Where are the women? First Committee side event on women’s participation in international security

November 2nd, 2021

“Where are the women?”,  Ms. Cynthia Enloe asked in the book “Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics” in 1990. More than two decades later, this question remains highly relevant in today’s international security landscape. 

With an aim to exploring the answers to this question and taking stock of gender equality in international security, the  International Peace Institute (IPI) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a virtual forum, on 22 October 2021, in the margins of the General Assembly First Committee 76th session and during the week the Security Council held its annual open debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). Moderated by Mr. Adam Lupel, Vice President of IPI, the event was co-sponsored by Canada, Costa Rica, Ireland, Namibia, Norway, the Philippines, and Sweden.  

The discussion began by examining the narrow, militarized and masculinized perception of security and ways to broaden it. Ms. Cynthia Enloe, Professor at Clark University reflected on how notions of masculinities shape the discourse around security and norms in the sector. Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, Fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and former Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva, hoped that global increases in military spending during the pandemic must be a wakeup call and lead to a paradigm shift in the global perception of what constitutes security. Ambassador Donald Steinberg, Executive Director at Mobilizing Men as Partners for Women, Peace and Security and Expert Adviser at the US Agency for International Development called for shifting the male dominated global security system to a system based on international cooperation, prioritizing human security and wellbeing with flexible and sustainable policies, and inclusive and equitable leadership at the core. 

Lt. Col. Lausanne Nsengimana Ingabire, Gender Advisor at the UN Office of Military Affairs, highlighted how Security Council resolutions on WPS make up a useful framework for women’s equal, full and effective participation, mainstreaming gender across policies and actions, and preventing conflict related sexual violence. Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez added that we are moving towards a new era of WPS with greater focus on human security, feminist and environmental approaches, and called for connecting the dots between disarmament and all pillars women peace and security. The focus on foresight in order to advance gender equality in peace and security in the Secretary General’s “Our Common Agenda” is another tool for progress, she noted.   

Lt. Col. Lausanne Nsengimana Ingabire called for equal opportunities and ensuring an enabling work environment for uniformed peacekeepers, mentioning that the UN’s Gender Parity Strategy is instrumental in this regard. Women’s equal participation in the security sector also requires a mindset shift towards what is considered “women’s work” which needs to be integrated into the socialization processes of children. Ambassador Steinberg added that men should partner with women throughout the cultural and power shift towards full equality. 

Ms. Cynthia Enloe believed that women’s knowledge of weapons and security is both underestimated and underused. Unpacking the concept of the “militarization of disarmament”, the speaker pointed to UNIDIR’s study on women managing weapons which sheds light on how this profession is considered for the military trained and therefore unnecessarily precludes many women. 

Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez reflected on her experience as a young woman in Costa Rica’s security sector. While her new way of promoting a civilian and democratic approach to militarized security was initially met with mistrust, it eventually proved an invaluable approach for creating strong and more human connections between policy makers and soldiers. “If a peace agreement is gender neutral, it is gender-stupid”, Ambassador Steinberg said. He recalled that the 1994 Angola peace process had excluded women, and that the peace agreement, as a consequence, neglected to address the needs of survivors of gender-based violence, girls’ education, reproductive health and other root causes of the poverty that were drivers of the conflict in the first place. 

Panelists underlined the need for intersectional analysis and diverse perspectives in all discussions on women’s participation to achieve sustainable peace and genuine security. This includes bringing indigenous women, LGBTQI+ women, displaced women, and women with disabilities to the head of the table. Moreover, panelists called for including civil society organizations in intergovernmental security discussions as well as engaging and funding local women’s groups and grassroots initiatives. 

In closing remarks, Ms. Cécile Aptel, UNIDIR’s Deputy Director called for a feminist perspective to rethink what national security means and for spaces to continue discussing women’s full and equal participation and gender stereotypes in disarmament. 

The discussion on “Where are the Women?” took place in the margins of 76th session of the General Assembly First Committee and during the week of the Security Council’s annual open debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).Photo by:  International Peace Institute (IPI).  

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