On the ‘big table’ of the Security Council, Australia must champion the cause of women

Australia should use its new power on the UN Security Council to make sure women are high on the UN agenda. UNIFEM

Australia has always taken a lead role in international security debates at the United Nations. In Canberra, representatives from civil society organisations will meet with the government to discuss Australia’s priorities for the rare opportunity presented by Australia’s ascension to a seat on the UN Security Council for 2013-14.

One key issue at the meeting will be what agendas Australia might pursue during its first of two one month stints as President of the Security Council, due in September 2013. With the presidency, Australia assumes an important responsibility for handling the crisis management powers of the Security Council as determined by the UN Charter. It also gives Australia the opportunity to promote broader issues of the Security Council’s work, like peacebuilding or protection of civilians.

Australia should use this opportunity to build upon its already strong commitment to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is an important, cross-cutting issue, and is relevant to all areas of the Security Council’s peace and security work.

It is also one area where Australia is very well positioned to make a real difference. The agenda stems from a cluster of five Security Council resolutions that have been passed between 2000 and 2010. The most commonly known and comprehensive of these is Resolution 1325, passed in 2000.

These resolutions highlight that women and girls experience conflict in ways that are different from men and boys by virtue of their gender, and that violators of women’s rights should be brought to justice. They also note that the experiences of women and girls, and women and girls themselves, have been overlooked in processes designed to bring about peace.

The resolutions further draw upon evidence that peace is more likely to be sustainable when women are included alongside men in designing processes for conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.

These points have been demonstrated in all conflict zones. For example, the Iraq Ministry of Planning estimates that as a consequence of its many conflicts, there are about 900,000 widows (or female heads of household) in Iraq today, less than 10% of which receive government benefits. In a patriarchal country whose reconstruction process has focused on getting men back to work, women are unlikely to find economic independence.

Similarly, the UN’s work has highlighted the widespread specific targeting of women for gender-based violence in conflicts in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and the Sudan. Such structural and physical violence affects women’s health and wellbeing and their capacity to participate in peacebuilding processes.

Since 1990, only 16% of peace agreements either had a woman at the negotiating table or mentioned women at all in the content of the agreement. The UN has also never appointed a woman to be the chief mediator of a peace process.

The resolutions call upon UN member states to ensure that there is a gender perspective included in its analysis and understanding of conflict, and that women themselves are included in all aspects of the UN’s work. This translates to a consideration of how each issue affects men and women differently: something that is long overdue.

Having gained a seat at the table, will the Australian government take up the opportunity to influence the Security Council’s agenda? EPA/ Jason Szenes

In order to implement this agenda both domestically and internationally, Australia has released a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security in 2012. The plan outlines Australia’s commitment to including women in peace negotiations, training our police and peacekeepers to understand gender issues, and increasing women’s representation in our own armed forces.

So what can Australia do in the Security Council to promote this agenda? The short answer is plenty. When it takes on the role as President of the Security Council in September, Australia can promote strategies to hold existing gains on the issue and protect women’s full range of rights during military drawdowns and other transitional periods, such as those now occurring in Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands, to name but two.

Australia has the opportunity and ability to bring the lived experience of women to the attention of the primary security institution in the globe, and it should do so. After all, whose security is it anyway?