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Critical Role of Women in the Sustenance and Evolution of Global Peace and Security.

Salwa Mansuri. Resident Intern, Princeton Foundation for Peace & Learning; and Graduate Candidate at the London School of Economics.

Security is foundational to international relations but is often conceptualized by realist thoughts as limited to “security-seeking states” (Mearsheimer, 2009:255) focused on war (Blanchard, 2003; Chenoy, 2000), control of weapons, and the strategic use of arms (Walt, 1991). Despite preliminary scepticism in incorporating gender perspectives into traditional security discourse (Tickner, 1997), “curious feminists” (Enloe, 2006: 19) have challenged the largely male dominated and oriented sphere of international security (True & Tanyag, 2018) and proposed to include nuances ranging from violence against women in the private sphere (True, 2012) to the spectrum of sexual violence in armed conflicts (Wood, 2006). Marginalized due to gender and race (Denov, 2008), Third World Women are frequently “shot and knifed, confined, and beaten” (Thistlethwaite, 2015, p.1) which ignores invisible, everyday forms of violence, characterizing these women as weak, feeble and in need of rescue (Rosenberg, 2002). Lesser visible forms of “everyday violence” (Innes and Steele, 2018:15) such as restrictions on food and water particularly of marginalized individuals largely go unnoticed (Tickner, 2015; Harding, 1991). This is surprising considering Third World Women especially in war settings are committed to “laborious work related to household food security” (Scanlan, 2004:1810).

By using food and water security as two examples and drawing from feminists’ perspectives that challenge masculinities and the protection myth, I argue that post-colonial feminists broaden the concept of security to include “human dignity and capabilities” (True & Tanyag, 2018:17) where sufficient care and nurture are key concerns for human security (Vaittinen, 2018: 243). I choose Syria and Yemen as empirical examples to discuss food and water security respectively because they are listed as the worst humanitarian crises by International Rescue Committee (2022) and where Third World Women have played a crucial role in broadening security. As such, we extend Enloe (2000:1)’s question of “where are women?” to where are women’s efforts in broadening security discourse recognized? It is necessary to broaden the concept of security because in the Third World, focus on traditional security has ignored problems of individuals, who have “lived in greater misery” (Pettiford, 1996: 300).

Food Security in Syria

Broadening Security as Freedom from Hunger
Food security, according to the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, means that people have “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life” (IFPRI, 2022). To that point, the Syrian government policies through a siege in Eastern Ghouta and Hägerdal (2020:3) states, does utilize starvation as a weapon of war (Messer and Uvin, 1996).

Syrian Women have broadened the concept of security to include freedom from hunger. A Syrian women mentioned “I am obsessed with farming and like to feed people from what I produce in my garden” (Lawson and Saleh, 2022). Another example of a Syrian states that “I live alone after my husband died last year,” and it is through her engagement in food production that enabled her to raise her children without her husband (ibid)

Feminists therefore argue that for human beings to survive, they require the most basic care such as food, hydration, urination and one that cannot survive with the care provided by other bodies, in this case Syrian women (Vaittinen, 2018). Often traditional security theorists forget that even the most disciplined body of a male soldier requires food and hydration (Auchter, 2016). As evident in the example of Syrian women above, post-colonial feminists broaden the understanding of security by spotlighting hunger, often considered a “lesser security concerns” (Vaittinen, 2018: 249). Therefore, rather than defining security in the form of direct violence that is visible and inscribed on women’s bodies, we define the lack of adequate care as a security threat (Robinson, 2011)

Broadening Security through Food Narratives

Undoubtedly, feminists broaden the concept of security by reconceptualizing in the most evident forms by highlighting it as freedom from hunger and actively participating to reduce hunger. However, physically participating in the farm and growing food is one-way post-colonial feminists broaden understanding of security while, another is where food itself becomes a narrative to advocate for security (Mehta & Wibben, 2018). A narrative is most simply defined as “a way of making sense of the world around us” (Moulin 2016: 138). Narratives are not common in conventional security studies, but they play a crucial role in revealing the in/securities of identities that are shrouded by more dominant identities which allows to “reshape understandings of security” (Mehta & Wibben, 2018: 49). Rather than security narratives focusing on and being encompassed by sovereign states, narratives can serve as a means for marginalized communities such as Syrian women, food serves as a narrative to highlight hegemonic discourse and authority (Shapiro 1998: 19) and for women to become “agents of security”.

The narrative approach largely involves “assessing politics and security from multiple, alternative points” (Mehta & Wibben, 2018: 50), food itself serves as a form of narrative that highlights in/securities. An empirical example is evident in the case of another Syrian Refugee who is currently based in Britain and is a keen advocate for Syrians back home. On the 11th of August 2018, she hosted a dinner where attendees at the event were served “thin soup because that’s all there was to eat in Eastern Ghouta”, a conflict-afflicted region in Syria (Rannard, 2022).

Additionally, the position of the narrator is a crucial aspect of narratives, one way in which feminists help shift security discourse from a broad state-centric one to food security. As a Syrian woman, one with an intersectional identity, who’s words by dominant security narratives are silenced (Wibben, 2011), through the thin soup, she is highlighting stories of hunger, starvation and vulnerability that impacts the most marginalised communities in Syria. Thin soup transcends traditional feminists understanding of narrative and instead is an unspoken and unwritten narrative, one that disturbs the traditional understanding of state-centric security in Syria.

While the section above thus far discusses food security, it is necessary to highlight that post-colonial feminists illuminate intersections of marginalization and the interlinked forms of violence that women in the Global South face. In particular, feminists highlight that insecurities do not occur singularly but infact women experience a “mutual constitution of insecurities” (True & Tanyag, 2018: 16).

Water Security in Yemen
Broadening Security as Equal Access to Water

According to the United Nations Water Task force, Water Security is defined as the “capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality of water for sustaining livelihoods” (Wegerich, Van Rooijen, Soliev and Mukhamedova, 2015: 4659). For example, in the ongoing conflict in Yemen since 2014, water is often blocked as part of humanitarian aid from rebels or countries involved. In 2015, planes destroyed water reservoirs which prevented 30,000 people from accessing safe drinking water (Schulman, 2021). In Yemen, itself there have been 4000 deaths as a result of water related disputes (Comins, 2015, p.86).

The Sabr al-Mawadem, a district in Yemen, continues to face water related distribution issues for 15 years (Al-Derwish, 2022). However, women leaders effectively resolved the conflict through mediation and bargaining proving that “women have a role in conflict mediation” (ibid). To ensure long-term and sustained peace, women from the Sabr al-Mawadem district built the Peace and Development Community Initiative that continued to revive pipes impacted by violence during the ongoing conflict in Yemen (ibid) to enable long-term peace.

The above is one example of women’s participation in sustaining long-term peace and participating effectively in the peace process. It in fact furthers Ellerby (2018)’s critique that women are often excluded from formal peace processes such as peace negotiations (Bell and O’Rourke 2010) to prove that dispute resolution and overall water security can be resolved through grassroots negotiations and mediations which women have proven to be effective at. Most importantly, their role or conceptualisation of security is less visible, perhaps because they are not directly defending against an opponent or using weapons to physically fight in conflict. However, they maintain security by improving lives (Ellerby, 2018). The above is also a stark example that women must not be simply “added” to water security issues but remain at the core and the root of violence resolution at a community and grassroots level (Sjoberg 2013; Ellerby 2017).

Broadening Security as Sanitation, Hygiene and Health

Much of the debate in the context of sanitation and hygiene is focused on the negative impacts that poor hygiene management has on women’s health long after civil war and conflict have ended (Ghobarah, Huth and Russett, 2003). Poor water management has direct implications on human security, such as deteriorating menstrual health, hygiene and water borne diseases (Alam, 2016: 218). In Yemen itself, the United Nations reported close to 35,000 cases of cholera and other water borne diseases that led to 361 deaths at the outbreak in 2016. In 2021, this number advanced further to highlight 1,500 water-associated deaths (Al-Mowafek, 2021). To that end, Yemini Women especially have actively joined UNCEF in hopes to tackle the issue. Their role is wide-ranging from supervising the installation of water taps to stands. They believe that “water is life and peace, and it should never be used as a weapon (Alhajomar, Al-Zubairi and Lazovski, 2022). Something as simple as providing a basin for use is a means to security for women’s health and hygiene.

In line with traditional realist and masculine understanding of security, men are often considered as central to the maintenance of security in global politics. As evident in the example above, post-colonial feminists broaden understanding of security challenging the traditional notions and requirements of masculinity associated with security. Men for example widely feature in a variety of security related issues ranging from their involvement in extremist groups and militia to (Kimmel, 2003), those involved in arms trade (Farr, Myrttinen and Albrecht 2009), largely involved in military and physical violence. However, the example above, proves otherwise. Women are actively participating in fostering security and challenging traditional understanding of security by shifting focus to foster sanitation, health and hygiene.


Contrary to feminists who broaden security by focusing on the “heightened, sometimes unprecedented, vulnerabilities in war” (Sharoni, Welland, Steiner and Pedersen, 2016, p.226), Nordstrom (1997) argues that women and girls are harmed in their own communities. While this is undeniably true, the role of Third World Women and post-colonial feminists in broadening security through everyday simple acts of providing water and food must not be neglected. This essay provides a uniquely refreshing perspective into the role of feminists, particularly post-colonial feminists in broadening security discourse. Rather than merely focusing on security that is visible and widespread such as sexual and physical gender-based violence, it focuses on two everyday forms of security that feminists argue. In doing so, it draws from pertinent examples of how Third World Women help foster water and food security and as such broaden security discourse. This is not to say that women must be coerced or fixed into such positions involuntarily but that their efforts and contribution to broadening the overall security discourse must not be ignored, be it at the battlefield or at home. Ultimately, however, it is not enough to only acknowledge that post-colonial feminists broaden understanding of security to include food and water security, the central role of women in these issues instead must be instituted fully. For example, the United Nations Women’s, Peace & Security Agenda does not recognize food and water security because of the significant focus on visible forms of violence such as sexual and gender-based violence (Barnes, 2011; Basu, 2010). The current argument broadens the definition of security to the extent that it becomes synonymous to International Relations. As such multiple identities of Third World Women extend beyond victims and soldiers but as cooks, water suppliers and agents of broadening security discourse.

Conflict of Interest: Author discloses no conflict of interest. No funding was provided by any agency for this research work.


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