Peace Science Digest

Challenges Implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in EU Peacekeeping

Photo credit: Óglaigh na hÉireann via flickr

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Deiana, M.-A. & McDonagh, K. (2018). ‘It is important, but…’: Translating the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda into the planning of EU peacekeeping missions. Peacebuilding, 6(1), 34-48.

Talking Points

  • Eighteen years after its passage, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires the incorporation of a “gender perspective” and the full participation of women in all peace and security activities, has fallen short of its transformative potential, even if its existence and the presence of gender advisors have been crucial to getting these issues on the table at all.
  • EU gender policy documents—through inadequate attention to the operation of power in gender differences and an over-representation of women as vulnerable and in need of protection—end up depoliticizing and narrowing the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda.
  • Planning staff in EU peacekeeping and crisis management missions maintain traditional understandings of security as a gender-neutral domain in relation to which “gender issues” are seen as an afterthought—not as essential to security work itself.
  • Both EU policy documents and interviews with EU peacekeeping and crisis management planning staff reveal a tendency to see gender-based violence or broader gender inequalities as problems “out there” in (non-European) host societies rather than as problems in which the EU itself is complicit. 


Feminist peace scholars and practitioners cheered the passage of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in October 2000, as it called on member states to incorporate a “gender perspective,” as well as to ensure full participation of women, in all aspects of UN peace and security efforts. Over the past 18 years, however, as scholars have begun to study the effects of “1325” and its accompanying Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda on actual peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding activities, it has become clear that the implementation of this agenda has fallen short of the hopes pinned to it. The authors wish to contribute to this body of research by examining how the WPS agenda is implemented in another international organization, the European Union (EU)—namely, in the policy and practice of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) peacekeeping and crisis management missions.

To explore this question, the authors analyze both key EU policy documents related to gender mainstreaming and interviews with those responsible for planning, monitoring, and reviewing EU missions: five interviews with planners in the EU Crisis Management and Planning Directorate (CMPD), Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability (CPCC), and Military Staff, including the CMPD’s gender advisor, as well as two conversations and interviews with gender and human rights advisors working in these missions. In the policy documents, they initially find a superficially sophisticated understanding of gender that is, upon further examination, revealed to be less than satisfying in the way it narrows and depoliticizes the WPS agenda’s scope and potential. They then find an even further gap between the articulation of the WPS agenda in these documents and its implementation in the planning and practice of specific missions, further limiting its transformative potential.

The two major EU policy documents the authors examine are the Comprehensive Approach on EU Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820 On Women, Peace and Security and the Lessons and Best Practices of Mainstreaming Human Rights and Gender into CSDP Military Operations and Civilian Missions. Although they demonstrate a fairly sophisticated understanding of gender as “socially constructed differences” and as relating to both women and men, rather than simply equating “gender” with “women,” the EU documents shy away from a recognition of the power differentials that structure these gender differences, privileging men over women but also masculinities over femininities. In a move that further depoliticizes the WPS agenda, gender inclusion strategies are also envisioned in terms of providing women with increased capacities so that they are “better equipped to be included in the process,” rather than in terms of transforming the unequal and masculinist institutions and structures themselves. In addition, these documents function to narrow the scope of the WPS agenda by focusing on protection issues—especially those related to gender-based violence—at the expense of women’s agency, effectively casting gender mainstreaming as special concern for “vulnerable groups” or for what Enloe has called “womenandchildren.” These representations of women solely as helpless victims in need of protection actually serve to reinforce gender inequalities and peacekeeping’s paternalistic qualities. Finally, the authors identify a tendency in these documents to see gender-based violence or broader gender inequalities as problems “out there” in (non-European) host societies rather than as problems in which the EU itself is complicit, reproducing a framing familiar from colonial times where “civilized” European men presumably swooped in to protect “vulnerable” women from “savage” men.

The interviews reveal a further gap between the transformative potential of the WPS agenda and its actual implementation in mission planning and practice, as well as a further narrowing down of what gender mainstreaming is considered to entail—perhaps partly due to the fact that “regular” (non-gender-advisor) planning staff had not read or deeply engaged with the relevant gender policy documents, despite having received them. One of the authors’ major findings is that the potential of the WPS agenda is hemmed in by traditional understandings of security as a gender-neutral domain in relation to which “gender issues” are seen as an afterthought—as not essential to security work itself. Consequently, planning staff tend only to apply gender mainstreaming to the extent that it is seen to serve pre-existing mission objectives, and gender advisors realize that they must frame gender concerns in practical, “operational” terms in order to get most “regular” staff on board. Furthermore, the authors find a resistance among staff to acknowledging their own or their institutions’ complicity in gender inequality and instead a displacement of gender concerns onto “others” (women or “old-fashioned” male colleagues) or onto other (non-European) spaces, while asserting their own “gender blindness” and “liberal, progressive” attitudes. In short, the potential of the WPS agenda to transform unequal gender power relations and how they inform security-management practices is largely lost, even if the presence of UNSCR 1325 and related EU policy documents, as well as of gender advisors, is crucial to getting these issues on the table at all. 

Contemporary Relevance

One of the most troubling findings of this study is that gender is still treated as an “afterthought” to more important security concerns—instead of as crucially important to understanding the very operation of violent conflict and therefore also its prevention, management, and transformation. In fact, one of the most critical ways in which gender structures security concerns is through the operation of dominant norms of masculinity—a fact that is perhaps more uncomfortable for many of those in power to consider, as the author notes (citing Enloe and Puechguirbal), since it would have to do with them, and they would have to investigate the way gender norms influence their own behavior instead of displacing “gender concerns” onto others. This so-called “man question” in global politics can be observed in everything from the “technostrategic discourse” Cohn observed among defense intellectuals strategizing about nuclear war back in the late 1980s to the dominant forms of masculinity drawn on in military recruitment ads to the rising tensions in international crises marked by two political leaders unwilling to look “weak” (and therefore “feminine”) by de-escalating.

Similarly, when we consider the rise of armed nonstate actors (ANSAs)—groups mostly comprised of young men—it makes sense to inquire into the extent to which the attraction to armed groups may be shaped by norms of masculinity dominant in different contexts. In other words, the type of insecurity to which EU (or other) peacekeeping might be a response is likely itself deeply constituted by the gender norms of a particular locale; to address the most pressing security concerns, therefore, it is necessary to employ a gender lens in one’s analysis and planning. It is evident that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) employed such a lens to useful effect in a recent report on strategies for influencing ANSA fighters to adopt principles of international humanitarian law (IHL—the so-called “laws of war”) in their activities. In an effort to make IHL more culturally relevant to Dinka fighters in South Sudan, for instance, ICRC researchers examined traditional wrestling matches in these communities and found that they could communicate the IHL concept of “noncombatant immunity” by drawing a parallel between the groups—women, old men, and children—not allowed to fight in these wrestling matches and the noncombatants who should be protected during armed conflict. In other words, here the ICRC is using existing gender norms to try to influence armed actors away from certain types of violence—the central work of making people more secure.

At the same time, however, by drawing on these traditional gender norms, the ICRC is also reinforcing them—norms that mark young men as strong protectors and women as “weak” (and in need of protection). These are norms that can easily be turned around to justify the wider use of violence in the context of armed conflict. In other words, there is a difficult tension here between noting and drawing on existing gender norms in the service of enhanced security and not at the same time reinforcing these norms, which may be problematic in other ways. And, in cases where existing gender norms are clearly part of the problem, an opposite tension emerges between challenging the gender norms that may be fueling violent conflict (for instance, a dominant form of masculinity tied up with aggressive behavior) and not at the same time engaging in cultural imperialism (forcing western values and cultural practices onto the culture under consideration). This tension—and its connection to a larger debate on feminism and cultural relativism—is useful in that it reminds us to be attentive to three sets of demands: what will make people safer, what will be more empowering for women, and what will respect local cultural practices (with the understanding that these are neither static nor pure). To be sure, two or more of these demands may be in conflict in any particular context, so there are no easy, straightforward strategies for meeting all three, though it helps to remember that “cultures” are porous and dynamic and hybrid, so there are often people within a particular cultural context already pushing for greater gender empowerment or equality. The point to notice for the moment, however, is how central gender norms are to security/insecurity practices in the first place—and how they must be critically examined as an integral part of the work of preventing violence, creating and maintaining security, and transforming conflict.

Practical Implications

If this research tells us anything it is that there is still the tendency among well-meaning practitioners in the peace and security fields to displace gender concerns onto others and/or to see gender as an unrelated “afterthought” to more crucial matters of security. Therefore, one clear recommendation stemming from this research would be for all peace practitioners—even, or especially, if they don’t see themselves as “gender specialists”—to see it as their responsibility to read, understand, and enact the gender mainstreaming policies of their organizations. In other words, we all need to ask not only how are women and men differently affected by this conflict or by the peacekeeping or peacebuilding policies we’re putting into place, and do women and men have equal access to decision-making processes, but also how are masculinities and femininities functioning to enable violence in this context in the first place? Are masculine norms working to perpetuate the violent conflict and make solutions seem unattainable? Are certain options not even being considered around the peace table because they’re marked as too “feminine”? If so, what is the most effective and responsible way to go about challenging these norms and/or revaluing so-called “feminine” ways of thinking and acting? Or, are there some gender norms that currently exist in the community that could be leveraged for greater security and/or conflict transformation? In all of these considerations, care must be taken to ensure that practitioners are not simply importing and imposing western norms upon others; rather, it is important to work with local activists, community leaders, and peacebuilders to find out who is already engaged in challenging existing gender norms and relations and partnering with them in the way they would find most helpful.

At the same time, peace practitioners must also turn their gender lenses inward to examine their own cultures and practices as potentially part of the dual problems of gender inequality and insecurity. How are “our” practices as an institution potentially sidelining options that could enhance security and well-being due to the way we may over-value “masculinity” and under-value “femininity”? Are we reinforcing potentially damaging gender norms in our projects in other countries? But also: are women valued professionally to the same extent that men are in our organization? Do we have generous family leave policies in place that enable women and men to take on and sustain both professional and family responsibilities? Do we take allegations of sexual harassment and assault seriously and also notice the subtler ways in which gender power dynamics operate in our organization? Reminding ourselves that we are all culturally embedded and always already participating in and positioned by gender norms and discourses helps ward off the tendency to displace gender concerns onto others—and helps us instead engage in the long, hard, steady work of transforming our own patriarchal cultures away from the privileging of men and masculinity over women and femininity and therefore towards greater security for all. 

Continued Reading

Women, Peace and Security: Resolution 1325 By Carol Cohn, Helen Kinsella, and Sheri Gibbings. International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2004, 130-140.

Mainstreaming Gender in UN Security Policy: A Path to Political Transformation? By Carol Cohn. In Global Governance: Feminist Perspectives, edited by S.M. Rai & G. Waylen, 185-206. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

Failing to Secure the Peace: Practical Gendered Lessons from Haiti & Iraq By Cynthia Enloe and Nadine Puechguirbal. The Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, Consortium Lecture, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts (USA), October 26, 2004.

There’s Been a Global Increase in Armed Groups. Can They Be Restrained? By Kenneth R. Rosen. The New York Times, June 18, 2018.

The Roots of Restraint in War By ICRC. The International Committee of the Red Cross, June 18, 2018.

The “Man” Question in International Relations Edited by Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations Edited by Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Keywords: UNSCR 1325, WPS, agenda, gender, mainstreaming, peacekeeping, European Union, security

This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Gender & Conflict in Volume 3 of the Peace Science Digest.