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Empowering Women and Centralising Gender in Atrocity Prevention: Insights from the Asia Pacific Partnership for Atrocity Prevention

Fresh Perspectives

Dr Sarah Teitt, Deputy Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P, offers some key insights on centralising gender within atrocity prevention frameworks.


For years, academics and practitioners have highlighted that the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) are mutually reinforcing commitments, while at the same time lamenting that, for the most part, the R2P framework “remains gender-blind”.

It is therefore a welcome development that, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the endorsement of R2P and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the UN issued the ground-breaking 12th annual Secretary-General’s report on R2P ‘Prioritizing prevention and strengthening response: Women and the responsibility to protect’.

The 2020 report represents the most comprehensive official UN-led effort to date to affirm the linkages between WPS and R2P, to identify the gendered impacts of atrocity crimes, and to reinforce that more must be done to empower women as agents of atrocity prevention. The Secretary-General’s report contains a number of practical recommendations, including utilizing R2P national focal points and WPS networks to mainstream gender-based atrocity prevention in national and regional policies.

For the past few years, the Gender and Atrocity Prevention Working Group of the Asia Pacific Partnership for Atrocity Prevention (APPAP) has been leading initiatives toward this goal. Members of the Working Group include some of the region’s leading academics and civil society activists and practitioners who have been working on WPS, and who have niche expertise in areas such as early warning, strategic advocacy, empowering women in mediation and peace processes, and preventing violent extremism.

A key aim of the group is to leverage their skills and networks to help tackle the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence in the region—not only through galvanizing action to confront ongoing gender-based atrocity crimes in situations such as Myanmar and North Korea, but also through addressing the legacy of past crimes and building preventive capacities across the region.

They have adopted both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches to advancing gender-based atrocity prevention, including outreach to governments and regional mechanisms such as the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and facilitating training for grassroots civil society organisations.

As a group of regional experts with experience in linking WPS and R2P and in leading training and advocacy programs, their work has generated a number of important insights for building regional constituencies to help propel the Secretary-General’s recommendations into concrete action. Three of these include:


1. The importance of conceptual clarity and a common frame of reference

While there is a sizeable body of research and policy guidance on factors contributing to widespread and systematic SGBV, from the outset the Working Group identified that, overall, there is a lack of conceptual clarity on what ‘mainstreaming’ gender in atrocity prevention entails.

Part of the problem has been the piecemeal or partial integration of gender indicators in existing atrocity risk assessments and prevention frameworks. For example, the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, which the UN badges as a ‘tool for prevention’, specifically mentions women only twice (under Risk Factor 7, increased violence against women and children, particularly if used as a tool of terror, are an indicator of ‘preparatory action’ toward atrocities; and under Risk Factor 10, measures to curtail the reproductive rights of women or forcibly transfer children of a protected group is a specific indicator for genocide).

In the absence of a more comprehensive guiding framework that could be used to help identify priorities or entry points in the Asia Pacific, one of the APPAP Gender Working Group’s first initiatives was to map what a gender-based atrocity prevention agenda for the region entails.

Centralising Gender in Atrocity Prevention: A Tool for Action in the Asia Pacific Region draws on scholarship and policy practice to systematically identify strategies for integrating gender in: (1) structural prevention efforts to reduce risk and tackle root causes; (2) early direct prevention to monitor and respond to signs of emerging crises; and (3) emergency late-stage prevention efforts to stops attacks from continuing or escalating.

This has proven a useful outreach and training tool for establishing a common understanding of what is unique about gender-based atrocity prevention and why targeted prevention efforts are important, as well as how atrocity prevention intersects with other agendas.


2. Targeted advocacy for structural prevention

Because the majority of mass atrocities occur in the context of armed conflict, the presence of armed conflict or other forms of acute political, social, or economic instability are among the most significant risk factors for atrocity crimes. This is also true for gender-based atrocities.

While the incidence and prevalence of SGBV varies across conflicts, armed conflict and other forms of militarized violence and instability (such as acts of violent extremism/terrorism, insurgency/rebellion movements, counterinsurgency operations, major humanitarian emergencies) present significant risks for SGBV. The risk is high immediately prior to and during the height of conflict or crisis, and continues in the aftermath. For example, researchers have documented spikes in sexual violence in Myanmar just before and during intense episodes of armed fighting, as well as high levels of SGBV in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps after communities flee violence.

Preventing deadly conflict can help prevent mass atrocities, and enhancing gender equality and women’s status in society is crucial to this end. Indeed, a wide range of evidence shows that the level of violence against women within a state is the best predictor of that country’s peacefulness.

Measures to improve women’s social standing, control over resources, access to services and property, sexual and reproductive autonomy, and decision-making authority are therefore not just human rights and social justice issues, but core elements of preventing armed conflict and building resilience to mass atrocities. This is reflected in the Secretary-General’s emphasis on the linkage between atrocity prevention and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 16 in his 2020 report on R2P.

One of the concerns that the APPAP Gender Working Group has grappled with is that advocacy centred on the connections between gender equality and atrocity prevention may prompt states in the region to point to existing gender equality frameworks and SDG strategies to conclude that they are ‘already doing’ gender-based atrocity prevention.

A strategy the Working Group has adopted to address this is to focus their advocacy on targeted ‘upstream’ measures informed by research that has identified some of the most significant underlying factors associated with SGBV on a massive scale. In particular, research that has shown that (a) states with higher levels of gender discrimination and gender inequality particularly with respect to restricted physical integrity of women are more likely to experience widespread and systematic SGBV, and (b) that the absence of laws and rules that strictly prohibit and punish SGBV by individuals or contingents in the police and armed forces, as well as by members of other armed groups, is the most significant risk factor for widespread SGBV by armed actors.

Some of the most important findings of this research is that the risk of widespread and systematic SGBV is significantly higher in states with weak or no laws relating to intimate partner/domestic violence and where sociocultural norms are more permissive of this violence, and where security forces are unaccountable. For this reason, the Working Group has prioritised two measures in its structural prevention advocacy: raising awareness on strengthening domestic violence laws and the unacceptability of intimate partner violence; and implementing gender-responsive justice and security sector reform measures, such as establishing ‘zero tolerance’ codes of conduct within the military and police, and in prisons or detention facilities.


3. Facilitating peer learning and empowering women in early warning and prevention

Massive levels of SGBV tend to follow patterns of less extreme violence of a similar nature, which means that detecting and assessing signs of escalating risk and taking early preventive action can help break or inhibit the trajectory toward mass atrocities.

The Secretary-General has repeatedly emphasised the importance of strengthening gender-responsive early warning, yet at the same time acknowledged that all too often the gap is not foreknowledge of escalating risks but the political will and capacity for remedial action.

Early on in its discussions, the APPAP Gender Working Group recognised the political and practical challenges to enhancing atrocity early warning-early response capacities in the Asia Pacific both at the state and regional level. Yet, the Group also highlighted that there are examples of good practice in the region, most notably in the early warning-early response (EWER) system developed by the NGO Belun to prevent a recurrence of largescale violence in Timor Leste. Belun has paid particular attention to raising alerts of violence against women as a potential warning sign of wider instability in its EWER system.

As an initial scoping exercise, the Working Group conducted a study tour to Timor Leste to observe how Belun gathers and assesses information and facilitates early response. It later facilitated a regional training program in which Belun shared their experience with women’s grassroots civil society organisations and women human rights defenders from other conflict-affected areas in the region. APPAP is presently working to help establish variation of Belun’s system in other countries in the region.

This does not replace the need for early warning and response capacities within governments or intergovernmental bodies (for example, there is a longstanding recommendation for the ASEAN Regional Forum to establish a Risk Reduction Centre, which could fulfil important early warning functions). However, it does highlight how enhancing grassroots early warning and community self-protection strategies can move the Secretary-General’s recommendations forward despite inertia or resistance on the part of governments.


Much of the APPAP Gender Working Group’s work would not be possible without sustained funding support from the Australian government and other donors. In this regard, beyond the measures outlined, one of the most important lessons is that strengthening ‘women and R2P’ will remain an unrealised aspiration without strategic investment in amplifying the role of women and building gender expertise in local and regional conflict and atrocity prevention networks.

Dr Sarah Teitt is an Australian Research Council DECRA Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. From 2017-19 she served as co-chair of the Gender and Atrocity Prevention Working Group of the Asia Pacific Partnership for Atrocity Prevention.


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Title image credit: UN Women Asia and Pacific (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0):