The importance of investigating and addressing the gender-related impact of conflict cannot be stressed enough. But in the work of UN agencies, the national action plans of countries, and regional frameworks such as the “Joint Statement on Promoting the Women, Peace and Security in ASEAN” adopted by the organization’s leaders at their summit in 2017, the focus has mostly been on the protection, and to some extent, the participation aspects of the WPS agenda. Little is typically said on the two other pillars: prevention and relief and recovery.
Protection requires minimal change in current thinking among policymakers and detracts from the WPS agenda’s transformative appeal that allows greater change and benefits for women. Although women do rightfully require protection in crises situations, greater focus on this pillar veers away from making the WPS agenda one aimed at comprehensive security. Consideration of interventions to adopt a comprehensive security approach requires investigation of the power relations between men and women within the cultural contexts of their lives. Without such an angle for intervention, the agenda is merely hijacked by the understanding of security as a military matter.
As far as the agenda is concerned, as currently interpretated, women are vulnerable and are greatly disadvantaged by this vulnerability. This is not untrue, but such thinking negates the resourcefulness and resilience of women, especially in times of crises. Doing so not only disallows the empowering of women but also wastes an opportunity to change discriminatory systems, during and in the aftermath of crises.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the WPS agenda’s subsequent resolutions spell out many positive actions required to address gender-related insecurities in conflict, not in the least women’s participation in peacebuilding. But in moving further from that point, there is very little on how to sustain that peace. One of the key indicators of potential conflict is the existence of structural violence within systems of governance that are taken for granted, depoliticized and rarely, if ever, examined.
One important area for further investigation is how such structural violence connects with the economic insecurities of women. This is especially so in this global pandemic as the lockdown and closures of economies have shown unprecedented adverse impact on the working lives of women.
Economic security can be the way that other kinds of human security – health, food, political, and individual – are measured. It allows women a level of freedom. It prevents further victimization through forced prostitution, slavery, human trafficking, and a host of other vile operations women may be forced into just to survive both during and after crises. But there is also a need for care in the type of economic opportunities provided, which can, under the guise of financial independence and “empowerment” merely perpetuate further structural violence through skewed power relations in the workplace.
What is required, together with other peacebuilding and capacity-building efforts, is to put forth liberating and empowering economic strategies for women. By this I mean engaging with the transformative nature of the agenda and allowing for economic opportunities where women have a say in how such opportunities will be designed and offered – for instance, the ability to organize activities or initiatives to meet their needs, being able to allocate their time between work in the public and private spheres, and fair remuneration for work done.