Feminist Security Politics

About the project

This project brings diverse strands of inquiry together to examine the effect of feminist advocacy in transforming traditional security practices before and since the adoption of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda in 2000. WPS professed to offer a new way forward and a path towards a more gender just world but is most often spoken about in terms of its failure. Sometimes this is the failure of governments to meet their obligations, sometimes the inadequacy of policy itself, and sometimes the failure of feminism itself to be radical or intersectional enough.

Drawing on policy analysis, interviews and archival work, this project examines the politics of failure, fracture and renewal in the agenda and its precursors. What different versions of the agenda have been mobilised by states, civil society and international organisations? How can we better map the WPS agenda and related efforts? How might a new conceptualisation of the agenda bring forward new insights on its potential benefits, challenges, and risks? How else have feminists historically reconceived the state and its interests? What futures of WPS are available to some of its champions?

The project addresses these questions and challenges in four ways:

1. Analysis and mapping of the WPS agenda. The project analyses on a new dataset of 237 WPS policy documents from across the UN system, national government initiatives, and regional and international organisations published between 2000 and 2020. It develops a new view of WPS as a policy ecosystem, constituted by overlapping and rival claims expressing diverse feminisms, rather than as a unified plan.

2. Libya Case study: Examination of WPS, the European Union and vulnerable migrants. Drawing on policy documents, human rights reports, interviews with advocates and officials, and an analysis of debates in the EU Parliament and UNHCR’s humanitarian evacuation scheme in Libya, the project furthers its examination of WPS in relation to significant and growing evidence of widespread sexual violence at detention sites in Libya, where migrants are imprisoned after interception on the Mediterranean Sea.

3. Review of the UK’s contribution to the Women, Peace and Security agenda over the last fifteen years. Addressing strengths and limitations, the project analyses successive thematic priorities through the UK’s National Action Plans (NAPs), maps WPS spending, and considers common criticism. It draws out recommendations for future plans on infrastructure and monitoring, domestic applications and policy ambition.

4. Feminist statecraft. Drawing on the personal archives of several prominent 20th century feminists, the project uncovers a longer history of contentious argument about gender equality and the national interest. In contrast to the dominant image of a liberal or radical feminism expressed in WPS, several of these feminists engaged in theory or practice with arguments from political realism, the perspective that most privileges the sovereign state.

In this broad WPS agenda what are the silences, what are the contradictions, what are the multiple contending visions that are unfolding at the same time.

Key findings

Analysis and mapping of the WPS agenda

  • The degree of variation in the WPS agenda is underestimated. Multiple actors use the WPS label to articulate understandings of gender justice which are not only distinct but at odds with one another, for example between Palestine and Israel and between NATO and Women’s International League Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Seeing WPS as a ‘policy ecosystem’ shaped by reproduction and contestation supports a more nuanced understanding of the agenda by recognising its many layers of diversity, thinking holistically about its many actors and institutions, and being attentive to the boundaries of what is and is not considered a part of the agenda.
  • Looking beyond the UN Resolutions shifts the focus away from the Global North. Expanding the search beyond the United Nation Security Council Resolutions, allows for a more diverse ecosystem to emerge that shifts focus away from the Global North as the originator and epicentre of WPS development. For example, the key early role of the African Union’s 2003 Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

WPS is a field of contention in which antagonistic parties may find resources for their own positions under a nominally common umbrella. (Paul Kirby and Laura Shepherd)

Key findings

Libya Case study: Examination of WPS, the European Union and vulnerable migrants.

  • Despite the EU’s commitments on sexual and gender-based violence, substantive protection is limited. The EU’s policy of ‘pullback’ containment in Libya, where migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean are forcefully returned, increases the risk of sexual violence and other abuses. Current efforts to support vulnerable migrants pale in comparison to the scope and severity of the problem. By 2020 there were approximately 50,000 UNHCR registered refugees or asylum seekers in Libya. Most of those cases faced heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence as well as numerous other human rights abuses. But less than 100 people deemed vulnerable a month were being evacuated from Libya by UNHCR and only dozens had been categorised as facing sexual and gender-based violence vulnerabilities or as women at risk.

So often what we see with nation states is what we call a la carte WPS. This idea that they can take the parts of the agenda that they like and ignore those that they don’t like.

Key findings

Review of the UK’s contribution to the Women, Peace and Security agenda over the last fifteen years.

  • The UK NAP focusses on specific issue areas only. Comparing areas of focus in the UK NAPs to other WPS champion states — defined as those who had produced three or more NAPs between 2005–2020 — the UK has a greater intensity of focus in some areas (men and boys, sexual violence, human rights defenders in early NAPs) and a paucity or absence of attention in others (disasters, human trafficking, climate change and arms control).
  • UK government spending on WPS in the past 15 years is unclear.  There is no dedicated WPS budget or publicly available figures kept. Mapping what is available through spending reporting in the NAPs and annual reports to Parliament estimates that the majority of WPS projects focus on gender-based violence (40%), followed by women’s participation (29%) and other agenda-wide issues (13%). 
  • There are inconsistencies in the governments approach to WPS. The UK government has increased efforts in women’s participation in peace and security, including creating the Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth network. However, these initiatives lack sustainable funding, and NGOs criticise policy gaps, while many activists struggle to attend UK-hosted events due to funding and visa issues.
  • Militaristic agendas are co-opting human rights oriented WPS efforts. Preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) has overtaken conflict prevention in the fourth NAP, raising concerns about militaristic agendas co-opting human rights oriented WPS efforts, as other scholars have warned.
  • All four UK NAPs are outward facing, yet UK policies on related domestic and transnational issues often conflict with or disregard WPS principles. For example, the UK’s arms exports demonstrate a disjunction between the government and civil society regarding conflict prevention and WPS. NGOs highlight the impact of UK arms fuelling conflict and the domestic effects of increased defence spending. UK arms transfer controls are absent from all four NAPs despite being introduced in UN WPS policy.
  • The UK fails to implement WPS in Northern Ireland. The CEDAW Committee has consistently recommended state implementation of WPS in Northern Ireland, while civil society actors have called for its implementation since the agenda’s adoption in 2000, and in the context of subsequent UK NAPs. However, partially in response to the work of this project, the 5th and most recent UK NAP mentions Northern Ireland. This is a welcome change, and one that requires further sustained and substantive progress in future NAPs.


WPS Practitioners and Scholars.

  • Complexify and destabilise conceptualisations of WPS. Or forget WPS all together. The reliance upon umbrella terminology and the idea of it as a single normative architecture has gotten in the way of some more creative and critical work required to achieve gender, justice and security in meaningful ways.

EU WPS Policy and Law-Makers.

  • Identify and address gaps in EU WPS policy and practice. Attend to the overlaps between policy areas and think in more concrete terms about what kind of culpability and responsibility there is for the EU and its Member States. The ongoing migrant and asylum crisis in Libya is just one example of why this is so important.

UK Government.

  • Build an adequate infrastructure for monitoring WPS spend and government approach. Implement a labelling system to track WPS spending and report annually; establish mechanisms for multi-year core funding for women’s rights organisations in conflict-affected areas, strengthen civil society and research engagement, reinstate the WPS Steering Group and develop a gender-inclusive, intersectional framework across WPS policy.
  • Promote the WPS agenda domestically. Extend the implementation of WPS and the UK’s NAPs to Northern Ireland. In addition to this recognise Northern Ireland’s peacebuilding work led by women and ensure consultation with local women’s civil society.
  • Proactively address migrant vulnerabilities, particularly relating to sexual and gender-based violence. Improve migration and asylum policies with trauma-informed procedures, non-carceral alternatives, and safe routes for asylum seekers.
  • Align UK policies with the WPS framework and agenda. The UK government should Integrate a gender perspective across all of its policies, and crucially its climate change policy. It should also strengthen arms transfer control and align with the Arms Trade Treaty, enhance synergies between WPS and human rights frameworks, supporting the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and finally coordinate with other WPS champions to address contemporary challenges and prevent duplication of efforts.