Women, Peace, Security – a text to fight for our rights


How do we establish peace? Is there such a thing as feminist security policy? What role do women actually play in international conflicts? How do feminists around the world use Resolution 1325 to fight for their rights?

Reading time: 10 minutes
Women demonstrating with the banner: The Future is Female
Teaser Image Caption
Feminist march in Stockholm, Sweden.

This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".

How do we establish peace? Is there such a thing as feminist security policy? What role do women actually play in international conflicts? Twenty years ago, a UN document attempted to answer these questions. How do feminists around the world use this text to fight for their rights? An overview:

Women, Peace and Security”, is the title of Resolution 1325, adopted 20 years ago, which is said to be a major milestone in defining the role of women in conflicts. I’ve only just begun to look at the text, and to be honest, I was never really aware of it. This was something of a surprise to me as I am heavily involved in women’s right and human rights, and follow global events through the international media and the work of activists on Twitter. I read my first article about the Resolution, while asking myself which of the Northern Hemisphere countries that have enjoyed peace for decades (at least in the classical sense) have even begun to address it. I’ll admit though, I have only the vaguest grasp of what “security” means in the context of international politics. To me, it brings to mind high-ranking white men in sombre suits sitting around a table, taking decisions on multi-billion dollar arms budgets. As such, the concept has little to do with the reality of my own life, at least for now.

But let’s rewind for a moment back to the beginning.

When Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security was adopted, it was seen by many as ground-breaking because it was the first resolution passed by the United Nations to address the impact of war on women in all phases of a conflict: before, during and after.

That was back in 2000.

What is a UN Resolution?

A resolution is a document of the United Nations (UN). These resolutions express the opinion or will of the United Nations on a topic. Resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council mostly concern international security and peace.

A resolution acknowledges a global problem, such as sexual violence in armed conflicts, and includes policy recommendations and methods by which all states can solve the problem. Roughly speaking, resolutions are drafted as follows: A group of countries comes together in the UN, addresses a problem, and gathers ideas on how to solve it. All countries with voting rights vote on the resulting draft proposal. Member states are responsible for implementation in their own countries. If the Security Council adopts the resolution, the decisions are not only considered recommendations but must also be implemented. Specific actions are then defined from the solutions presented in the document: Member states must earmark budgets, develop their own programmes, establish committees, launch projects, monitor the solution’s progress, and compile progress reports. However, resolutions are not set in stone, as other resolution texts can be added and new or largely unconsidered developments addressed.

Justice served the right way. What is restorative justice?

Justice is a key element in achieving security and peace.

How true justice can be established for all parties is a hot topic of debate. Looking at the example of the USA and the recent events there surrounding the victims of structural police brutality, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the legal system of punishment and incarceration is coming under scrutiny like never before. The word “abolition” has been prominent in calls for a different legal system.

The current debate raises the issues of how our societies should react to crime, whether our approach to justice is the right one to pursue, and whether it is tackling the causes of crime. One approach is “restorative justice”. Instead of simply meting out punishment, different forms of restoration should be employed. Most of the time, this involves the perpetrators giving something back to society or to the community.

One example of an attempt at restorative justice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to deliver justice for victims of violence perpetrated by the apartheid regime. The Khulumani Support Group, in which Normarussia Bonase (Link) was active, supported the process: The Group worked with communities and victims, and tried to win reparations for them. According to Bonase however, the Commission was a massive failure in this respect. Although it granted amnesty to perpetrators, it was unable to pay adequate reparations to those affected by the regime‘s crimes. Normarussia sees a direct link between today’s high levels of violence, criminality, and disregard for human dignity in post-apartheid South Africa, and this failure of the TRC. Done properly however, the pursuit of restorative justice can lead to the transformation of a society after conflict, war, and violent confrontation.

The main steps towards restorative justice include:

  • Acknowledgement: The acceptance of an unjust situation is often a crucial element for those affected.

  • Inclusion: Victims of injustice play an active role; they are involved in the process and work on solutions together.

  • Responsibility: Perpetrators make a commitment to take responsibility for their crimes.

  • Restitution: Restorative justice requires that victims get something back. Perpetrators must do something to relieve the burden of victims. The form which this takes is decided by the needs and wishes of those affected and their communities.

What has been done since then? I begin to read portraits of feminists who have dedicated their lives to promoting peace and fighting for a different kind of society with every fibre of their being. These include stories of women from Montenegro to Mexico, from Dimapur in the north-east of India to Baghdad in Iraq, from the Balkans to Georgia, the Philippines to South Africa.

Representation alone is not enough

I begin with Israeli lawyer and activist Netta Loevy. She represents women who have suffered discrimination, and seeks to apply the principles of the Resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. One of the requirements that the Resolution places upon member states is that women should have greater representation in local and international institutions. However, Loevy is critical of the issue of representation: Even though many countries have implemented Resolution 1325 to allow the deployment of more women in military security zones, Israel is a prime example of why this does not lead to conflict resolution. In Israel’s highly militarised society, women play a central role in the military, though this has not altered the narrative around the peace process. The solution must lie in security in a much broader sense, but how do we reach this point?

I come across an initial answer in the biography of Mexican journalist, feminist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro. For the past 30 years, she has tirelessly documented stories of organised crime, human trafficking, structural violence and corruption. As a result, she has become one of the most prominent voices on the subject of security, and her work is an extremely dangerous undertaking. Security is all about allowing us to live our lives, she says. Security is not simply freedom from the fear that a tank is going to come rumbling around the next corner, but freedom from fear in all aspects of life, for example, the ability to meet our basic needs, or having adequate economic freedom to play a full part in society. Security is not just one element of this, but all this at once?

How can a single text address all this at once?

As I think about it, I begin to wonder where this genuine security actually exists in my environment. Even in the wealthiest countries, people live on and below the bread line, work in precarious conditions, live with violent partners, are often left traumatised, or do not receive the physical support they need. The demand for a secure society is a matter for us all.

I read the story of Julia Karashvili, who works with displaced persons in Georgia, and discover exactly how she addresses my initial thoughts: It is a mistake to think that the Resolution is not required where there is no conflict. We shouldn’t simply see the Resolution as a conflict tool, as the principles could be applied to almost any issue based on equality and equal rights for all.

Karashvili is firmly convinced that the Resolution is an instrument that can be used by women to make their voices heard, and to articulate their needs. The further the Resolution’s reach and the more universally it is applied, the more space and opportunity will be created to help achieve its aims.

Towards a vision

For Dolly Kikon, an Indian activist from Dimapur, the largest city in the north-eastern state of Nagaland, the Resolution is exactly that: a vision set out on paper, a promise, a set of guiding principles, allowing us to understand what it means to desire and to push universal rights.

In other words, it is a tool that we can all use, but how should we use it exactly?

How can we establish lasting security? How do we lay the foundation?

What is the current role of women in peacemaking?

The only woman to have signed a major peace accord as chief negotiator is Miriam Coronel-Ferrer.

I know it is difficult to imagine, but it tells you everything about the current state of affairs, she remarks wryly. The fact that her role is such a departure from the norm shows the extent of the struggle for women to assert their presence in the peace process. Coronel-Ferrer helped negotiate an agreement between rebel groups and the government in the Philippines in a conflict which had rumbled on since 1968 and had appeared virtually intractable. Coronel-Ferrer’s formula was very simple: Never give up. “You just need to keep trying.” Yes, the Resolution succeeded in creating a global legal framework for the involvement of women, but in the end we need to judge it within the context of reality.

What is the real situation regarding gender equality?

Dolly Kikon believes that the Resolution and its implementation fall short in several areas but in the same breath recalls the values instilled in her by her mentors: “If you’re not engaging, shut up”. So she is a “doer”, and is also critical of the tendency to discuss gender sensitivity rather than make an urgent commitment; gender sensitisation is simply a way of seeking a quick fix to what is a far more fundamental problem. When we move on from debating gender equality to talk about power, influence and authority, a quite different picture emerges, one through which we can make real progress.

Gender-equality policies cannot simply be a knee-jerk reaction but must be firmly embedded in the political landscape.

This means a tireless effort on all fronts: What are the specifics of this peace work? How do feminists change the way in which the public views the world? How do they carve out their own territory within the world of politics, and establish lasting networks in the media, on the streets, and in parliaments?

In public opinion: “We have succeeded in making a significant impact on our global narrative and the way we look at ourselves”

What happened to public perception after the United Nations not only recognised women as affected parties, as victims of war who have no voice, no power to make decisions, but as an active participant in all phases of the peace process? Stephenie Foster, who has worked as an advisor for women and civil society in Kabul, sees attitudes evolving: Twenty years ago, “our” objective was to protect women and girls. This perspective has changed quite radically.

Ongoing feminist campaigning has had an impact: Women are no longer seen as powerless, as objects of sympathy or mere pawns, but as political agents with power to act.This includes sitting around the table in peace negotiations and assuming a leading role in shaping a new society after conflict. However, a peace accord on its own does not lead to a just society and gender equality. After all, peace is not only made at the negotiating table, but often begins elsewhere, on the streets of the apartheid regime, for example. This is the story of South African activist Nomarussia Bonase, who dedicated her life to peace activism from an early age. In school, she gathered together a group of pupils against apartheid. Since then, she has been a tireless campaigner for solidarity and against injustice. Bonase sees promoting peace as a lifelong task spanning the generations: It is all about learning from the past, connecting with previous generations, and passing on our knowledge to the next. To succeed requires nothing less.

In parliaments: “Be courageous, be daring in the pursuit of right”

The next pillar is politics. The story of Hanan Ashrawi offers hope that we can realign politics even if we are not in office or hold a political mandate. For years, Ashrawi has been a driving force behind the Palestinian government, shaping everyday politics without wielding (power herself. She wants to be part of a correcting force to ensure that the government system is based on human rights and equality. Her success has been astonishing. What drives her on, how is she able to pressurise the government to address feminist concerns? Well, mainly through strong alliances, by never working alone, and not least, by sticking to her principles.

Reading these stories has changed my perspective: Creating security means never giving up. Keep trying. Keep talking to one another. Furthering peace often involves small, painstaking steps which may well be overlooked, but which can change everything. The stories of these “Guardians of Peace” (Julia Kharashvili) awoke a feeling inside me that is invaluable in times of crisis: The principle of hope. The biographies of activists, of resistance fighters battling away in the most difficult of circumstances, stories of persistence, of those who have overcome a seemingly endless series of obstacles, teach us never to give up. Work behind the scenes; work not for the glory, but because you know it’s the right thing to do. Accept that the road may be long and weary – and may well last a lifetime. Share your knowledge and use your privilege to not just gain but create access. Be aware that we have supporters right around the world. Be bold, stick to your principles, don’t allow yourself to be diverted from the task, work with others. Defy the odds and forge alliances across generations and borders. These are the lessons to be learned from such women, especially at times when we often feel powerless, where insecurity weighs upon us like a millstone, and when we simply don’t know how the story is going to end; keep stoking the fire so that it glows and burns and never goes out.

Translation from German by Darren Moorby