Adding Women May Not Help Keep the Peace

Adding Women May Not Help Keep the Peace


Instrumentalist claims about the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda do not bear out in the first systematic review on the topic.


Since the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325 in October 2000, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has been a top priority for the United Nations and many member states. UNSC Resolution 1325 is credited with two achievements: First, it established a gendered perspective on violence and war by stating that women and girls suffer disproportionately from the impacts of war and violence. Second, it also recognized that women could be resourceful and effective actors in peacebuilding. This latter perspective is instrumentalist. In this view, women’s inclusion and participation in peacebuilding activities will lead to better outcomes; hence women’s inclusion and participation are instrumental for more effective peacebuilding activities.

Such instrumentalist claims inform policymaking and are regularly made by many political actors.  For example, Canada’s National WPS Action Plan states that “Women’s participation in conflict resolution, as negotiators or mediators, for example, makes peace agreements more durable.” Canada’s Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations states that “investing in women in peace operations is (…) a key factor in making them more effective and situationally aware. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy states “that when women are involved in peace and security efforts, solutions are more comprehensive (…). The UN makes similar claims (“deployment of Female Personnel Boosts Effectiveness, Says Secretary-General, as Security Council Holds Open Debate on Women in Peacekeeping”), the World Bank (“including women in peace processes has a positive impact on the durability of peace agreements, which thus prevents conflict from reoccurring”) , the Council of Foreign Relations (“evidence shows that peace processes overlook a strategy that could reduce conflict and advance stability: the inclusion of women”), Amnesty International (“women and girls are not only victims of war; they are also powerful peace-builders whose efforts to prevent conflict and secure peace have been critical”), and many other organizations. 


This post is based on a recent systematic review which is online here


But what is the evidence to back up these instrumentalist claims? To find out, my graduate students and I, with the help of a research librarian, conducted the first-ever systematic review on the topic. We were exclusively interested in the “participation pillar” of WPS, which proposes that peacekeeping and peacebuilding are more effective when women participate in meaningful ways.

We systematically searched for evidence on the three most frequently made instrumentalist claims, which are: 

  • the agency of women in local peacebuilding activities can make peacebuilding more effective  (“better local peacebuilding claim”). 
  • the participation and inclusion of women in UN-led peacekeeping can make peacekeeping more effective  (“operational effectiveness claim”).
  • the participation and inclusion of women in formal peace negotiations can make peace more durable (“better peace agreements claim”).

Using a predefined and registered  search protocol, we searched for all studies on the subject published in English after 2008. We scanned close to 45,000 articles in the process and selected those which attempted to empirically demonstrate a causal relationship between “better peace outcomes” and “participation of women”. We found that the overwhelming majority of the studies which deal with women’s inclusion and participation are normative and descriptive, predominantly interested in making visible the involvement of women in issues of peace and security (which too often goes unnoticed).  Only a handful of studies empirically engage with the question of instrumentalism, that is, with the causal effects of increased inclusion and participation of women in peace.

In the end, we found just 16 studies that met our inclusion criteria: Two studies on UN peacekeeping, four on negotiations, and ten on peacebuilding. While these 16 studies provide interesting insights, they fall short of providing evidence for the three claims. 

The ten studies that describe women’s agency in local peacebuilding suggest that women’s participation remains very limited and happens mainly at the local level.  In most contexts, cultural and socioeconomic factors remain obstacles to the inclusion of women.  Women are often depoliticized, framed through gender stereotypes, and restricted to local and informal peacebuilding initiatives. Furthermore, what is framed as women’s peacebuilding activities is, in fact, often service-delivery, such as providing support for victims of domestic violence, offering educational programs or working on food security. It appears that foreign donors have created a demand for women peacebuilding organizations, which encourages women grassroots organizations to rebrand their activities as peacebuilding. As a result, there is a conceptual mismatch between what both donors and grassroots organizations say they are doing (peacebuilding) and what local organizations do (service delivery). 

political actors should explicitly anchor WPS policies in a rights-based approach that centers less on the impacts of women’s participation but more on the right to participate

Only two studies investigate the “better peacekeeping” claim. The alleged instrumental benefits of women’s peacekeeping are usually theorized to happen when women peacekeepers interact with the local population. It is often assumed that peacekeeping becomes more effective since women are less threatening than men, they more easily gain the trust of the local population, they are effective at information gathering, and their participation can bestow legitimacy on peacekeeping. Neither of the two studies provides evidence that female peacekeepers can make peacekeeping more effective. Both studies show that there is generally limited interaction between peacekeepers and the local population and that female peacekeepers interact with the local population even more rarely than male peacekeepers, especially in societies where traditional values prevent women from participating in public life. It is therefore not surprising that neither study found that women increase the operational effectiveness of peacekeeping missions.

Finally,  we found four studies that deal with the claim that the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and peace agreements can make peace more durable. The results from these four studies are inconclusive. While one study found that female signatories, together with higher GDP per capita and a higher level of democratic institutions, can increase the durability of peace,  another study found no such effect. Two more case studies (one on Guatemala and one on South Sudan) suggest that women signatories to peace agreements have little impact on subsequent structural changes. 

There are two important lessons from this systematic review

First, given the lack of evidence and the lack of sound theory for instrumentalist approaches, political actors should not formulate WPS policies based on the assumption that increased women’s participation leads to better peace outcomes. WPS policies based on instrumentalist thinking will not help the peace. Nor will it help the cause of women seeking an equal role in issues of peace.

Second, political actors should explicitly anchor WPS policies in a rights-based approach that centers less on the impacts of women’s participation but more on the right to participate. In the following blog, I will discuss some important issues of a rights-based approach to the WPS agenda.


Main image: Chinese Peacekeeping Battalion Awarded UN Medal for Service (Flickr: UMISS – CC)

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