Tag: WPS

How West African women reclaim international discourses

Initiated in the year 2000, the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda calls for women’s participation in security governance and protection of women from security threats around the world. Despite its grand plans, the agenda’s implementation has been spotty, with greater attention to women’s participation in security solutions than to the structures of violence that have threatened them.

Furthermore, though the WPS agenda was initially driven by women’s organizations around the world and its intent acclaimed by many more, the UN Security Council resolutions and other policy documents that comprise the agenda do not always reflect the needs of the women who are the object of these policies, particularly women in the Global South. Instead, international discourses about women in the Global South stereotype them and reify them simultaneously as passive victims and as inherently peaceful. This characterization positions women solely as targets of the WPS policies rather than as powerful actors in their own right.

In a 2017 article in Global Affairs, “Pragmatic scepticism in implementing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda,” I outline two ways in which women and their work in local women’s security and peacebuilding organizations challenge international discourses at the same time that they reclaim them for their needs. This challenging is the “pragmatic scepticism” of the title – a way for women to be wary about certain essentializing stories told about them while simultaneously realizing that some stories can be useful as forms of organization and fundraising. Drawing on interview and participant observation research conducted among local women’s security and peacebuilding organizations in Côte dʼIvoire in 2014–2015, this article identifies two such stories that frame women’s activism around their own security: vulnerability and motherhood.

Vulnerability as a strength

Discourses around wartime sexualized violence tend to create binaries between victims and saviors, between the vulnerable and the strong. This has been echoed in the WPS agenda, which was not designed to reduce vulnerability by fundamentally remaking the system of gender relations. And though the first resolution of the WPS agenda, 1325, incorporated perspectives of anti-militarism, later resolutions and other aspects of the policy agenda have comprised this intent. Instead, the WPS agenda now highlights women’s vulnerability, and its programs are intended deal with, not question this vulnerability.

Many women in Côte dʼIvoire expressed frustration about how their day-to-day peacebuilding work was overlooked by the WPS agenda, which emphasizes external interventions rather than support of pre-existing grassroots organizations. Côte dʼIvoire, in fact, has a long history of women’s peace activism, during both the colonial period and more recent civil conflicts.

These women did acknowledge that they were vulnerable to particular forms of violence in conflict and in their daily lives – economic, political, and physical. However, they did not want this vulnerability to define them; they did not want a sense of victimhood to permeate women in the country. They reconfigured the vulnerability from being based on fear to being a place of strength from which they can organize.

Photo courtesy of Organization of Active Women in Côte dʼIvoire (OFACI)

As part of my research, I attended trainings run by local women’s peacebuilding organizations that had the goal of teaching women about their rights or empowerment opportunities. I watched the trainings shift from the morning’s formality to a relaxed camaraderie in the afternoon. Women told stories about their experiences of vulnerability and used that vulnerability to develop a solidarity on which, the training leaders hoped, they could build peace in their communities going forward. In the words of one participant, “Women need to help women because it is only us who know what each other is experiencing.”

But vulnerability can be used instrumentally by these women’s organizations, as well. These organizations use the language of vulnerability stemming from sexualized violence in the WPS resolutions to ask for increased funding for their work. Vulnerability is a pathway to access funding for some of these organizations, and women allow themselves to be vulnerable to establish their credentials as at-risk and open to the intervention of the international community.

Motherhood as an identity

Another frame produced by international discourses that women in Côte d’Ivoire adapt and work from is motherhood. This identity is often collapsed with ideas of vulnerability because of women’s specific health needs and mother-only caring responsibilities for very young children. African feminists like Catherine Acholonu and Obioma Nnaemeka note that motherhood in many African societies is not just a biological role but also a social one. Even if a woman does not have children, familial roles such as “sister” or “aunt” are liberally given and come with nurturing duties.

Motherhood, then, is not only taken on by those who have birthed and raised children but is claimed by a majority of women in Côte dʼIvoire and is naturalized for all women. As with vulnerability, women are pragmatic about their mothering roles, noting that there are specific ways they can work with their identity as a mother, but also instrumental ways to sell motherhood as necessary to security.

At the core of the activism by the local women’s organizations was a commitment to security, peace, and anti-violence. In particular, it was the attachment to their children through birth and caretaking that provided women power in their communities and compelled them to act publicly. Especially for poor women, who have little formal power or access to resources, motherhood provides them with the capacity to act. The director of one women’s organization passionately claimed, “A woman, child, there is not a more horrible pain than giving birth. Do you think she can give birth to her child and then let her child die like this? Maybe he’s going to die because you can do nothing. If you can do something, you will snatch your child from death.”

Just as with the frame of vulnerability, women used motherhood instrumentally to attract attention and funding to their cause of peace and security. Women’s organizations often premised their programs on women’s roles in their families and their communities. Conflict management programs, in particular, relied on women’s domestic management and intimate knowledge of their families. Local justice officials sometimes depend on women to report if their adolescent sons or husbands are coming and going from the house at odd hours, if there are weapons or large amounts of cash in the house, and if there are new people in the community.

Implications of reclaiming the discourses

My goal is not to reify women in Africa and specifically in Côte d’Ivoire as motherly or “natural” but to note and understand their experiences in their work, as they operate in their own contexts, both as vulnerable and as actors in conflict and post-conflict. Because the WPS resolutions are based on assumptions of women, allowing Ivorian women to the space to push back against these assumptions can help them redefine security for themselves, through their own advocacy. Only by listening to African women can we open up space for their voices and analyze their words and actions vis-à-vis state structures and international discourses.

Instrumentalizing Women’s Security in the Counterterrorism Agenda

The UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has become the dominant international legal and discursive framework for addressing gendered violence in international relations. The United Nations made its first great strides towards recognizing violence against women as an issue of international security in its landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. For many, the securitization of gendered violence through 1325 and the subsequent resolutions that now make up the WPS agenda has been a decisive win, elevating to the ‘high politics’ of security the long-expressed concerns that the effects of war, armed conflict, mass violence, and other forms of international insecurity have distinctly gendered effects on men and women. However, as the WPS agenda has developed, the increasingly instrumentalist and reductive view of ‘gender’ and of ‘violence’ employed therein has had unintended impacts on structural, cultural, and economic forms of violence against women.

Since the adoption of SCR 1325, the development of the WPS agenda has been divergent and highly contested. Many feminists have noted with concern the practical bifurcation of the agenda into two parallel, and rarely integrated, concerns: protection versus participation, with ‘protection’ afforded greater attention and institutional support within the UN and other agents of global governance. This prioritization of ‘protecting’ women in times of conflict and insecurity has problematically both relied upon and reinforced gendered logics of protection that reproduce stereotypical ideas of women as passive, weak, and victims, in need of saving by rational, heroic, and militarized men.

When, in 2015, the UN Security Council passed a new WPS resolution, 2242, on countering terrorism and violent extremism, some optimistic that it finally represented a shift in perspective from seeing women only as helpless victims of men’s violence in armed conflict to also being active agents whose inclusion in political peace processes is central to advancing our peace efforts. Yet, the move to incorporate countering violent extremism (CVE) into the WPS agenda has largely focused on women’s roles in preventing radicalization and extremism, further instrumentalizing women’s security towards conventionally statist priorities. Key stakeholders in the implementation of both CVE and WPS measures have tended to operate in a way that seeks to fit women and their concerns into existing militarized prerogatives for addressing international security, rather than considering the social conditions that make such insecurities possible. In this way, the incorporation of gender into the CVE agenda may further represent how gender and gender-based violence has become securitized through the WPS agenda.

What has not been systematically addressed in this ‘gender mainstreaming’ paradigm for CVE are the multiple ways that terrorist groups use highly gendered narratives in their recruitment campaigns to bolster their appeal both to men and women, and how such narratives resonate with their target audiences. For example, ISIS’ recruitment narrative relies on hyper-masculinized and violently militarized motifs, portraying their jihadists as ‘real men’ who are rewarded for their service with promises of a home, monthly allowance, and a wife. The reliance on conventional gender norms and exploitation of gendered anxieties regarding the capacity to fulfill said norms are critical to understanding the appeal of extremist groups.

Yet, within the CVE frameworks, gender remains narrowly understood as relevant only to ‘women,’ and the interest in gender instrumental to the security of states. Rather than rendering the global security regime developed to combat the threat of terrorism a “gender-friendly” space, global policy on terrorism and counterterrorism “show the continued dominance of a masculine paradigm in those arenas central to international security.”

 

How the WPS-CVE Nexus is Failing Women

In July 2018, thousands of women are being held in Iraq and Syria on terrorism related charges on accusations of their links to Islamic State. Known as “jihadi brides” or “sexual jihadis,” these women are being denied basic provisions of human rights and facing punishment on the mere suspicion of their links to IS militants. Facing death sentences for their links to terrorism, the implementation of CVE measures in this case has exacerbated gendered abuses.

Captured in 2017, many of the women are being held in detention camps in legal and political limbo, as their home countries refuse to repatriate them, fearing the spread of radical Islamism. While many of the women are from neighbouring Gulf States, a number also come from Western countries including Germany, France, Russia, and the United States. Others have already been charged with terrorism-related offences and are now facing 10-minute death sentence trials under the Iraqi judicial system. Accused of entering the country illegally and supporting ISIS by living in the caliphate, the thousands of women are facing punishments to the full extent of counter-terror laws in Iraq. Iraqi officials speaking to the New York Times explained:

“These Islamic State criminals committed crimes against humanity and against our people in Iraq, in Mosul and Salahuddin and Anbar, everywhere,” said Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Iraqi joint operations command. “To be loyal to the blood of the victims and to be loyal to the Iraqi people, criminals must receive the death penalty, a punishment that would deter them and those who sympathize with them.”

According to critics, one of the most egregious outcomes of these women’s being swept up in the counter-terror proceedings is that it has also impeded political will to investigate gender-based crimes perpetrated by ISIS, including the systematic use of forced marriage, sexual slavery, and strict curtailments of women’s rights. News reports suggest that the lives of ‘jihadi brides’ were strictly monitored and controlled, with women facing harsh punishments if they behaved in a way considered un-Islamic.

The example of jihadi brides underscores the tensions between the two available subject positions of women in armed conflict. The narratives of these women as dangerous terrorists is premised on the fact that their active participation in violence runs counter to the idealised feminine role we expect of women, ultimately characterizing them as gender deviant. On the other hand, to characterize them solely as unwitting or unwilling victims, subject to the will of their male protectors and guardians, reinforces gendered stereotypes and deny any agency or attachment to political ideals that the women may hold. The explicitly sexual connotation associated with ‘sexual jihadis’ implies a sexual deviancy and suggests that the women may be getting what they deserve for allowing themselves to be ‘seduced’ or ‘lured’ into ISIS in the first place by men more powerful or more clever than themselves.

Yet, even where attitudinal shift has taken place towards women who have been associated with ISIS from seeing them only as victims to also seeing them as active agents of terrorism, the focus has remained on how to instrumentalize women towards operational effectiveness in preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism. For example, in March 2016 at an event on Gender and CVE, the US Under-Secretary of State Sarah Sewall stated that “empowered women provide powerful antidotes to violent extremism. They are able to refute extremist narratives and nihilistic visions with independence and authenticity. Societies that respect the rights of all and fully engage the participation of all have no room for violent extremism. So women’s empowerment is not only essential for defeating violent extremism; defeating violent extremism is essential for women’s empowerment. The two go hand-in-hand” (qtd in Chowdhury Fink and Davidian 2018, p. 163). These sentiments are echoed in SCR 2242 itself, which calls for ‘the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism.” Such sentiments have sparked concern amongst scholars and civil society activists regarding the co-optation of the WPS agenda in service of counter-terrorism policy and the retention of a problematically narrow scope of concern for what constitutes ‘violence’ of relevance to international peace and security. Women’s unfeminine, unruly behaviour is interpreted as a warning sign and thus efforts to address women’s participation in terrorism, or to empower them to join efforts in countering terrorism and violent extremism, still stem from assumptions that women are not independent, political agents.

 

Gender in the CVE Agenda

Both narratives, while exploiting stereotypical assumptions about ‘femininity’ and appropriate roles and behaviours of women in relation to violence and armed conflict, work to downplay the significance that politics may have in women’s participation in organized violence, including terrorism. Much like the label of ‘terrorist’ has succeeded in securitizing, and thus de-politicizing, the social and political grievances that lead to violence, or that make participation in a terrorist group attractive. A 2017 report issued by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) showed how reductive the ‘jihadi bride’ narrative has been, and how far it went towards constructing women in terrorist groups as passive, manipulated, and brainwashed. Contrary to this prevailing narrative, the study found that many women, particularly those coming from Western countries, were drawn by a sense of ‘empowerment’ offered by ISIS, and were thus “deliberately seeking to challenge both traditional and Western-imposed gender norms, by seeking a new identity for themselves”. The report also suggests that exclusion and marginalization from wider Western society were compelling ‘push’ factors for women to join ISIS. Yet, prevailing efforts to account for women’s role in terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies ignore the structural social, political and economic roots of their own involvement, as well as the unique ways that women’s social positions may present alternative reasons or pathways for radicalization than their male counterparts.

Thus, while SCR 2242 and the focus on women in combatting violent extremism does, for the first time, shift the prevailing discourse of the WPS agenda from one of protection to one of participation, the scope for participation is restricted. Women’s agency and capacity for empowerment is discussed in complete isolation from the underlying social dynamics that both shape their social, economic, and political positions and that underlie the political economic dimensions of violence, armed conflict, and terrorism in the first place. Much like other global initiatives aimed at ‘empowering’ women, the discourse is designed to ‘sell’ women’s empowerment as good for the economy (or, in this case, good for political stability) rather than as a good in and of itself.

Because international security regimes enabled through processes of securitization enable states to use extraordinary means of force to eliminate threats outside of the oversight of democratic processes and civil society, the marrying of the WPS agenda to national security prerogatives, including the securitization of terrorism and violent extremism, may have quite serious implications for gender and gendered forms of violence. As feminists, we ought to be critically interrogating the extent to which gender-based violence and gendered vulnerabilities are best resolved through their formulation as acute existential threats that require such exceptional responses.