Radical or rational? Why Europe needs strong feminist policies to sustain peace and security


Picture of Sanna Kaskeala
Sanna Kaskeala

Peace & Security Programme Analyst at UN Women

We are living through a time of rupture and paradox.

Ground-breaking global commitments on science, sustainable development, climate protection and human rights collide with rising global inequalities, recurrent famine and historically high human displacement. Tolerance and equality are increasingly being met with racism and misogyny.

Frighteningly, we have seen a marked increase in militarisation and a surge in populist movements at the extreme ends of the political spectrum – movements founded on the rejection of pluralism and multilateralism, and a very public embrace of nationalist values and political systems of patronage. Radicalised attitudes risk leading to violence and violent extremism, which feeds on inequality and exclusion, marginalisation and hateful rhetoric.

These extreme agendas are often deeply gendered. They gain much of their populist base from assaults made on the rights of women: over women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies and personal and public lives; over women’s rights to access education, equal pay, healthcare and positions of leadership.

Attacks on women’s rights constitute a thread that runs from terrorist organisations, such as the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ (Daesh) and Boko Haram, to political populists in Europe and the United States. Both types of group depend on some form of persecution and inequality. Recent gains in human rights and progress toward achieving more inclusive and sustainable societies risk becoming endangered if the pendulum swings too far back.

Attacks on women’s rights constitute a thread that runs from terrorist organisations to political populists

For more than 15 years the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has stressed the importance of women’s participation and leadership to global peace and security, backed by eight UN Security Council resolutions that formally recognise the transformative impact women’s full and equal participation has on conflict prevention, resolution, peacekeeping and peace-building.

But implementation has been gradual and limited. Among EU member states the WPS agenda is largely perceived as a foreign policy tool – measured in terms of funding dedicated to development projects that target women’s empowerment in fragile contexts, or in terms of the number of women in peacekeeping forces. This is, of course, very much what women, peace and security is about. But it is also about preventing instability and sustaining peace domestically.

The European Union’s Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy includes two important priorities: strengthening the resilience of countries surrounding the EU and adopting an integrated approach to conflict and crisis that focuses on prevention and sustaining peace, including preventing relapse into conflict.

We know from qualitative and quantitative evidence that gender equality strengthens societal resilience to conflict and social breakdown. Women’s political and economic participation and leadership increases stability and prosperity.

We need a shift in thinking to understand that security starts from within

Inclusive processes with strong participation and leadership from women are systematically more comprehensive and lead to more sustainable solutions, whether in domestic political decision-making or in peace negotiations. Women’s participation in the security and defence sectors improves operational efficiency, reduces corruption, diminishes sexual exploitation and abuse, and increases trust between authorities and civilians. This is demonstrated partially by increased reporting of crimes to authorities. All of these effects are true in both domestic and international contexts.

It seems fair to argue that gender equality and women’s empowerment are the cheapest and most effective tools for economic growth, social and political stability and sustainable peace.

But women’s participation is not valued for its cross-cutting impact. Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is a welcome example of how governments should apply the WPS agenda. But gender-responsive approaches should not be limited to foreign policy only.

We need a shift in thinking to understand that security starts from within. A strong gender lens should be systematically applied and woven into domestic security and development policies in stable and wealthy democracies just as equally as in conflict-affected and developing countries. The EU Global Strategy is on the right track, but would do well to apply its women, peace and security focus both within the Union and outside.

Conflict and extremism cannot take root where there is equality. Never before has the equal participation and leadership of women and the promotion of human rights been as critical to global security. It is time to move from commitments to accomplishments; to ensure the tide will turn the right way. The onus is on Europe – not least as as the biggest humanitarian aid and development cooperation provider in the world – to lead the response. A strong feminist Europe is not radical, it is rational.

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