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Has Australia Lost its Way on Women, Peace and Security?

08 Mar 2022
By Associate Professor Katrina Lee-Koo
Woman police officer. Source: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

Australia is routinely heralded as a global leader on the United Nations Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Yet, in the year since the release of Australia’s second National Action Plan on the agenda, its impact remains unclear.  

Gender-responsive peace and security practices are essential to efforts to create a secure world. But this does require countries, in their domestic and foreign policies, to understand how conflict and crisis affect gender identities differently, and the ways in which these identities can contribute to crisis recovery and security. Gender responsive decision-making requires countries to embed this in their decision-making in ways that generate outcomes that forestall harm and promote gender equality.

This is at the heart of the WPS agenda.  It highlights the ways in which women can be disproportionately and uniquely impacted by conflict and crisis, and advocates for their long-overdue inclusion in all areas of peace and security decision-making.  UN member states usually implement this agenda — there are currently ten Security Council resolutions on WPS — through policies know as National Action Plans (NAPs). In 2021, Australia released its second NAP.

Australia’s new NAP has a strong focus on women’s leadership in times of crisis, conflict, and recovery and understands the challenges that the region will face in the next ten years — natural disasters, humanitarian crises, ongoing violence against women, the gendered aspects of forced displacement, violent extremism, and conflict. Unlike its first NAP, however, this NAP provides high-level guidance, leaving it up to  the relevant department and agencies to design their own implementation plans. So far, the Departments of Home Affairs, the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have released their implementation approaches. Notably, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — the lead agency — has not.

These plans vary in terms of their specificity, commitment, and design. The AFP intends to implement the WPS agenda through its broader International Command Gender Strategy 2018-2024, which sets specific activities, targets, and measures. Home Affairs offers only general direction on how its work aligns with the agenda.

These plans are important documents. The gauge of Australia’s leadership on WPS will come down to the design and implementation of the plan and the extent to which agencies can be accountable to the ambitions outlined in the NAP. So far, the results appear to be erratic at best. An examination of two significant crises in the past twelve months suggests that more can be done to implement the agenda.

Civil Unrest in the Solomon Islands

In November 2021, anti-government protests in the Solomon Islands broke out, causing public violence, looting, arson, and the destruction of property. This crisis posed particular harm to the country’s women and girls, who already experience high levels of gender-based violence. As shops were ransacked, women proprietors came under threat. The imposition of curfews created risks to women’s safety in the home.

In response to the crisis, and following a request from the Solomon Islands government, Australia sent more than 100 ADF and AFP personnel. Their role was to work with the Solomon Islands security sector to quell unrest and protect critical infrastructure.

Yet there was no evidence that a gender advisor was posted to the operation. While government officials claimed to have undertaken gender analysis, the appointment of a gender advisor is key to ensuring this analysis has a strategic impact. It is also a core activity outlined in the ADF’s NAP implementation plan: “Defence will work towards the inclusion of gender advisors on operations…”

The gender advisor is an increasingly standard role that works with the leadership team to ensure that operations are gender responsive. This role incorporates an understanding of the protection needs of women in public and private spaces and coordinates the inclusion of women leaders in efforts to forestall further violence, to generate public calm, and to achieve sustainable resolution. These are roles that Solomon Islands women have long played in their communities. The failure to engage in a gender-responsive approach undermines efforts to build an effective, sustainable, and inclusive response to the crisis, and potentially enables further harm to women.

The Current Conflict in Ukraine

The February invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military is already having significant gendered impacts upon Ukrainian civilians. The UN is expressing grave concern that the forced displacement of Ukrainians places women at much higher risks of physical and sexual violence and exploitation. In the recently halted peace talks, there was no evidence of women’s participation.

In response to the crisis, Australia has condemned Russian attacks and offered its solidarity to the Ukrainian people. It has committed “around $70 million in lethal military assistance to support the defence of Ukraine, including missiles and weapons” and “an initial $35 million to help meet the urgent needs of the Ukrainian people.”

A gender-responsive approach from the Australian government, in the line with its NAP, needs to consider a number of issues when provisioning support. This includes the need to work with available data to understand the gendered impact of the crisis, take deliberate efforts to include women’s views and experiences in designing humanitarian relief, and ensuring that responses address issues of gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health needs. Finally, it needs to consider the impact that any weapons transfers into the conflict zones will have upon women and girls. There is no evidence that this approach has been included or considered in Australia’s response to date.

Where To From Here?

Australia’s second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security talks a good game. But in its first year, there is little publicly available evidence that it has been consistently implemented in the crises facing Australia. This raises the question of its efficacy at a time when it is most needed. For the NAP to be a success, it must also walk a good game.

Katrina Lee-Koo is an associate professor in international relations at Monash University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.