Australia’s International Response to Islamic State: The Forgotten Half

Something is being forgotten in the global response to Islamic State. It’s something big. In fact, it affects half of the population. Australia has a whole of government policy that requires our peace and security institutions to actively consider these women. The policy of which I speak is the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018 (NAP). As Australia re-engages in conflict in the Middle East, the Australian Government needs to prioritise the commitments they made in this policy.

'Yazidi Genocide: Iraq 2014', Source: Debris2008 (Domenico) via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license

‘Yazidi Genocide: Iraq 2014’, Source: Debris2008 (Domenico) via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 was the first of several resolutions to outline the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. It acknowledged the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and girls and obliged member states to increase women’s participation and protection. There are obligations to ensure women’s participation in conflict prevention, peace processes, peacebuilding and peacekeeping. There are also obligations to protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict, and provide gendered relief and recovery. In articulating these obligations, the Security Council formalised women’s participation and protection as a priority of international peace and security.

Strategy four of the NAP states that Australia will “promote women, peace and security implementation internationally.” Australia has made military commitments to the conflict with Islamic State (IS): first by delivering conventional arms, now by the deployment of special forces and fighter jets. The conflict is now clearly a strategic priority for Australia. Having made a strategic commitment, WPS needs to be comprehensively applied to strategic and operational planning and implementation. The current operational response is an example of why Australia needs the Commander Joint Operations to have a dedicated Gender Advisor who is a specialist in gender and conflict.

Strategy one of Australia’s National Action Plan says the government will “integrate a gender perspective into Australia’s policies on peace and security.” Women and girls in Syria and northern Iraq have been subjected to gross sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee recently completed a large survey of Syrian women and girls. The research report, entitled Are We Listening?, found that many Syrian women and girls “have been subject to sexual and gender-based violence, coerced into early marriages, overwhelmed by economic strife, and psychologically scarred by loss in a war that seemingly has no end.” When asked “what are the biggest challenges you are facing?” The most common theme of the responses was the daily reality of sexual exploitation and harassment: “constantly fearful, women and girls told us about extreme levels of harassment”. Indeed, a article in Foreign Policy highlighted the fact that sexual violence is being used by IS as a weapon of war. United Nations in Iraq has said that “some 1,500 Yazidi and Christian persons may have been forced into sexual slavery.”

Action 4.4 of the NAP says Australia will “consider the use of specific strategies to promote the participation and protection of women and girls in fragile, conflict and/or post-conflict settings”. Announcements by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, on funding for women and girls affected by the ongoing violence are welcome. More needs to be done to protect women and girls but both pillars of the WPS agenda are relevant in the IS conflict. Women are not just victims of violence during armed conflict, they are also agents for change. Women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding will be vital to achieve any sustainable solutions to the conflict.

When you consider peace and security as a conflict cycle, women’s participation in conflict prevention in northern Iraq and Syria is currently about preventing an escalation in the conflict and conflict resolution. Strategy five of the NAP states that the government will “take a coordinated and holistic approach” to WPS. Yet Australia has made no commitments to supporting women’s participation in the prevention of escalation of the conflict or in peacebuilding.

Civil society worked on WPS long before there were even Security Council Resolutions on the subject. Strategy three of Australia’s NAP is about supporting civil society organisations to “increase women’s participation in conflict prevention, peace-building, conflict resolution and relief and recovery.” On Tuesday 23 September 2014, civil society organisations will host the Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security, bringing senior leaders from government and civil society together with the community to discuss the implementation of Australia’s NAP on WPS. While progress has been made on the implementation of WPS in Australia since the release of the NAP, there is still much work to be done. There is no doubt that Australia should be doing a great deal to support women’s organisations who work on protection and participation in Syria and northern Iraq.

Registrations are still open for the Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security. It will be held at University House, The Australian National University.

Susan Hutchinson is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University. She is a civil-military specialist. Her PhD research focuses on Women, Peace and Security and the Australian Defence Force.