By Dr. Melissa Torres, WILPF US Section Representative to the International Board
It is the year 2018, and representation remains an issue.
This year, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) brought together more than 4000 women activists from across the globe to strategise around “challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls”. It is the second time in its 62-year history that rural women and their struggles have been prioritised.
In an annual event, where on-the-ground and grassroots experiences of civil society come together with multilateral mechanisms, those most affected by war and its root causes still did not have their fair share of the discussion and decision-making processes.
WILPF’s section in the United States (WILPF US) specifically worked on building inclusive and diverse young leadership for feminist action that shifts from militarism towards human security and gender justice through its UN Practicum Programme. During the CSW62, WILPF US provided capacity building training for participants in non-violence and feminist peace and enabled space for them to explore areas of their interests and connect with professionals in the field.
In 2017, WILPF International brought attention to the need to overturn long-standing obstacles to women’s access and meaningful participation at the United Nations, including visa denials and restrictions, as well as tokenisation and sidelining to project funding. This year, WILPF US expanded this discussion by putting a spotlight on historical challenges to inclusivity from the US experience.
If women’s rights are human rights, then feminist peace should be peace for all. If transformative change for peace is the goal, and women’s meaningful participation is the means, then true feminist peacebuilding should address gendered power across race, class, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and the like.
At the CSW, the women who are statistically most at risk of victimisation, oppression and injustices we discuss on panels are still limited in presence and spoken for. LBTQIA-identifying women under oppressive governments, indigenous women fighting colonisation, sex workers, incarcerated women and women in detention, trans women of color, women with visible and invisible disabilities, remain invisible in discussions yet continue to be spoken for at multilateral forums.
Ensuring women’s meaningful participation in the United Nations system means first ensuring that women’s participation is meaningful in their own communities. In order for intersectional feminist peacebuilding to move forward, those who have led historically should step aside and share leadership with those who have the most to gain in the fight. Civil society – non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with and without consultative status – can do their part by advocating, creating, and funding space for those experiencing intersecting oppressions. According to the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, intersectionality itself is a feminist tool for analysis, advocacy and policy development.
This framework helps us understand and respond to the varying ways in which gender can intersect with other identities and how these intersecting identities contribute to unique experiences of both oppression and privilege. Applying this framework as both a lens and a tool can serve NGOs well in their aim of including and centering diverse expertise.
Bringing underrepresented women to the table is not enough when it only serves to appease optics of diversity. Sharing leadership with women who have historically been missing in feminist peace movements means not just sitting with them, but listening to and trusting their expertise, valuing their perspective and the way in which it is delivered. Above all, it means recognising that whatever possible discomfort this brings is the breaking down of privilege and disruption of a status quo which has not considered their presence.
Women challenging oppressive and Western systems, those who are redefining labor, family, reproduction and basic rights, those who appropriate and reverse oppressive systems for their own empowerment, and those who refuse to work within assumed and hierarchical structures in order to win their own liberation need not only to be supported, but to lead. Northern feminist peace movements have historically benefited from the backs of these women. The time for them to lead the way – and be credited for such – is long overdue.