The concept of women, peace, and security is changing: But is government evolving with it?

A woman serves as a village court magistrate in Papua New Guinea. Photo by: DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — On March 6, the Fifth Report of the Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security will be launched in Canberra, the collation of findings from a series of community engagement roundtables conducted by the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security with diverse women across Australia, including development, diaspora, and Pacific Women networks to understand what constitutes peace and security for women in the region.

The coalition, consisting of individuals and member organizations including the Australian Council for International Development, CARE Australia and the International Women's Development Agency, have announced the launch at an important time in developing security policies for the region. The report and the work of the coalition feeds directly into the development of Australia’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security — with its second phase under development from implementation and monitoring from 2019 onward.

“The NAP is almost over — it is the last year of the NAP,” Anu Mundkur, civil society liaison with ACFID, explained to Devex. “Rather than doing a retrospective look, we decided that this dialogue report should look at what is next.”

Mundkur explained that in deciding what needed to be “next” in Australia’s NAP, the coalition needed to go back and consult with women from diverse backgrounds on what constitutes peace and security for them and their lives. “That is where the NAP should technically start — from our understanding of what peace and security is for women. And this was missing from the first NAP.”

Australia is one of 72 United Nations member states to have a NAP, part of the requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The plan establishes a policy framework for a coordinated, whole of government approach to implementing the requirements, as well as related resolutions. For Australia, the NAP outlines what they will do at home and overseas to integrate a gender perspective into its peace and security efforts, protect the human rights of women and girls, and promote greater participation in conflict prevention, management, and resolutions.

But with questions on how Australia’s NAP leadership and an increasing focus on militarized solution to women’s security issues, Mundkur said Australia’s civil society is not determining if they will be more influential in developing policy, or as an external voice to hold the Australian government accountable.

Australia’s NAP leadership

After initially being developed by the Department of Social Services, the management of Australia’s NAP was taken over by the Office for Women, that will develop the new NAP.

But the Office for Women is an agency that has been controversial in its roles, responsibilities, and leadership of women’s issues in Australia. The office itself has experienced high turnover at the leadership level and has been criticized for lack of real responsibility. Even at the ministerial level there has been turnover with a new Minister for Women, Kelly O'Dwyer, announced late last year. Her predecessor was criticized for lack of leadership on women’s issues.

The development of the first NAP, Mundkur explained, was an “afterthought” of the announcement that Australia would have a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013 and 2014.

“The impetus came entirely from civil society,” she said. “We managed to use the Security Council position to say you can’t go on there if you don’t have an action plan on Women, Peace and Security.”

The coalition was formed to support this agenda, held consultations, and worked to support the government which was “behind the eight ball.” The frustration came from the form of the finalized plan.

“The first NAP has no goals,” Mundkur said. “It has strategic objectives that are so broad and action items which could have been completed in a year but have been continued to be reported on since 2012. When it came to developing the plan, they pretty much ignored the consultation civil society did. None of the issues we raised found its way in the NAP.”

Mundkur explained that in the end the NAP is owned by government and is their plan — and with an increasing focus on issues of national security and terrorism within foreign policy, Australian government objectives are just not in sync with what civil society wants. Foreign policy, she believes, is more aligned with Defence policies.

“It is like reading the same document at times,” she said.

Women’s ideas of peace and security in the era of #MeToo and #AidToo

Despite the voices of Australian civil society being ignored by government in the development of the NAP, the coalition have continued to conduct annual dialogues and develop reports marking Australia’s progress against the NAP.

But the 2017 roundtables highlighted how much difference there is in civil society’s understanding of peace and security against that of the government, with previously released roundtable summaries highlighting that in the era of the #MeToo movement, women are focusing on concerns of peace and security in their everyday lives.

“We are sick of being told that the terror is out there, when the terror is in the next bedroom,” a participant in Brisbane discussions said.

“They weren’t saying don’t focus on terrorism,” Mundkur said. “They are asking where the balance is. If you want to describe insecurity, it is more than what happens at national borders. It is defined by what happen in our individual lives, with our families and within communities. And we really need to take that into account.”

The NAP itself, Mundkur believes, did not have clearly articulated definitions of peace, security, or Australia’s role in achieving those. And from the recent roundtables, it was increasingly obvious that it needed to take into account domestic concerns and not just Australia’s role internationally.

“With the Sustainable Development Goals, you now have a domestic agenda and focus,” she said. “The SDGs needs to apply to Australia as much as any other country. But what is the domestic agenda for peace and security? It is something women are saying we need to grapple with now.”

“I don’t think the next NAP will completely grapple with it because a domestic agenda makes the NAP a much bigger project, but are there things women telling us that we need to look at and what is that? By looking at what these women have to say, we want this to form the basis of discussions with government on what the next NAP should be like. Then we can see how much resonates with them or diverges from their thinking.”

What will the role of Australia’s civil society be in the second NAP?

Mundkur explained that the role of the coalition moving forward needs to be carefully considered and strategic — especially given their limitation of being organized and run by volunteers.

“This year, we need to be a little more strategic when we conduct and do our consultation to make sure they are aligned with the government’s development process so the two are in sync,” she said. “The first time we were far ahead and it was easy for the government to forget the work had be done.”

“But we still need to ask to what extent we want to be part of that process. It raises the question around independence of civil society. We, as civil society, have never been asked to endorse the NAP here in Australia, but once you are part of the development team — even if the NAP does not reflect what we want — do we need to endorse it?

“There are tricky questions we need to think about and navigate. The first couple of months of this year are doing just that.”

It may be that the coalition decides it is more comfortable in the accountability part of the NAP — holding government accountable for what is in the NAP as well as what is not in the NAP and should be in, potentially creating a shadow progress report that can be tabled in Parliament.

But the launch of the new dialogue report on March 6 is just the first in many discussions to be held on the topic in the coming year, with the coalition encouraging Australia to become better at understanding the barriers to peace and security for women both at home and in its neighboring countries.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.