The second one, the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 as reinforced by UNSCR 1820 in the context of European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP)  (Post-Lisbon:CSDP). The CA determined a common EU approach to the implementation of the UNSCR 1325 and 1820. Furthermore, it included specific challenges to the UNSCR 1325 which recalled one of the gaps within it,  recognising that women continue to suffer Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) before, during and after armed conflict.  The CSDP document provided a checklist for the implementation of measures regarding  UNSCR 1325 and 1820. Some of these included measures regarding women’s representation at all decision-making levels, likewise about the planning and conduction of the European Security and Defense Policy missions, operations, and training. The adoption of these two instruments has led to the development of various initiatives within the EU, for example, the establishment of the WPS Task Force (TF) aimed at increasing ‘inter-institutional coordination and furthering ‘a coherent approach to gender-related issues’. The TF calls for Member States’ active participation with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). 

Likewise, the TF made room for the creation of indicators to monitor the progress regarding the protection and empowerment of women in conflict settings and in post-conflict situations. The set of indicators was revised in 2016 due to the detection of gaps and the prospective facilitation of policymaking and prioritization of actions. 

The adoption of National Action Plans (NAP’s) represents one way on how the UN monitors and urges for the implementation of the UNSCR 1325. These plans show how states prioritise different aspects of the WPS agenda and provide information on how the WPS activities are governed, funded, and monitored. By 2010, nine EU member states had WPS NAP’s. These were mainly criticized for lacking key aspects in terms of monitoring and evaluation, budget allocation, and realistic and specific goals. Furthermore, the lack of experience regarding peacebuilding processes and little understanding of gender issues within the member states remain challenges for the implementation of the WPS agenda. In the case of large Member States, such as Germany, the adoption of a NAP was seen as unnecessary since the country itself already had gender mainstreaming plans.

In 2010 the EU also adopted the first EU Gender Action Plan (2010-15 GAP I) thus, reaffirming its commitment in positioning the EU in a leading role in promoting gender equality in development. The GAP I gave the EU a key role for supporting partner countries in the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and 1820, the latter through the development of NAP’s and policies on WPS. The Second Gender Action Plan (2016.-20 GAP II) provided directives on women’s role in mediation, negotiation, and peacebuilding activities. It was with the Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy adopted in 2016 that further progress was made regarding the determination of specific activities towards the implementation of the WPS agenda. Beyond the promotion of the implementation of the WPS agenda, it acknowledges the gender gaps that exist within the EU institutions, thus recalling the need to strengthen women’s participation in foreign policymaking, and to mainstream gender issues in all EU activities. One of the four pillars of the WPS agenda was recognized in the European Consensus on Development in 2017; recognising women as positive agents capable of contributing to conflict prevention, resolution, relief and recovery, and sustainable peace.

Is the European Union a leader to follow in the implementation of the WPS agenda?

If the leadership of the EU in the adoption of the UNSCR 1325 was going to be measured with the countless adoption of plans and strategies, there would be no room for doubt of its leading role. Nevertheless, we can question to what degree these are result-oriented strategies and whether they have any effect in practice. A study carried out by the European Parliament in 2017 recognized that EU member states need to do more for the effective and inclusive implementation of the UNSCR 1325, emphasizing that these efforts need to be focused on three areas: the structures that promote equality in the security sector institutions within the EU; second, the effects of women’s participation in missions and operations; third, how CSDP structures and EU member states policies could be further adapted to create a working environment that is conducive to both men and women contributing their full potential to better solutions to security challenges. 

The UNSCR 1325 recalls the importance of equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Yet, the gender imbalances persist within the European External Action Service (EEAS) where women constitute 12% of employees in the highest grades. Another significant gender disparity can be observed among administrators in EU Delegations, as well as among the Deputy Secretaries-General. What is more, only 22 out of 176 employees in the European Union Military Staff (EUMS) are female. Furthermore, concerning military operations, the proportion of women participating in EU military operations remains extremely low. While exact data is limited, partly because the turnover of personnel is significant, it is estimated that the proportion of women taking part in these missions is 7%. Even more striking is that there is no woman leading any of the current 17 EU crisis management missions, whether civilian or military. Only three of the current missions (all of them civilian) have a woman as a deputy’s head. The gender imbalances continue in the making bodies of the EU in this area i.e. the Foreign Affairs Council, The Council of Defense, and The Council of the EU. 

Up to October 19th, 2021, the EU member states that have not adopted a NAP for the implementation of Resolution 1325 are Greece and Hungary. Nevertheless, the adoption of a NAP does not translate into those states being gender equality promoters. Such is the case of Poland, which adopted its first NAP in 2018, focused mainly on women’s protection against Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). Yet, in 2020 announced that the country will be withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention claiming it did not respect religion and promoted controversial ideologies about gender. Furthermore, the right-wing Polish government announced earlier this year the near-total ban on abortion, with abortion only permitted in cases of rape or incest, when the fetus is diagnosed with a severe and irreversible disability or an incurable illness threatening its life, or when the woman’s life or health is in danger. In the government, four to five women lead ministries that are associated traditionally with gender roles (social policies, education, etc.). As a result, political priorities are not on WPS or women’s rights in the general. In contrast, the Netherlands has been positioned as a WPS promoter with the adoption of its four NAP for the period 2021-2025 developed within various agencies as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Security, and Education. Likewise, their approach includes a specific lesson learned section and increasing financial contributions to WPS. i.e a funding project funding to facilitate space for Yemeni women to lead a localized, inclusive, and sustainable feminist peace process. The Netherlands has a long tradition in emancipation policies to promote equal rights, equal opportunities, equal liberties, and (shared) responsibilities for women and men. Nonetheless, the position of men and women in the Netherlands is not equal; there are still several issues to tackle, i.e. there are no specific measures to promote gender-balanced representation in politics. Yet, compared to the other member states, the Netherlands is performing well. The previous cases represent one of the biggest challenges for the EU’s ability to make progress in the UNSCR 1325 since it depends on the degree of commitment to gender equality of the EU Member States.

The Covid-19 pandemic as a challenge for the implementation of the WPS Agenda within the European Union

In July 2019 the EU adopted the EU Action Plan on WPS (2019-2024) a high-level strategy that focuses on the priority areas set in the UNSCR 1325 of prevention, protection, relief and recovery. The objectives of the Action Plan rely on the cross-cutting principles of participation, gender mainstreaming and leading by example. Moreover, in 2020, the EU Gender Action Plan (GAP III) was adopted, aiming at putting women’s and girl’s rights at the heart of the global recovery for a gender-equal world, meanwhile recognising that no country in the world is on track to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. In fact, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality 2020 index, based on 2018 data on gender gaps, the EU scores 67.9 out of 100 and, at the current rate, is still 60 years away from achieving full equality. As aforementioned, one of the main challenges for the implementation of the WPS Agenda within the EU Member States is that this one relies on the responsibility of each EU Member State,  but in 2020  there was added a challenge to the development and peace processes, the Covid-19. According to a study conducted earlier this year by the European Parliament, the Covid-19  pandemic has challenged the global understanding of peace and security more than ever before, showing key weaknesses in policies for the pursuit of peace, security and prosperity. Even before the appearance of the Covid-19, global peace had been deteriorating. 

Rising concerns about a more multifaceted international environment and about worsening security – including within the EU’s own borders – are reflected in the policy initiatives launched by the EU institutions in recent years In addition, crises are never gender-neutral, and the Covid-19 is no exception. For women and girls, the impact of Covid-19 is exacerbated in all spheres, from health to economics, from security to social protection, simply because of their gender. In the case of the EU, these impacts were translated firstly into more social insecurity for women. About 84 per cent of women workers aged 15-64 work in the service sector, which has been amongst the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. Quarantine has affected sectors of the economy where more women have traditionally been employed, such as childcare and domestic and secretarial work. Secondly, women have been most impacted by the increase of domestic violence under lockdown; every week 50 women in Europe die from domestic violence and this number has increased during confinement. Restrictions have made it difficult for victims to seek help. In addition, increased use of the internet during the pandemic has increased online gender-based violence and sexual abuse of children, especially girls. 

The Covid-19  has exposed vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, forcing states to prioritize other areas, leaving on the side the well-being of women and girls. On the EU’s CSDP missions and operations, no specific guidelines on the WPS Agenda have been made since the beginning of the pandemic even if the effective implementation of it must remain a priority during this period of uncertainty. UNSCR 2242 (2015) was, in fact, one of the first Council resolutions to recognise pandemics as part of the peace and security landscape and to highlight the need for all responses to incorporate the principles of prevention, protection and women’s equal participation and leadership. 

The adoption of the UNSCR 1325 is not binding, which makes its implementation difficult. Although it has been possible to establish obligations for states and international bodies on gender equality and women’s rights in relation to peace and security, there are still gaps in the process. In fact, what has driven EU Member States to promote the implementation of UNSCR 1325 – though not the agenda as a whole – is usually their commitment or willingness to the Agenda, a circumstance that has been strengthened over the years. There are persistent practices within the EU that harm its image as a global gender actor and undermine its credibility to be a global leader on gender equality, these are the prevailing gender imbalances in the recruitment and promotion to management positions within the EEAS and within EU crisis management missions themselves as well as within the highest EU decision-making bodies, which are inconsistent with WPS demands.

Moreover, along the 21 years of the WPS Agenda adoption, specialists have identified various difficulties for the implementation of it around the world, these include, the number of women in decision-making bodies is still minimal, the struggle for women’s rights is marginalised in civil society and activism linked to the Women & Peace is often considered residual. Furthermore, the adoption of NAPs for the implementation of UNSCR 1325 has not translated into the improvement of women’s lives or the promotion of women’s political participation. Moreover, the Agenda’s overemphasis on women hints at the binary understanding of the social and political relations behind the agenda, which makes it a tool for the patriarchal reproduction of gender relations rather than a liberating tool.

To position itself as a leading example in the adoption of Resolution 1325, the EU must make a genuine and systematic effort to strengthen the protection of women and girls from gender-based violence as well as their rights to justice and participation in all those situations in which it is engaged. Likewise, the construction of a public record of results must be a priority.  The WPS Agenda is one of the few tools at the international level that emphasises the need for gender mainstreaming in the peace and security spheres, having expanded its initial contributions made in the field of conflict to more contexts and situations. Now it’s up to the EU Member States to adapt to the current global challenges and give coherence to its strategy on Women, Peace and Security. 




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