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The Women, Peace and Security Agenda in 2020: A forward-looking retrospective

International Feminist Journal of Politics

Laura J. Shepherd
Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney, Australia

The editors of the International Feminist Journal of Politics invited me to curate a virtual special issue on the theme of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda as a partner project to the themed collections we will be publishing in issues 22(4) and 22(5).[i] Intellectually, I was excited by this prospect, by the opportunity to revisit all of the sharp and insightful analysis of the WPS agenda in all its various manifestations that the journal has published over the years (and, yes, a little daunted by the task of having to decide which of the multitude of worthy articles to include in this collection). As a feminist scholar and a WPS nerd, it would surprise no one who knows me that I was delighted and very motivated by this project. I was surprised, however, at the extent to which the project moved me personally, as I read abstracts and re-read articles and remembered back through my own WPS research and my involvement with the journal in the process of curating this collection. Usually, an introduction of this kind offers a rationale for the project, often an intellectualisation of a passion or enthusiasm, and a thinly rendered account of each of the contributions. I am offering instead a more personal reflection on what it means to me to be introducing this collection of stellar WPS-related research, in this journal, which has been built by our community over almost the same time period throughout which the WPS agenda has become embedded in the global governance of peace and security.

Briefly, to explain the WPS agenda for readers who are unfamiliar: named after the title given to the thematic agenda item considered by the UN Security Council in 2000 (actually ‘women and peace and security’), the WPS agenda is the series of policies, protocols and practices enacted by a wide range of actors inspired by or under the auspices of the resolutions that have been adopted by the Council in relation to this theme. Since the adoption of the first resolution in 2000, resolution 1325, there have been nine others, each of which elaborates or extends aspects of the original resolution; the areas of practice are often referred to as ‘pillars’ of activity. The four ‘pillars’ are: measures to ensure the participation of women in peace and security governance and decision-making; the protection of women’s rights in conflict and conflict-affected settings; the prevention of conflict and forms of conflict-related violence (including but not limited to sexual violence in conflict); and a commitment to gender-sensitive relief and recovery in conflict and post-conflict transition.[ii]

It seems particularly fitting that it was this journal that educated me about the adoption of UNSCR 1325. When I began my doctoral research project, many years ago, I hadn’t heard of the resolution, nor of the activism and advocacy efforts that led to its adoption. I wanted to write a thesis on the articulation of gender violence as a matter of international security, elaborating parallels between the sovereignty and autonomy of (some) human subjects and the sovereignty and autonomy of (some) states, and the role of violence in maintaining a system that selectively and contingently affords the right of self-determination. I had tentatively thought to argue that gender violence could only be effectively articulated as a matter of international security if it were to be recognised as a violation of the right to security and bodily autonomy by the highest institutions of global governance. The discovery of resolution 1325, and learning of its contested politics, somewhat took the wind from my sails, I must confess. It was reading the first article in this virtual special issue, the conversation between Carol Cohn, Helen Kinsella and Sheri Gibbings (2004), that set me on the path that in many ways has defined my career to date. This conversation is so continually generative, and offers such important insights into the fraught but fiercely committed modes of feminist engagement that created the possibility of resolution 1325, that I return to it again and again. It is a model of feminist insight, and feminist praxis – the creation of knowledge in conversation, and incisive feminist analysis of the politics of peace work.

When I finished my doctoral research, I was quite set on moving away from resolution 1325 as research focus. The second article in this collection represents my re-engagement with the issues and themes I had begun to explore in early work on the resolution – and pays homage to Cohn, Kinsella and Gibbings in the title I devised for the piece: my use of ‘superheroines’ derives from their exploration of the demands upon women in peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts (Cohn, Kinsella and Gibbings 2004, 136). At the time of writing, in 2010 (though it was published in 2011), there had been three more WPS resolutions adopted by the Council, and these separate resolutions had begun to cohere into the framework now known as ‘the WPS agenda’.[iii] Resolutions 1820 and 1888 skewed the agenda towards the issue of sexual violence prevention, while resolution 1889 reoriented the focus to women’s participation and the enabling conditions for inclusive peace and security governance.

I identified this moment in the agenda’s history as a time for ‘cautious feminist optimism’, arguing that

feminist engagement with these policy discourses might enable the construction of a ‘centre’ that pays attention to diversity, supports capacity-building without conforming to the imperial logic of ‘a “trickle-down” theory of expertise’ (Shepherd 2008b: 97), embraces a translocal, multiperspectival politics and refuses to effect arbitrary and ultimately regressive closure on what ‘women’ might be, do or want in the field of gender and security (Shepherd 2011, 516).

From my current vantage point, ten years later, reviewing the development of the agenda over the last decade, it seems there was perhaps cause for optimism. We have seen some of the shifts I foreshadowed: greater diversity in perspectives on the agenda (including those presented in the special collection forthcoming in this journal, which features analysis by researchers from, among other places, India, Solomon Islands, Czech Republic, and South Africa), for example; and a recognition of the agenda’s partiality, coloniality, and embedded hierarchies (Parashar 2019, 830-831; see also: Pratt 2013; Martín de Almagro 2018, 7-8). But we have also seen a narrowing of the agenda in some ways, an incorporation of the agenda into the bureaucratic machine of the organisations and institutions that seek to perform their WPS credentials and simultaneously depoliticise and blunt the edges of this radical, transformative agenda.

This process of bureaucratisation, and its impact on women’s peace activism, is the focus of Sheri Gibbings’ article from 2011 that I have included in this collection. Gibbings analyses the transgression of UN institutional norms by a delegation of Iraqi women at an informal meeting, who invoked imperialism and criticised US foreign policy as part of their discourse on peace and women’s rights. Their anger caused discomfort at the meeting and the disciplining of discourse in this setting, such that only ‘motivational and inspiring’ stories are allowed (Gibbings 2011, 526), demonstrates the contingency of women’s agency in these institutional settings. WPS work therefore requires that women continue to navigate and negotiate the boundaries that determine ‘appropriate’ behaviour, present only acceptable emotions in the professionalised spaces of WPS enterprises, and accept that these stubborn institutional and cultural norms will likely continue to govern ‘what “women” might be, do or want in the field of gender and security’ in sometimes regressive and arbitrary ways (Shepherd 2011, 516).

Happily, the remainder of the research articles in the collection show that women are engaged in this process of continual negotiation, advancing peace and conflict prevention across a range of settings. From the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Farr 2011) to Japan (Motoyama 2018), from Serbia (McLeod 2011) to Nigeria (Nwangwu and Ezeibe 2019), women are leveraging the principles and possibilities of the WPS agenda and working towards peace in their communities, with government, and engaging international organisations. Though the issues may differ – Chikodiri Nwangwu and Christian Ezeibe focus on ‘countering violent extremism’ in Nigeria (2019), for example, while Hisako Motoyama analyses ‘the gendered struggle over remilitarization and war memory, especially that of the “comfort women,” or Japanese imperial military sexual slavery during World War II’ (2018, 39) – the ongoing effort of women, and their use of the tools and frameworks that the WPS agenda provides, creates a global constituency of women’s peace activists, advocates and practitioners. To amplify the voices of women working directly on peace, I have rounded out this virtual special issue with three sets of conversations with female peace leaders (Pratt 2013; Davies 2017; Trojanowska 2019). These women, hailing from Chile, Iraq, and the Philippines, doing peace and anti-violence work in national and regional contexts, are among the ‘superheroines’ of the WPS agenda. It seemed not only appropriate but necessary to create a space in this collection for their perspectives, their insights, and their sharp analysis. The scholars with which they each dialogue bring to their conversations their own commitment to the agenda and its enactment for the betterment of society and women’s lives.

I was also motivated to include these pieces, however, because of the non-traditional format of the ‘Conversations’ section in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. This is a space created to reflect the ethics and praxis of the journal, to create and hold space for feminisms beyond the academy, ways of theorising that are grounded in and reflect the everyday, lived realities of women’s lives and encounters with the world. There is, in short, something special about the ‘Conversations’ section, just as there is something special about this journal, and its community. It is a space of and for feminism, in all its diversity, and a space of and for the deconstruction of dichotomous ways of thinking, critical engagement with narrow visions of power and totalising or universalising knowledge claims. In the words of one of the journal’s founders, the journal itself was intended to be:

a space or many spaces in this regard – spaces for reading and writing, sharing reactions to what has been written and read, prompting new thinking about potential actions, building some kind of loosely knit community which is growing and changing and crossing as many boundaries as possible: societies, institutions, cultures (Gillian Youngs, in conversation with Kathleen B. Johnson and Jan Jindy Pettman; Youngs, Johnson and Pettman 1999, 6).

The journal has been this space for me. My engagements with the journal have challenged me and inspired me to be a better scholar, a more thoughtful colleague, more committed to examining my own assumptions, beliefs, and values. I know, from being part of too many review processes to count, that the journal has provided this space for others also.

In a peculiar tangled history of moments of synchronicity, the journal, and I, and the WPS agenda have developed over the past two decades and I would be very different today without these significant influences, these two different forms of feminist community. I can feel tears behind my eyes as I write this, and I don’t entirely know why. I think these are partly tears of exhaustion, and of being overloaded and overwhelmed in These Unprecedented Times. But I think these are also tears of gratitude, and of taking comfort in our community, and of knowing that being entangled with a feminist community – of scholars, activists, practitioners, and many other forms of feminist besides – means that it doesn’t have to always be ‘your turn’. We carry each other forward. The feminists who came before me and my peers created space with this journal for us to connect and share our knowledges, and I am so grateful for their efforts. The feminists who came before me and my peers created space in the most masculinist of all security institutions to take seriously the operation of gendered power (Cohn 2008, 186), and they have changed – are continuing to change – that institution and similar spaces. In our shared present, we are having difficult conversations, about the complicity of white feminism with structures of white supremacy, and about the political economy of knowledge production that excludes the most precarious from recognition within structure of expertise, and about the damaging effects of emotional and care labour in our institutions of higher education undertaken mostly by women of colour while white women are congratulated on doing ‘diversity’ work. We are working on racism, sexism, and dismantling the white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy and we will not always agree and it will be hard work. But that is part of building, and being part of, feminist community. We are creating, and holding, feminist space (cook 2019), and it is hard work. The feminists who will come after us will also change the world.

[i] These collections are on the themes of ‘Situating Women, Peace and Security: Theorising from “the local”’, which will be published in 22(4), and ‘Knowing Women, Peace and Security: New issues and new modes of encounter’, forthcoming in 22(5).

[ii] My introduction to the collection in 22(4) includes a table showing the main provisions of the ten WPS resolutions. These resolutions are (with year of adoption): UNSCR 1325 (2000); UNSCR 1820 (2008); UNSCR 1888 (2009); UNSCR 1889 (2009); UNSCR 1960 (2010); UNSCR 2106 (2013); UNSCR 2122 (2013); UNSCR 2242 (2015); UNSCR 2467 (2019); and UNSCR 2493 (2019).

[iii] I believe that the phrase is first used in an Editorial on the PeaceWomen website, written by Sam Cook in 2008.


My work on this Special Issue was enabled by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT170100037). I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that this grant affords, and for the from the Editors-in-Chief to curate this particular contribution to the journal, after I proposed the special collections mentioned above. I also want to thank Marysia Zalewski for inviting me to accompany her to a journal board meeting at the ISA convention in San Diego in 2006, and all of the wonderful IFJP feminists who made – and continue to make – this an hospitable space.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Laura J. Shepherd is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security. Her primary research focuses on the United Nations Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda, and she also has strong interests in pedagogy and popular culture. She is author/editor of several books, including, most recently, Gender, UN Peacebuilding and the Politics of Space (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Handbook of Gender & Violence (Edward Elgar, 2019). She tweets from @drljshepherd and blogs semi-regularly for The Disorder of Things.


Cohn, Carol (2008) ‘Mainstreaming Gender in UN Security Policy: A Path to Political Transformation?’, 185-206 in Shirin M. Rai and Georgina Waylen, eds, Global Governance: Feminist Perspectives, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Cohn, Carol, Helen Kinsella and Sheri Gibbings (2004) ‘Women, Peace and Security: Resolution 1325’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(1): 130-140.

Cook, Sam (2019) ‘Marking failure, making space: feminist intervention in Security Council policy’, International Affairs, 95(6): 1289–1306.

Cook, Sam (2008) ‘Resolution 1820: Participation and Protection – Editorial’. Online, at:  http://www.peacewomen.org/e-news/resolution-1820-participation-protection.

Davies, Sara E. (2017) ‘Making these beautiful resolutions real: Sara E. Davies in conversation with Devanna de la Puente’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 19(1): 112-117.

Farr, Vanessa (2011) ‘UNSCR 1325 and Women's Peace Activism in the Occupied Palestinian Territory’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(4): 539-556.

McLeod, Laura (2011) ‘Configurations of Post-Conflict: Impacts of Representations of Conflict and Post-Conflict upon the (Political) Translations of Gender Security within UNSCR 1325’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(4): 594-611.

Martín De Almagro, María (2018) ‘Producing Participants: Gender, Race, Class, and Women, Peace and Security’, Global Society, 32(4): 395-414.

Motoyama, Hisako (2018) ‘Formulating Japan’s UNSCR 1325 national action plan and forgetting the “comfort women”’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 20(1): 39-53.

Parashar, Swati (2019) ‘The WPS Agenda: A Postcolonial Critique’, in Sara E. Davies and Jacqui True, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace and Security, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pratt, Nicola (2013) ’Reconceptualizing Gender, Reinscribing Racial—Sexual Boundaries in International Security: The Case of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on "Women, Peace and Security"’, International Studies Quarterly, 57(4): 772-783.

Pratt, Nicola (2011) ‘Iraqi Women and UNSCR 1325: An Interview with Sundus Abbas, Director of the Iraqi Women's Leadership Institute, Baghdad, January 2011’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(4): 612-615.

Trojanowska, Barbara K. (2019) ‘“Courage is very important for those who wage peace”: conversation with Jasmin Nario-Galace, peace educator, on the implementation of the UN's Women, Peace and Security agenda in conflict-ridden Philippines’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 21(2): 317-325.

Youngs, Gillian, Kathleen B. Jones and Jan Jindy Pettman (1999) ‘New Spaces, New Politics’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1(1): 1-13.

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