Peace and Security Means Addressing Social and Economic Rights for Women

As the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women takes places this week, much of the institutional, state, and non-governmental attention will be focused on the enforcement of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that was agreed to 20 years ago. In that context, we must not ignore the importance of advancing gender equality and paying attention to the social and economic rights of women when promoting peace and security.

It is worth recalling that the Preamble to the UN Charter articulates its “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nationals large and small.” As Herve Ladsous, Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations notes in his foreword to DPKO/DFS Gender Forward Looking Strategy 2014-2018:

Sustainable Peace cannot be achieved without women’s security and equality. It is essential that women are empowered to play a central role in the transition from conflict to peace.

UNSCR 1820 called upon States to ensure that women and girls have “equal protection under the law and equal access to justice.” As others have suggested, and I concur, the language of the “special needs” for women and girls found in UNSCR 1325 and the requirements of equal access to justice in UNSCR 1820 necessarily encompass access to economic and social rights to make legal protection effective as well as advance the basic needs of survival and personal rehabilitation.

Women have much in common in situations of transition from war to peace. They include the experiences of systematic sexual and other violence, status as refugees and displaced persons, humanitarian aid dependency, a lack of access to social and economic goods on an equal basis, exclusion from political processes, and lower legal status across legal systems in which conflict take place. Much progress has been made particularly in the context of naming and shaming harms against women as crimes under international law (including UNSCRs 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1960 (2010) and 2106 (2013), and 2122 (2013)). Arguably, this emphasis on accountability for certain gendered crimes might be understood as highly attractive measures of progress for lawyers and legal scholars, but such advances may speak little to the perceived impact of conflict transition for women as they experience the reality of economic inequality, social exclusion, and ongoing vulnerability to violence due to their fundamentally subordinate status in society. 

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, argued strongly that the abuses of social and economic rights within post-conflict criminal prosecutions and truth and reconciliation processes were an important aspect of achieving social justice. She was also clear that these aspects of security and peacemaking were largely neglected in practice. While important, admonitions against sexual harm and mainstreaming female participation in negotiation processes alone are insufficient to move us into transformative conflict space. As Paul Gready thoughtfully observes:

… transitional justice and human rights need to do more to address structural violence, and in particular poverty/inequality … as these have emerged as stubborn legacies from an oppressive or war-torn past in many parts of the world.

Placing the economic and social status of women and girls squarely in the frame of conflict analysis is critical to understanding why transition often fails to deliver for them. If we are to really advance transformative transition then equality, economic redistribution, and social justice must be squarely on the negotiation, implementation, and institutional tables. To date, not a single transitional or peace agreement includes benchmarks for progress on discrimination, health, education, housing, and food security. This leads to a clear enforcement gap that cuts across both genders but is, for the reasons of assumed care responsibility, social status, and political exclusion acutely felt by women.

Transitions from conflict to peace offer unique moments for renegotiating the social and political compact. It is precisely because core assumptions, systems, and institutions are up for renegotiation that the transitional state offers a unique site for advancing the equality of women. We all grapple with the “reality gap” between grand ambition of the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the stark realities of women’s daily lives marked by inequality. We must remain seized of the redemptive capacity that transitional societies offer to advance women’s material interests and equality. This integration is particularly important in a week where policy makers and states are focused on advancing women’s rights and also preoccupied as a result of the High Level Review taking place this year on UNSCR 1325, with women’s security in conflict and post-conflict situations.

In multiple contexts, women experience structural discrimination, persistent violence, lower social status, formal legal discrimination, lack of access to the public domain, stereotyping, and official and informal exclusions. A persistent blind spot for conflict resolution and conflict transition has been the entrenched habit of zoning in on specific physical violations to the female body, as the singular most important aspect of a women’s conflict experience. That approach has its practicalities: there are relatively clear boundaries to the violations, they map onto agreed harms in international and customary law (e.g., torture, extrajudicial execution, indefinite detention, and disappearance) and there are fairly clear precedents for prosecuting or compensating for these harms. However, this narrowing evacuates a range of harms and socially relevant contributors to the frequency and depths of the violence women experience.

Economic and social rights can and should be a core element of post-conflict settlement. UNSCR 2122 expressly recognizes that “economic empowerment of women greatly contributes to the stabilization of societies emerging from conflict.” And while this articulation is progress in the context of the hitherto narrow framing of the UNSCRs on Women, Peace and Security, I suggest that side references are not enough. My claim that the focus on women in peace and wartime should go beyond the specificity of sexual violence is not by way of asserting new set of obligations for states.

Rather, it is to live in a joined up universe in which conflict transition sites are under scrutiny precisely because it matters that existing international law norms (especially the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) are enforced. However, this approach does require that in tandem with the enforcement of existing obligations, that peace making and post-conflict reconstruction expressly take account of these obligations and that they be clearly understood and articulated as part of the UNSCR 1325 agenda. Ultimately, the lack of economic and social rights enforcement for women in the transition from war to peace not only impedes effective conflict transition, but creates obstacles to participation in political, institutional, and civil society structures enabling peace.

Given all the attention this upcoming week on monitoring progress towards the goals imagined in the Beijing Platform for gender equality and social and economic rights advancement, it makes sense that some of this thinking seep into the parallel Women, Peace and Security Agenda which has become the mantra for “doing” gender in international law over the past decade. It would also seem like a logical and parallel step to advance gender equality and social and economic rights as a core value of the WPS agenda.

Specific commitments to that end, or my preferred short-form shopping list include:

  • Gender equality should be specifically recognized in all peace processes, agreements, and transitional governance structures. There are such random references to women in existent peace agreements. If women are to be named and recognized in peace agreements we should be named consistently, usefully, concretely, and in line with core Charter and Treaty commitments.
  • Gender budget analysis of humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction must be advanced. Here for example, the proposal that at least 15% of all UN-managed funds in support of peacebuilding should address women’s specific needs is a basic starting point to advance gender equality in conflict sites. It states the obvious to say that if we can do this for national budgets it is clearly deliverable for these managed fund budgets given the ease of access to user-friendly gender markers.
  • The transition from war to peace is profoundly dependent on the transformational value of “human capital.” Rebuilding education is a priority but emphasis is most often placed on primary school children. Women should not have to choose between their own education and their children’s survival. Typically the emphasis is on training for women (vocational skills training), so reconstruction supports efforts that are the least prestigious and most poorly paid. Emphasize domestic function — increase participation in post-conflict economy education and vocational training need to be geared to long-term sustainable employment. As Elizabeth Rehn and Ellen Sirleaf advocated over a decade ago, a lead organization should be designated within the UN for women’s education and training in conflict and post-conflict situations.
  • Strengthening public services: It bears reminding that whether in the middle of armed conflict or after peace agreements have been signed, women spend hours of unpaid labour to provide basic necessities such as water, fuel, and food for themselves and their families. Restoring and prioritizing basic services will limit the burdens on women but it is also an essential transformative aspect of peace building. But it has been rightly noted that while governance, courts, police training, and security sector reform have garnered donor support, few seem interested in supporting basic services such as health, sanitation, clean blood supply, and education. As we have learnt the hard way in many sites “the peace does not hold unless basic needs are met. Development ensures the peace.” This maxim also demands that we engage fully the relationship between gender, development and transitional justice.
  • Land reform: One particularly focus is on land and property ownership rights for women. The plurality of harms entangled in women’s economic marginalization means that sexual harm is multiplied and the severity of specific physical violations is compounded by inequality, destitution, and social dislocation. Women’s lack of ownership capacity (as a matter of law and of practice) in many states means that women lack a fundamental security of tenure on their land, resulting in economic insecurity, uncertainty, and marginalization. Given the deaths and family separation engendered by conflict, women’s lack of land and property ownership considerably weakens the capacity of female-headed households to meet their subsistence needs or to achieve any degree of economic empowerment in post-conflict settings. Therefore transitional processes (rule of law reform, constitution writing) must address land and property reform, in support of the revitalization of national legal systems on the basis of international nondiscrimination norms, and is a core element of a transformative approach to women’s equality in transition.
  • Employment: Public/private transformations occur during conflict with a range of attendant complexities. Women typically find work based on their domestic skills, in the “unprotected” sector. It is also the sector with the least status and the least regulation. Surely we should be more ambitions for the women who have experienced and survived conflict, and not create new ghettos of exclusion and discrimination in the post-conflict universe? If they manage to find legal jobs, terms and conditions are often discriminatory. Transitional justice which invariably engages rule of law reform must, in this equality driven vision, address employment law reform with a gender focus. A simple starting solution would be for international organizations and governments to introduce affirmative measures to give local women priority in recruitment during emergencies and post-conflict reconstruction.

Ensuring transformation requires engagement with economic empowerment for women. In the transition from war to peace, there are unique opportunities for individuals, states, and international organisations to sieze the transformative moments to enable women to live full economic and political lives. Transformation approaches are not easy. It requires, as Charlotte Bunch affirms:

not only looking at what have been called ‘women’s issues’ – a ghetto, or a separate sphere that remains on the margins of society, but rather moving women from the margins to the center by questioning the most fundamental concepts of social, [legal and political] order so that they can take better account of women’s lives.

In proposing new ways to strengthen the gender responsiveness of transitional justice I am mindful of the challenge issued by Lakdar Brahami, Former Chairman of the Panel on UN Peace Operations that one needs to tell the Council “not simply what they want to hear.” It is precisely with that intention that the Beijing +20 and the the Women Peace and Security agenda must pay close attention to the transformative capacity of women to engage fully in reconstruction, economic life, social, and political life and to do so on full and equal terms.

The WPS agenda has rightly focused its attention on the egregious harms experienced by women in times of war but a transformative vision of peace and security for women requires paying close attention to the structures, conditions and institutions that have created vulnerability to harm, discrimination, and exclusion. Thus, a transformative approach to conflict and peace is not merely in the business of restoring the status quo ante for women. That return to “normality” is simply insufficient where women’s position and role has been deemed inferior, limited by law and often disabled by customary practices before conflict. We need to focus intellectual and political attention on material inequality and redistribution otherwise the abject poverty, economic disenfranchisement and dependency experienced by women will remain an overwhelming and dominant certainty in the post-conflict environment. For this coming week it means bringing together the economic, social, and equality driven demands of the Beijing platform with the parallel peace and security demands of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and understanding that both are inexorably linked. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).