Comment & analysis

Conflict prevention is vital for women, peace and security

6 March 2015 Julie Brethfeld, Hannah Wright

To make sustained progress on gender equality and the situation of women and girls, we need to reprioritise conflict prevention and address gender norms that drive conflict and insecurity, say Julie Brethfeld and Hannah Wright.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to look ahead to this year’s 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) – the first UNSCR dealing specifically with the needs, roles and experiences of women in situations of conflict and insecurity. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the landmark international political agreement which calls for the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men as a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice.

Both these processes have contributed significantly to increasing awareness of the inequalities and insecurity that women and girls face across the world, both in conflict and non-conflict situations. They have also both aimed to galvanise policymakers to take action and commit resources to improve social, political and economic conditions for women and to provide them with more space to contribute to peace and security. This is ever more important in times when violent conflicts are on the rise again, some particularly targeting women, and when we see a push back against the women’s equality agenda in many areas.

However progress lags, and considerable effort is required to ensure that the transformative potential of the women, peace and security agenda is not compromised. The current High Level Review of UNSCR 1325 requested by the UN Security Council is assessing progress against the commitments set out in UNSCR 1325. Saferworld is highlighting the need to pay attention to reprioritising the conflict prevention elements of the agenda, including addressing gender norms that drive conflict and insecurity.

To reduce the suffering of women and girls in conflict, preventing conflict should remain a priority. While UNSCR 1325 affirms “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts”, the ‘prevention’ pillar of the women, peace and security agenda is often narrowly interpreted in practice as referring to the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. While initiatives to prevent sexual and gender-based violence are crucial and laudable, they do not reach far enough. The reluctance to put a stronger focus on conflict prevention might partly be due to a lack of clarity about what gendered conflict prevention would look like; but also because many policymakers and non-government actors seem to see strongly militarised responses as the best way to respond to conflict.

This often comes at the expense of seeking to address the social, political and economic root causes and drivers of conflict and insecurity. A more comprehensive vision of conflict prevention would include longer-term approaches such as ensuring equitable access to basic services like security, justice, health and education for all social groups; transforming political institutions which are exclusionary or corrupt; or reforming economic systems which are perceived to be unjust.

In order to develop such approaches in a gender-sensitive way, it is important to understand the gender dimensions of the root causes of conflict and insecurity, including how gender norms themselves can drive conflict and insecurity, and how conflict and insecurity have different impacts on women and girls on the one hand, and men and boys on the other.

The Beijing Platform for Action highlights that peace is inextricably linked with equality between women and men. To build equality, we need to look at what currently upholds inequality between women and men: namely gender norms and expectations that are rooted in patriarchal structures and that restrict access to social, political and economic power to only a few. These gender norms that reinforce systems of inequality need to be challenged and transformed, not only regarding the role – and rights – of women and girls from different ethnic, religious or social backgrounds, but equally of men and boys. For example, boys and men are often expected by society, including by women and by the media, to display dominant and aggressive behaviour to prove their masculinity. This reinforces the use of violence rather than peaceful responses to solve conflicts, from domestic disagreements to national level political divides. Likewise, both men and women often uphold the idea of women as bearers of a family’s or community’s honour and purity.

Such views make women a perfect target for anyone who wants to take revenge on or humiliate a family or community by sexually assaulting wives or daughters. They also contribute to the stigmatisation of survivors of sexual violence, who are blamed for having ruined their family’s or community’s honour. Transforming these gender norms that contribute to conflict and insecurity and reinforce unequal power structures is an important process that needs to accompany other political or legal efforts to reduce gender discrimination and violence and to build long-lasting peace.

Women all over the world often risk their lives to improve the situation of women and girls, to reduce gender-based discrimination and to counter conflict, and their contribution to peace and security cannot be overstated. They need to be actively supported in their commitment, and a bigger role needs to be given to women in local, national and international peacebuilding and conflict prevention processes at all levels – including in high income countries. To enable them to do that, commitment, time and resources need to be allocated, and it needs to be recognised that achieving gender equality requires a long-term approach.

Julie Brethfeld is Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld, focusing on gender, peace, security and justice.

Hannah Wright is Gender, Peace and Security Adviser at Saferworld.

Find out more about Saferworld's work on gender, peace and security.

Event: Masculinities, conflict and militarism: How should peacebuilders respond?

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Event: A transformative women, peace and security agenda: The need to challenge militarism

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“To reduce the suffering of women and girls in conflict, preventing conflict should remain a priority.”