Is the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda useful in non-war contexts? The case of Eswatini

Conflict and violence need to be understood in localised contexts and realities; this allows for an understanding of conflict that is unique to a country's history and socio-political reality. Eswatini does not exhibit the signs of what the WPS agenda considers conflict.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: GarryKnight

The limited responses to the on-going crisis in Eswatini demonstrate how narrow understandings of conflict ignore armed violence in non-war zones. By expanding the interpretation of conflict, in policy and practice, the transformative promise and the conflict prevention potential of the women, peace and security agenda for non-war zones, like Eswatini, become possible. While emaSwati have expressed frustration against the lack of political freedoms, and have called for democratic reforms for decades, a wave of unprecedented protests met by disproportionate state violence erupted in the kingdom in June 2021. Since then, the country’s contrived reputation as “peaceful and unproblematic” has begun to unravel.   

Conflict and violence need to be understood in localised contexts and realities; this allows for an understanding of conflict that is unique to a country’s history and socio-political reality.

Adopted 21 years ago this month, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 recognised women’s critical roles in advancing peace and security. It also formally recognised the gender-biased ways that conflict is experienced. Since 2000, the UNSC has passed ten subsequent resolutions, taken together; these are defined as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. The WPS agenda is both progressive and conforming: while actively challenging the masculine ideas that underpin security institutions, it simultaneously engages with these same organs to transform gender power relations. It balances grassroots advocacy, where women are most influential, while ensuring women’s representation at the international and national levels of practice, where men often dominate. In reality and practice, the WPS agenda is an inclusive and sustainable peace agenda. While 1325 is groundbreaking in numerous respects, it is also conservative, particularly in equating conflict to war. In effect, the agenda is intended to protect women and girls in all conflict settings but it only focuses on those in settings in which conflict manifests as war-like violence. 

In May 2021, 25-year-old Swazi law student Thabani Nkomonye died allegedly as a result of police brutality. As contradictory statements from the police led to confusion about the cause of his death, student activists called for demonstrations. Protests at his memorial service on 21 May turned violent, and students proceeded to march to parliament. On social media, the hashtag #JusticeForThabani trended in Eswatini as protests morphed into a rallying call for other issues, including demands for democratic reforms and other social and economic issues led by three Members of Parliament (MPs) who have subsequently been branded as “pro-democracy MPs”.  Protesters calling for democratic reforms were met by a harsh military response, and by 28 June, 28 protesters had been shot. According to Amnesty International, up to 70 people have been killed by security forces while the government reported that there were 34 casualties.   Companies owned and affiliated with the monarchy were targeted while other businesses were destroyed and looted. Since then, an uneasy impasse has gripped the nation, with calls for reform being demonstrated in increasingly innovative ways. 

Although Eswatini is classified as a lower-middle-income country, it is among the top five most unequal countries globally. Even though the highest political position in the dual monarchy is shared with a woman (the Queen Mother), gender inequality is high with a meagre representation of women in parliament (two elected MPs in the current parliament) and high levels of gender-based violence (GBV).  Whilst the literacy rate among youth (aged 15 to 24 years) is high at 95%, 60% of the unemployed are categorised as youth. The COVID-19 induced lockdowns further reduced opportunities for employment in the formal and informal sectors. As the country’s economic outlook deteriorated, citizens began to tie broader socio-economic issues with the inadequacies of King Mswati’s government.  

While UNSC 1325 can be considered a generic instrument covering a broad range of issues, it can be domesticated into national laws, championing local women’s rights

Conflict and violence need to be understood in localised contexts and realities; this allows for an understanding of conflict that is unique to a country’s history and socio-political reality. Eswatini does not exhibit the signs of what the WPS agenda considers conflict, it is a country that has been in a protracted state of negative peace felt most acutely by women, girls, children and marginalised men (who include unemployed young men, elderly men, LGBTQI men).  Non-war zones, like Eswatini, are global phenomena and are characterised by intense state violence against citizens, everyday violence (such as sexual and GBV) and socio-economic exclusion. In the latest iteration of a decade’s long call for a representative government, the various demands that have been put forth by women’s groups, including the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly and the Liphimbo Labomake, which is a coalition of women’s groups, are for a citizen-centred government but also the removal of the patriarchal system that underpins the current status quo. For Swazi women, girls and marginalised men, freedom entails the realisation of political and civil rights and the right to equal economic opportunities. 

While UNSC 1325 can be considered a generic instrument covering a broad range of issues, it can be domesticated into national laws, championing local women’s rights, integrating common goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and bolstering or rectifying the gaps in existing national legislature. The UNSC Resolution 1889 calls for the development of concrete indicators to monitor the implementation of 1325; it urges member states, the UN, and other actors, including civil society, to develop national action plans (NAPs) to ensure that women’s participation and empowerment goals go beyond rhetoric.

The development of NAP on Resolution 1325 in Eswatini can potentially transform the crisis in the following ways:  

  • By design, a national action plan is developed alongside a range of representative national and grassroots stakeholders.  These would involve not only the Ministries of Defence, Security and Justice but also community-based organisations with a focus on women representation.  As a series of multifaceted interactions between frameworks, institutions and actors, this provides an opportunity to address fractured state-society relations in the current climate while also strengthening critical local infrastructures, including the capacities of civil society organisations. 
  • As a locally-driven process, the development of a NAP can move the discourse of justice, healing and repair beyond the strictly legal approaches prescribed by elites to a wider range of social, economic and political responses that have been generated through an intentionally inclusive participatory process and so can advance equality and sustained peace in the longer term. 
  • Finally, while developing a NAP is a technical process, it is also political. The call for dialogue between the country’s leadership and its citizens has been pronounced by all international actors from the UN, the African Union, the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and various civil society groups in the country. The development of a NAP would provide a technical agenda for a polarized nation to resolve and rebuild from the crisis and prevent future conflicts. 

Tizie Maphalala from the African Women’s Peace and Development Foundation (AWPDF), and Nothando Maphalala, Research Coordinator at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), Addis Ababa.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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