UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Women, Peace and Security in Dutch Foreign Policy

A Recommendation for the New National Action Plan

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Netherlands has long been at the forefront of women, peace and security issues. A Security Council member when Resolution 1325 was adopted in 2000, it will launch its third National Action Plan (NAP) for 1325 by the end of 2015. However, strong support for the principles and objectives of 1325 has not always translated effectively into Dutch foreign policy, with programming concentrating on one or two key issue areas.

This has resulted in projects (both government and civil society initiated) that by themselves are relatively successful  but lack reference to other issues, such as the societal gender inequalities that prevent the full participation of women in peacebuilding activities. Instead, what is needed is a more coherent, coordinated approach to tackling the full spectrum of discrimination faced by women in post-conflict societies. Incorporating such an approach into the new NAP and focusing on the underlying causes of gender inequality will help ensure that Dutch policy succeeds in enabling women to play a full and equal role in creating safer and more peaceful societies worldwide.

The current NAP commits its signatories (including over 30 civil society organizations and three government ministries) to “facilitate the creation of an enabling environment for women’s leadership and political participation in fragile states and transition countries.” (page 21) Women’s leadership and political participation has long been a central part of Dutch foreign policy efforts, as evidenced by a 2010 report that  detailed efforts to mobilize and include women in political processes in Afghanistan and Sudan. It is likely therefore that the new NAP will continue this focus on political participation and leadership.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has just announced the second round of the ‘Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women’ (FLOW) program, which provides grants for NGO programs aimed at combatting violence against women; supporting the participation of women in politics; and facilitating women’s economic participation and self-reliance. The focal point for FLOW is Millennium Development Goal 3, equal rights and opportunities for women, and the new Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. There are little more than passing references to the NAP as complementary programming. This is unfortunate because not only is the scope for coordination obvious – combining efforts to combat violence against women, improve their economic standing and promote gender equality led by women at the grassroots – but doing so under the new NAP would make Dutch peacebuilding efforts significantly more effective.

To understand how this is the case one only needs to look at post-conflict societies, where it is all too common “for women to lose their jobs in the formal sector and return to the household or the informal sector.” (Greenberg & Zuckerman, 2004, p.77) In these situations it is not just the women who suffer, but also the society in question, for “missing the opportunity to engage women in formal economic activities is a long-term strategic oversight,’ that weakens the prospects of post-conflict recovery” (Ibid.) increases the likelihood that conflict will return. Countering this dynamic requires a multifaceted approach, tackling both the legal barriers and “unequal gender relations and power dynamics” (Ibid.) that prevent women from accessing their rights, economic or otherwise. The problem is that current Dutch policies target either the cause or effect of women’s disempowerment but not both simultaneously, thereby missing out on harnessing the transformative potential of tackling both at the same time.

An example of the failure to consider both the causes and effects of women’s disempowerment is the current NAP, which focuses heavily on political participation and leadership, but makes little reference to the underlying economic factors – such as low wages or uncertain employment – that can prevent women from being political actors and leaders in their communities. Connecting the two, and encouraging programming that targets the economic factors that underlie women’s disempowerment as well as encourages women’s political participation and leadership would  increase the likelihood that the important political and social reforms needed to embed more equal gender relations will happen across society.

The importance of having a critical mass of women leaders for delivering important socio-political reforms is evidenced by Rwanda where, since 2003, over 50 per cent of parliamentarians have been women. The prominence of women in the legislature has resulted in the passage of a range of progressive laws that benefit women  on issues like gender-based violence and property rights. However, “these advances in legislation have not immediately translated into gains for average Rwandans,” according to 2006 UNICEF report, which cites societal problems such as poverty and traditional cultural attitudes about the position of women as reasons for the gap between legislation and implementation.

The experience of Rwanda demonstrates two important lessons: having prominent female leaders results in legislative gains for women, but realizing these gains at the grassroots level cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, it appears from the example of Rwanda that, without an accompanying bottom-up movement to inform and equip women to access their legal rights, the momentum generated by legal reforms can fail to bring about the social change required to improve the position of women across society. Clearly for legislative gains to be entrenched in society, prominent women leaders at the top need to be accompanied by women’s advocacy at the bottom.

However, in its proposed project guidance, the FLOW program makes little mention of empowering women in post-conflict societies to be leaders to drive forward greater economic opportunity themselves. This is a missed opportunity, especially for thematic priority three which focuses on improving labor participation. Here, encouraging strong and dynamic female leadership at the grassroots level could help ensure continuing attention to the specific problems facing women’s labor participation, such as gender pay gaps, helping to counter the dynamic of women being ‘left behind’ in post-conflict environments.

To rectify the missing link between women’s leadership and economic empowerment in the FLOW program it is  vital that the new NAP makes explicit reference to the importance of programming from all signatories that tackle these two goals in a complementary manner. This could include projects that assist women leaders in tackling economic disadvantages faced by other women, or encouraging projects focusing on economic empowerment to  also identify potential new women advocates and assist them in developing their leadership skills.

Regardless, referencing the two goals and identifying their areas of overlap would recognize the need to support women in all aspects of their lives, whether politically, socially or economically, so that they can play a vital role in the creation of safe and just societies – the bedrock of stability and security worldwide.

The author would like to thank Sash Jayawardane for her constructive feedback.

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