What Would a Rights-Based Approach to Women’s Peace and Security Entail?

What Would a Rights-Based Approach to Women’s Peace and Security Entail?


In my previous blog, I wrote that there is no evidence for instrumentalist claims about women and peace. Increasing participation of women in peacekeeping, in formal peace negotiations and in local peacebuilding activities does not make these activities more effective. Given the glaring lack of evidence, political actors should abandon instrumentalist arguments and instead build WPS policies around rights-based arguments. 


I am not the first to make this argument. For example, Nina Wilén pointed out that the narrative about female peacebuilders’ added value is both unrealistic and unfair. It is unrealistic because there are still so few female peacebuilders that we should not expect to find an impact. It is unfair because the “added value” risks becoming an “added burden” which is carried by females alone and not by their male counterparts, who so far have escaped any demand for providing “added value”.

Calling for replacing unfounded instrumentalist approaches with a rights-based approach is a necessary first step. It is an opening for a much-needed debate about how exactly a rights-based approach could inform future policymaking. Such a debate is important if we want to develop smart and pragmatic policies (as opposed to the enthusiastic but often evidence-free approaches which currently dominate much of the discussion about WPS). 

Rights-based arguments posit on normative grounds that the meaningful inclusion of women in issues of peace and security is both just and rightful on its own. It does not require further justification by claims about added effectiveness. 

So what would a rights-based approach for women in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and peace negotiations mean in practice, and to what kind of policy initiatives would it lead? 


This post is based on a recent systematic review which can be accessed here


For female peacekeeping, the implications are straightforward. A rights-based approach would free female peacekeepers from the burden of having to prove that they increase operational effectiveness. Instead, the goal would be to ensure that women who wish to serve as peacekeepers can do so in a meaningful way and at all ranks. Donors pursuing a rights-based approach would focus on practical steps making the working environment in which female military peacekeepers are to be integrated more attractive. That would include initiatives such as providing the appropriate training, infrastructure, and equipment for female peacekeepers, as well as removing barriers that hinder the advancement of women in military careers in their domestic military forces. There is one caveat, however: The wealthy countries of the global North that push most for more women peacekeepers almost never send their own men and women in the field. The overwhelming majority of UN peacekeepers  – men and women –  come from developing countries in the global South. There is something troubling in the fact that the rich North pushes the poor  South to implement the feminist ideals of the global North. Northern advocates for more female peacekeepers will have to address this dilemma.

Regarding women peacebuilding activists, a rights-based approach would posit that women have the right to engage in meaningful ways in local peacebuilding activities. But as our study shows,  in societies that constrain the involvement of women in public affairs, there is not much space for effective women peacebuilding activities. Donor support to women’s grassroots organizations that operate in such environments is unlikely to change this. Taken seriously, a rights-based approach to grassroots women peacebuilding would therefore have to target constraining institutions, which requires long-term commitments in fields such as access to education, access to justice, more gender equal property and heritage rights, or constitutionally embedded rights for women. Changes in these fields will translate, in the long run,  to more opportunities and larger space for women’s peacebuilding at the local level.

Regarding the inclusion of women into formal peace negotiations, perhaps the best avenue for a rights-based approach would be to argue that peace negotiations can offer an opportunity to introduce provisions fostering gender equality in postwar society. Miriam Anderson showed in her book “Windows of Opportunity” how women’s organizations in Burundi, Northern Ireland and Macedonia effectively bargained to get women’s rights inserted into the peace agreement, thus using peace negotiations as catalysts for changes to gender roles in the postwar societies. Supporting such efforts may be a worthwhile endeavour for donors in some contexts.

…as our study shows, in societies that constrain the involvement of women in public affairs, there is not much space for effective women peacebuilding activities.

In other contexts, however,  attempts at transforming traditional gender roles may be seen by some segments of society as a threat to traditional norms and values. As a result, a peace deal that includes strengthening women’s rights may be rejected by one party or may even lose broader societal support. This is especially so when gender equality is perceived by segments of society as an unwelcome “Westernization”, promoted by external donors. Afghanistan or South Sudan would be the most obvious examples. In such contexts,  pushing for women’s rights may reduce the prospect of peace. The objectives of getting to peace and of protecting women’s rights may contradict each other. This is a difficult dilemma to navigate for Western donors who wish to support both a peace agreement and women’s rights, and donors are well-advised to acknowledge the existence of such dilemmas. 

In sum, formulating WPS policies rooted in a rights-based approach has its own challenges. Nevertheless, Canada and its allies in the WPS movement should take on these challenges now. Doing so may not help the peace, but it could help women. 


Main Image: Women, Peace and Security – High-Level Review of Security Council Resolution 1325 (Flickr, UN Women: CC)

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