The 20th anniversary of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda comes at a time of great global turmoil. The rise of authoritarianism and extreme rightist ideologies around the world have generated backlash against gender equality and the idea of involving women in security issues. The COVID-19 crisis particularly has created challenges for women, and it has laid bare and reinforced existing inequalities, including gender inequalities. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres remarked earlier this year, gender inequality remains “the overwhelming injustice of our age and the biggest human rights challenge we face.”

Yet, not everything is doom and gloom. Three developments have been particularly encouraging these last few years, and they have both broadened and deepened the WPS agenda.

First is the continuing rise and involvement of women’s organizations in the political life of their countries. Since the advocacy of civil society organizations from both the Global South and the Global North spurred members of the U.N. Security Council in 2000 to adopt Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, committing the U.N. and its member states to increase the participation of women in peace and security negotiations and to protect women from conflict-related sexual violence, we now have a total of 11 Security Council resolutions. They include the latest Resolution 2538, devoted exclusively to the role of women in peace operations.  In addition, 86 countries have developed National Action Plans that put the mandate of 1325 into practical effect within their countries and in their foreign and defense policies. And in view of the 20th anniversary, many are developing their first NAP — for example, Mexico.

Second, the WPS agenda is increasingly moving from being a framework focused exclusively on armed conflict to one that encompasses the whole range of security challenges, including non-military security challenges such as migration, climate change, and economic development. That is to say that increasingly issues of women, peace, and security are viewed not just by civil society organizations but also by governments as a pivotal part of a human security agenda. This is expressed most recently in an upcoming WPS report from Guterres.

Third, the WPS agenda is little by little becoming a whole-of-government agenda. While most donor countries once defined these issues as related only to their foreign and development policies, many policymakers also realize that the advancement of gender equality abroad has to begin at home. It is encouraging to see that in recent years there has been a move toward a whole-of-government approach.

Despite these positive developments, the WPS and the broader gender-equality agenda also are under huge strain. Amid the rise of global authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism, gender is an easy target for repressive regimes. COVID-19 has compounded the economic and social whiplash, leaving women more vulnerable and with limited options for jobs, healthcare, education, and political engagement. The rights of women and other gender and sexual minorities are under attack not only in the Global South but also in parts of the Global North, including Belarus, Poland, and Hungary.  Investments in gender-equality projects, already underfunded, are expected to decrease even more. Lastly, in an increasingly competitive world that focuses on great power competition, the human security framework gets sidelined in favor of old-fashioned, state-centric, and militarized views of the international system.

So, what to do and how to move forward?

First, we need to continue to support and listen to civil society organizations. They have been the drivers of the WPS agenda. As Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee contends, local civil society actors are the real experts about their own predicament, rather than the internationals who parachute in with cash in one hand and training modules in the other. Listening is a critical form of support and offers the opportunity for multi-lateral organizations to better analyze what is already working and to more clearly discern the gaps in terms of women and peacebuilding.

Second, we need to encourage and support women to stand for political office and apply for decision-making positions — numbers matter! Research has shown that including women in peace negotiations increases the likelihood that the final agreement will be more sustainable and include gender provisions. In addition, research demonstrates that quotas are strong predictors of improved outcomes for women’s political representation after conflict.

Third, we need to encourage the broadening and the deepening of the WPS agenda. For that, national and international actors need to expand their gender expertise. Gender and power hierarchies permeate all parts of our social, economic, and political lives. Without a gender lens, without a gender perspective, we are flying blind. In the years to come, it will be critical to invest in gender research and teaching not just for governments or the military but for all disciplines — from architecture to engineering to medicine. Each can contribute to the Women, Peace and Security agenda by making certain that women are a critical part of the design team for developing gender-informed processes and products.

At its core, the WPS agenda is about making known women’s unique needs for protection and ensuring that women are pivotal to participation in the problem-solving process. The younger generation is demanding change in how we solve problems locally and globally; women are an essential part of the answer moving forward.

IMAGE: Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of opposition figure Valery Tsepkalo, who was barred from running for presidency; presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya; and Maria Kolesnikova, Viktor Babaryko’s campaign chief, pose during a press conference in Minsk on July 17, 2020. The Belarusian regime was targeting female activists with misogyny and discriminatory tactics, as women in opposition teamed up to contest President Alexander Lukashenko in an August election that he claimed to win by a wide margin, spurring massive protests that continue today.  The United States and the European Union have refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus after his term ended. (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)