What if, just for one day, guns in wars zones across the world fell silent? That is the goal of Peace Day; every year on 21st September, people come together all round the world to build a culture of peace and demand that all armed parties observe a 24-hour ceasefire. This year there is added urgency, 2020 has been a year like no other and we desperately need an end to conflict so that we can focus on our common enemy of the pandemic.
Brutal wars in places such as Yemen drag on, there are record numbers of refugees and displaced people worldwide – their plight most recently laid bare by the fire which destroyed the refugee camp on Lesbos – and on top of this, people face a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 can infect anyone, but it does not affect everyone equally. Covid has exposed the structural inequalities that have long existed, inequalities which drive conflict and which are fuelled by war as those who have least are killed and displaced, just as those on the margins are also at greater risk of contracting covid.
In the face of such dark times, what can be done, and by whom? For Oxfam in our work in the most dangerous places across the world one answer keeps arising – local women peace builders. So often it is women who bring communities together, women who start the call for ceasefires, and women who drive reconciliation. While the UNSC fiddled, failing to pass a UNSC resolution, it was women on the frontlines who were continuing to deliver a much needed Covid response in the most difficult circumstances.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the landmark resolution on Women, Peace and Security, UNSC resolution 1325, Oxfam and the IMatter campaign, commissioned Transforming power to put women at the heart of peacebuilding a series of regionally focused essays from women’s rights activists and academics working in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific to reflect on:
- What could a Feminist Peace and Security agenda that disrupted power and put women at the heart of peacebuilding look like
- What needs to happen to ‘transform power’ to women and communities most affected by crises and conflict so that they shape the decisions that affect their lives?
The resulting essays highlight both the specificities of each region and the common challenges of realizing the full implementation of the WPS Agenda. They place the struggle to realize women’s rights in each region within their historical context. Despite the regions’ very different histories and traditions, the essays show remarkable similarities in terms of the key trends and problems faced by women around the world in some of the most challenging contexts. Using feminist analysis to critique the structures and institutions that constitute the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the authors expose how mainstream conceptions of war and peace block both women’s meaningful participation and sustainable peace. They explore the interplay between colonialism, militarism, displacement, poverty and patriarchy – power in its many guises – and how these have become institutionalized within the peacebuilding agenda.
Peace and security for women and other marginalized groups cannot be achieved if it is defined exclusively within the frame of war and militarism. Feminist Peace and Security addresses insecurity before, during and after conflict and understands violence as something that spans from the home to international fora. The essays challenge us to see structural inequalities, including extreme inequality, racism, neo-colonialism and misogyny, as forms of violence. For all four authors, only ‘human security’ – a multidimensional view of security which acknowledges the whole system of inter-dependencies and intersections, and addresses the challenges to the safety, survival, livelihoods and dignity of people and the environment they live in – is real security.
Transformative change rarely comes from within the system. Rather it often comes from outside: from the disruption by protest, and from women, youth, local and grassroots movements who are leveraging their power, even though formal channels appear to be closed to them. Women have been finding ways of organizing themselves in coalitions and collectives to make substantial and real change. It is their relentless, often invisible and undervalued work which makes peace and conflict transformation possible.
Feminist Peace and Security requires those with power to decolonize and to share that power. Institutions and elite women close to the centre of decision making must acknowledge their privilege and build bridges to women at the grassroots to enable them to shape the decisions which affect their lives. There must be recognition that access to resources is itself a form of power; that every vibrant society has an active, well-funded civil society; and that women’s rights organizations and LGBTQI+ activists are a critical piece of this civil society and need to be able to set their own agendas, with flexible and consistent funding going directly to grassroots organizations.
Finally, shifting the power in a permanent and meaningful way will require constant vigilance. Fights we thought we’d fought and won cannot be taken for granted. Control over our own bodies, acknowledgment and legislation to criminalize intimate partner violence, and access to opportunities outside the home can all be undone. Derogations from international conventions and legal frameworks are now widespread.
As Covid continues to spread across the planet we long for normal life again, but we cannot return to business as usual; we must seek better, we need a whole paradigm shift – we have an opportunity now to build a more peaceful and equal and just world. The pandemic has exposed that our system is not fit for purpose; we need to transform the system. Feminist Peace and Security is that bridge to building a peaceful and sustainable future for all.