Inclusion and Participation are Not Enough: Reshaping Institutions Through WPS

By Lauren Bean Buitta and Erin Connolly*

  • 16 Nov. 2020 -
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  • Last updated: 26 Nov. 2020 10:57

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This year is the 20th anniversary of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. Not nearly at its midpoint, 2020 has already been a year of significant disruption. Amid a global pandemic, recession, and anti-racism protests, the security ideals upon which nations have been built are in flux. Nations are faced with systems that no longer serve their interests or have never served broader community interests. The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda provides an opportunity to recalibrate institutions that are failing to conform and whose inception was informed by the security ideals of a homogenous group. The Alliance must reshape its institutional ideals to reflect what the world is finally realizing: women’s inclusion and participation are not enough. Systemic innovation is required.

Women have emerged as the apparent dark horse of the pandemic response race. Women’s political leadership1 amid this global crisis is celebrated and studied, only affirming what WPS advocates have long argued: women’s security contributions are not valued, until they can no longer be ignored. While women’s leadership should be recognised and celebrated for its efficacy amid one of the most pressing security challenges of recent history, women’s security expertise remains systematically under-utilized and underval­ued. While WPS has made significant progress2 over the past two decades, it is not a static set of resolutions.

In the next decade, WPS can be more than an agenda; it can become the architecture for new security and defence norms, strategies, and institutions that are needed to confront more diffusive, and sometimes unanticipated, global security threats. Just as male notions of protecting "bodies, borders, and boundaries"3 have defined the last century of security institutions, so too can women's security notions define a new path forward for the next 100 years.

Importantly, in many countries, the rights of girls and wom­en may not exist or are concealed or oppressed. In the United States, for example, systems designed to protect women and girls have too often failed to do so; this includes the judicial and political systems. Therefore, girls and women often work outside of systems and institutions to establish security for themselves, and perhaps their families and communities. Thus, they do not adhere to stringent notions of security imbued in so many institutions and societies. Girls and women adapt; they innovate.

“Efforts to reframe security must not be designed to merely include girls and women as participants in the current system, but to activate girls and women to redefine the system themselves.”

This adaptation is in part a response to widespread systemic fail­ure to recognise the needs of women and girls. In the United States, COVID-194 has disproportionately impacted women and marginalized communities5, exacerbating existing racial, gen­der, and income inequalities. Women have been most vulner­able6 in the capacities in which they are a majority – at home and in healthcare. Yet, efforts to encourage girls’ participation in male-dominated industries are falling short. Girls’ confidence in pursuing STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathe­matics and Medicine) careers declines by 20% after high school. However, the career “leaky pipeline” is often blamed for the lack of women in positions of leadership. These issues are connected and demonstrate how trying to “include” women in a system de­signed by – and for – men does not create the required change for all, or even some. The recent State Department 2020 WPS Action Plan also acknowledges7 that, “As more women claim opportunities for their full participation in political processes, including in leadership roles, they have encountered increas­ing levels of harassment, intimidation, and abuse.” In short, the current systems aren’t working.

To create a new path forward, security and defence institutions must develop an understanding of how women and girls experi­ence security and what skills women and girls harness to secure themselves, their families, and communities. These insights can inform policies and strategies that redefine institutions, serve as roadmaps for new security ideals around defence, crisis man­agement, and cooperative security, and inform education and training programs for girls and women in security.

As NATO reflects on a way forward, girls and women continue to remain vulnerable to varied threats to their physical security in addition to disproportionate8 exposure to gendered digital threats. If NATO chooses to innovate and imbue its ideals, strategies, and institutions with WPS priorities, laying the groundwork must begin today. Strategic partnerships with other nations, industry, and civil society as well as funding must be mobilized to bring security education and training to girls and women at the community-level. While 83 countries emphasized their WPS commitments through National Action Plans, less than 25%9 received actual funding for implementing them as of 2020. Meanwhile, countries who claim to financially support and prioritize WPS initiatives often fail to provide the requisite funding. The initial US $4 million10 to advance the inclusion of women at the Department of Defense (DOD) in fiscal year 2019 is not even a full one percent of the total11 $1.3 trillion DOD budget.

“Girls and women often work outside of systems and institutions to establish security for themselves, and perhaps their families and communities. Thus, they do not adhere to stringent notions of security imbued in so many institutions and societies. Girls and women adapt; they innovate.”

While goals, implementation strategies, and funding are critical, sustainability is also required. If not for sustainability, NATO and other institutions will continue to confront an identity crisis. There are two key sustainability vectors. The first is vertical – or multigenerational – sustainability. In order to remain reflexive, sustainable institutions require multi-generational engagement. This requires adults working closely with youth through sustained engagement, advocacy, and mentoring. For girls, where a lack of mentorship is an impediment to advancement, this is especially crucial. This is particularly pertinent today in a rapidly changing security environment shaped by technology. The NATO Young Professionals Program12 offers positive steps towards meaning­fully including young voices, but more is required.

The second sustainability vector is horizontal among women around the world working on behalf of WPS. A new path forward creates tremendous opportunities to mitigate systemic discrimination, but technological innovation also poses significant challenges13 to women’s advancement. How will those with greater access to technological innovation and advancement fair in contrast to those with limited or no access? And how might technology disrupt any existing WPS equilibrium that exists among women from different nations? How might technology shape differing security norms among women and how will differing norms challenge the existing WPS agenda? Predictive analysis and discourse among WPS advocates and institutions is required to anticipate potential fractures in the advancement of the WPS agenda.

WPS Reading Tip:

Women, Peace and Transforming Security Do you like this piece by Lauren Bean Buitta and Erin Connolly? Then be sure to check out the Human Security Unit's latest essay series: Women, Peace and Transforming Security. This collection explores important and diverse contributions from members of the Civil Society Advisory Panel, academia, private and public sector representatives, and lots more.

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A global disruption has revealed the fragility of security ideals and institutions amid a changing, globalized environment. Innovative approaches that build bridges and reflect the complex interdisciplinary nature of the 21st century security environment are required. The lived security experience of girls and women and their inherent innovative aptitudes offer a needed perspective that must be catalysed through engagement, education, and advancement; fostered through government programming, partnerships, and funding; and advanced through policy, strategies, and institutions. Efforts to reframe security must not be designed to merely include girls and women as participants in the current system, but to activate girls and women to redefine the system themselves.

  1. * This essay was written in spring 2020