Comment & analysis

New UK Plan is step in right direction – but only with a peacebuilding approach will it deliver the radical goals of the Women, Peace and Security agenda

28 February 2023 Julia Poch (Gender and Peacebuilding Adviser at Saferworld) and Amy Dwyer (Head of Gender and Peacebuilding at Conciliation Resources) New UK Plan is step in right direction – but only with a peacebuilding approach will it deliver the radical goals of the Women, Peace and Security agenda

In the run up to the 25th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the UK has launched its fifth National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Though a positive step, Saferworld’s Julia Poch and Conciliation Resources’ Amy Dwyer say that the government must take an ambitious approach to implementation if it wants to make genuine progress towards peace and gender equality.

A challenging environment for Women, Peace and Security (WPS)

The new National Action Plan (NAP) comes at a critical moment. From brutal crackdowns against women protesting patriarchal laws in Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan to the widespread use of gender-based violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine, Somalia and Ethiopia, huge numbers of women experience less peace and security now than when UNSCR 1325 was first passed.

At the same time, international support for gender equality and conflict prevention is beginning to wane. Gender issues are increasingly being absorbed into polarising anti-human rights agendas, openly misogynistic movements are gaining traction and blocking progress on WPS, and funding for peacebuilding falls year on year.

Adopting a peacebuilding approach to WPS

In light of these challenges, it is vital that we see renewed commitment to a progressive and ambitious WPS vision.

Yet in recent years, the agenda has evolved in ways that risk distracting from bigger structural problems and stand at odds with the demands brought by women peacebuilders to the UN Security Council to prevent war and build a truly inclusive peace. Although we know that militarisation undermines gender equality, we have seen an increasing rush to protect civilians and resolve disputes through military means. Nowhere is this tension clearer than in Afghanistan, where the justification of force in the name of women’s rights challenged the WPS agenda’s fundamental vision.

The UK has a real opportunity to lead WPS back to its radical core objective: to transform conflict by challenging militarism, promoting non-violent pathways to peace and advancing equal and fairer societies.

In delivering its new NAP, and as a pen-holder on WPS at the UN, the UK has a real opportunity to lead WPS back to its radical core objective: to transform conflict by challenging militarism, promoting non-violent pathways to peace and advancing equal and fairer societies. This is only possible through a peacebuilding approach, focused on addressing the root causes of conflict rather than the immediate symptoms, and promoting the leadership of those most affected by conflict.

Practically speaking, there are few ways the UK can achieve this:

  • Ensure all NAP objectives are approached with a conflict prevention lens. Conflict prevention provides a proven tool for achieving the WPS agenda’s vision, yet has often been overlooked in UK and global policy. Building gendered conflict analysis across all NAP activities can help to uncover and respond to structural factors - such as gender norms and power dynamics - which put women, girls and gender and sexual minorities at risk in the first place. If we don’t address these from the outset, they will resurface and block efforts to build peace and gender equality in the future. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) WPS Helpdesk, which Saferworld and Conciliation Resources are part of, offers an immediate resource for carrying out this analysis.
  • Protect, invest in and consolidate space for locally-led peacebuilding. We welcome the NAP’s new emphasis on civil society as a strategic partner, and its ongoing commitment to supporting women peacebuilders whose work continues under dangerous circumstances and without steady funding. But how can the UK adapt its approach as space for women peacebuilders, activists and rights organisations rapidly shrinks?

    Firstly, it must continue investing flexible, core, long-term and accessible funding for them. This strengthens their independent and collective roles based on their own priorities, enhances their organisational capacities and enables peer-learning spaces. The CSSF-funded project Resourcing Change, led by Saferworld, Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom and Women for Women International, has shown this type of funding is key to ensure the leadership of women affected by conflict.

    Secondly, the UK must use its leverage to influence power-holders and actors who resist WPS initiatives. This can help to create a more enabling environment for women’s leadership in peacebuilding. In the Somali region of Ethiopia, Conciliation Resources and partner KasmoDev have helped to establish a Women’s Dialogue Space, which has provided a safe space for women to jointly strategise, influence political processes and engage key gate-keepers. This led to traditional and religious leaders raising awareness on regional state television of the importance of women in public and political life and helping to dispel myths that restricted their work.

  • Recognise that gender intersects with other forms of identity. While the NAP acknowledges the challenges faced by younger and older women as well as LGBTIQA+ communities, without a specific commitment to taking an intersectional approach to WPS, it risks being tokenistic. The WPS agenda has been criticised for simplistic assumptions of gender roles which position women and girls as vulnerable and men and boys as prone to violence. An intersectional approach recognises how the experiences and agency of people differ based on gender, sexuality, age, race, class and other factors. Without this lens, WPS analysis and programming can be ‘blunt’, reinforce inequalities and miss insights which are vital to unlocking more inclusive and sustainable peace processes.

  • Take a gender-transformative approach to climate change. For the first time, the NAP recognises the interlinkages between climate change and conflict – something global WPS policy has been criticised as too slow in responding to. But positioning climate change under a broader objective on transnational threats to the UK leaves it open to being used in support of wider security goals which can undermine WPS. Conciliation Resources’ recent analysis shows how gender shapes people’s responses to climate change. This can both exacerbate conflict and present entry points for peace. Any UK action should be grounded in similar analysis and guided by local expertise rather than outside solutions.

  • Commit to arms export controls. The NAP is right to emphasise greater coherence between international WPS efforts and UK domestic matters, but it must extend this approach to the impact of arms exports. Although the gendered implications of illicit arms transfers are increasingly recognised, more analysis is required to understand how they reinforce gender-specific forms of conflict and inequalities. Beyond supporting small arms and light weapons control programmes, the UK should regulate its own transfers of conventional weapons in strict compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty and informed by GBV risk assessments.

  • Publicly demonstrate prioritisation of the NAP through allocating necessary budget. Conducting gendered analysis of conflicts, engaging civil society and strengthening UK capacities on WPS require sufficient resources. To build genuine peace for people facing conflict as a daily reality, the UK must ensure adequate budget. As highlighted in ICAI's recent review of UK peacebuilding support, adequate budget must ensure long-term and reliable funding.

Photo: A group of female protestors break their Ramadan fast during a mass sit-in outside the Ministry of Defence in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures.