Gender, Governance and International Security

Nicola Pratt and Sophie Richter-Devroe (eds.)

Book Review

This timely volume reproduces in one collection a series of essays published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Its goal is to review the first decade of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) and the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda more broadly. While the collection is generally optimistic in terms of both the achievements to date of UNSCR 1325 and the accomplishments of its advocates, its chief contribution lies in the critical engagement of feminist academics, practitioners, and advocates with the development of the Resolution as both a concept and a practice.

As Nicola Pratt and Sophie Richter-Devroe point out in the introductory chapter, UNSCR 1325 provides a focal point – though not always an agreed strategy – for feminists in their activism around highlighting and addressing the experiences of women in conflict and post-conflict societies. Adopted unanimously in October 2000, the Resolution calls for greater understanding of women’s experiences in armed conflict, and greater facilitation for their formal roles in peace and security work. The Resolution outlines this sentiment in its main pillars – the prevention of armed conflict, the protection of women from violence, the participation of women at all levels of decision making, and the incorporation of a gender perspective into all peace and security work. It has since been the impetus for six supporting Security Council Resolutions, and the links developed between these issues and the work of the Security Council demonstrate an increasingly consistent willingness to link gender issues with the core business of global governance work on peace and security.

While acknowledging these achievements, this collection explores a number of persistent roadblocks in the effective realisation of UNSCR 1325. Most authors are quick to identify the failure to translate UNSCR 1325 into policy and effective practice on the ground in post-conflict zones. After its first decade, violence against women in armed conflict remains endemic, and women’s participation in peace processes is unacceptably low. Sahla Aroussi notes that ‘women continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers in conflict and post-conflict societies and their quest for justice and accountability remains marginalized’(p. 102). Local women still struggle to use UNSCR 1325 effectively to their advantage. In her chapter, Vanessa Farr argues that in the protracted conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a large gap persists between Palestinian women’s abilities to use UNSCR 1325 as an effective advocacy tool ‘and the normative patriarchal peacebuilding discourses and praxis that fixedly define notions of “peace-making” and more recently“state-building”’(p. 52). This is particularly the case, as Vanessa Farr notes, in terms of the asymmetrical power relationship between Israel and Palestine.

Yet, the Resolution has made some headway in terms of supporting local women’s peace-building initiatives. Jill A. Irvine’s chapter examining regional and local women’s organisations in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo demonstrates the capacity that local non-government organisations have to use UNSCR 1325 to hold global governance institutions accountable, compelling them to comply with the Resolution. In this sense, Jill A. Irvine describes it as a useful, though nonetheless limited strategy for linking local advocacy with global governance ambitions. Laura McLeod’s chapter, which also offers a Serbian-based case study, looks specifically at the contested nature of the ‘post-conflict’ space and notions of ‘gender security’, highlighting how differing interpretations of these concepts affect the implementation of UNSCR 1325. This produces different visions of gender security which, Laura McLeod argues, is ultimately enabling and enriching in terms of the evolution of the Resolution.

These questions of implementation are examined predominantly through a consideration not just of women’s participation, but women’s agency. Laura Shepherd argues that it is not simply enough for women to be present in the peace process or to be seen as actors, but that they must also have the capacity to be agents for change. In this sense, they must have the security, respect, and opportunity to be politically transformative within their own societies. This raises questions of who speaks for women, and which women are represented – or marginalised – in the practice of UNSCR 1325. The representations of gender identities, in particular that of ‘woman’ and the relationship that it has to imaginings of femininity, masculinity, peace, and other identity markers such as race, ethnicity, and religion, is a major theme which pervades all of the chapters. Sheri Gibbings’ chapter argues compellingly that there is a cultural politics within the UN that actively constrains any wider interpretation of gender identities. She described the shocked response of Security Council members when two invited Iraqi women spoke angrily to them of US imperialism throughout the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation. This demonstrated the power of the expectation that ‘legitimate’ women embody peace and reinforce narratives of feminine victimhood. In this sense, women are expected to rise above the petty local politics of ethnic or religious conflict while simultaneously acting as natural allies of the universal values of liberal peace and security. In fact, a number of the authors question the extent to which the practice of UNSCR 1325 expects women to conform to a universalised image, rather than embodying the complex mix of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, and political affiliations that is often the case.

In short, one decade is not a long time in the history of global politics. We should, therefore, not be hasty in designating UNSCR 1325 a failure. It is an ongoing, dynamic, and living document that is open to interpretation by feminists and non-feminists alike. What we learn from Gender, Governance and International Security is that the future successes of UNSCR 1325 will lie in motivating political will towards its implementation, remianing vigilant in our activism, empowering – or building the capacity – of local women to use it effectively, and remaining critically engaged with how with think about, and strategically deploy the concepts of women, gender, peace, and security at all levels of global governance infrastructure.

Katrina Lee-Koo, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Australian University

Gender, Governance and International Security is published by Routledge
Review originally published in Gender & Development 22.1 (2014)