Gender equality is experiencing a strange moment in international politics. On the one hand, discourse and policy around gender equality have never been so prevalent. Eleven states across the Global North and South now proclaim a feminist approach to their foreign policy. UN Women has just marked its first decade. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda will soon celebrate 25 years of UNSCR resolutions which embed an understanding of women’s rights and needs in the conflict and post-conflict setting.

At the same time however, gender equality is under increasing threat from some political actors. The concept of gender itself is under fire in certain contexts, framed as an ‘ideology’ or a threat to children. Reproductive rights are increasingly under attack in various parts of the globe. Key political figures such as Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte rose to power on the back of misogynistic and homophobic campaign rhetoric.

Poland and Brazil are two examples of such anti-gender contexts. In recent years, both have seen attacks on so-called ‘gender ideology’, hateful rhetoric and actions against the LGBT+ community and Poland’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women. Yet, at the same time, both have also enacted National Action Plans (NAPs) on the UN’s WPS agenda. Whilst attacking the idea of gender on the one hand, with the other these states have been expending great efforts to instigate a key gender equality measure. Why is this the case? Why have two governments that have been responsible for regression on gender equality measures simultaneously chosen to work on the WPS agenda? We explore this paradox in recently published research in the European Journal of International Security.

Why do anti-gender states engage with WPS?

Drawing on a discourse analysis of both NAPs and interviews with key civil society actors in Brazil and Poland, we argue that there are several factors that have enabled the uptake of the WPS agenda in these countries in spite of the contemporary political context.

Firstly, neither NAP is boundary pushing. Both are conservative in their aims and vague in their ambitions for the agenda. Both give only a vague sense of how civil society is going to be consulted in the process of developing the agenda, and neither has a clear budget, or a sense of how the promises made in the NAPs are going to be evaluated.

Secondly, development around WPS was severely restricted to only the necessary government actors. A sense of minimal civil society involvement as seen in the NAPs was reiterated in interviews. Interviewees stressed the lack of engagement there had been with them in the process of producing the NAPs. Both countries also appear to have done little to promote their NAP within civil society, or elsewhere, after their production. One interviewee said she felt that, after all of the effort expended in the production of one NAP, it had simply been put in a drawer and forgotten about by the government.

Thirdly, NAP development can be explained via the pressure from the international community and institutions to develop one. Encouragement from NATO, as well as Poland’s accession to the UN Security Council in 2018, was important in forcing the country’s hand in developing a NAP. In doing so, Poland was demonstrating, in the words of one interviewee, that it is a reliable and responsible player in global politics’. Similarly, Brazilian interviewees stressed the symbolic nature of the NAP for the country on the world stage. One said that,Having a NAP sort of puts Brazil in a club – in a VIP club.’ It was thus seen as important by key actors within the government to have, even if there was little by the way of substantial commitments within it.

Lastly, it was clear from interviews that the work around the NAPs was down to a very small handful of critical feminist actors working within the government of each country. In each, it was the will of a small number of actors in the ministries that pushed the promotion and uptake of NAPs, rather than a concerted interest across the governments.

What does this contribute to our understanding of the WPS agenda?

We argue that there are two key messages from this research for the scholarship on WPS. Firstly, the institutional context for the WPS agenda is important. From the outside, having a fully developed NAP might look like a country has a thriving community around WPS and a clear commitment to it. Our research showed, however, that this was not the case. The uptake of the NAP was down to a small handful of individuals, often facing strong resistance within their governments. A NAP does not equal any real commitment to the agenda. Furthermore, the lack of CSO involvement in both reflects the militarisation of the agenda, and the reticence that parts of civil society have in identifying with the WSP agenda because of this relationship.

Secondly, our research illustrates the symbolic nature of the WPS agenda and the performative role that NAPs can carry in global politics. NAPs can be adopted despite domestic rhetoric around the supposed dangers of ‘gender ideology’. Interviews stressed that engagement with the WPS agenda and the development of a NAP were seen as key to unlocking access to the global political stage for these countries. Having a NAP has become a symbol of progress, with little actual commitment required on the part of states. This allows these countries to be perceived as playing their part in the liberal international system whilst simultaneously espousing anti-gender discourse and policy domestically. This finding complicates the notion of ‘backlash’ against gender equality in global politics. There is a flexibility to states’ anti-genderism, with their domestic rhetoric not necessarily matching their international policy.

Anti-gender states and WPS – a cautionary tale

The WPS agenda is now deeply entrenched in international and national policy making and, in a few brief years, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. It increasingly commands global uptake, with 98 countries adopting NAPs. Yet, in addition to the well-established critiques of the agenda, our research adds a further note of caution. Even states which have shown little attentiveness to gender equality in other areas can also ‘bandwagon’ onto WPS, giving them the sense of credibility on the international stage without substantive depth. WPS can act as a signal and symbol of liberal intent, despite actions to the contrary, potentially further hollowing out the agenda as it develops.

Dr Jennifer Thomson, University of Bath

Dr Sophie Whiting, University of Bath

The author’s EJIS article is available open access here.

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