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Logics of empowerment in the women, peace and security agenda


The concept of empowerment, particularly in relation to women as agents of social and political change, has its origins in grassroots development praxis and theorising under the rubric of post-development, but its meaning is highly contested in contemporary international governance. In this paper, we analyse the shifting terrain of empowerment in development, peace, and security governance through the case of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. We present a thematic analysis of the articulation of empowerment, built from a detailed genealogy of the concept and deployed across a dataset of 149 NAPs produced by 90 UN member states. Our analysis shows that the ways in which empowerment is put into discourse in NAPs is worth analysing in detail, and does not foreclose the possible expansion of practice of women’s empowerment, despite the restrictive imperatives of neoliberal governance. This suggests, ultimately, that grassroots praxis may continue as an effective site of resistance, despite the co-optation of the concept of empowerment by peacebuilding and development institutions.

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  1. These are (with year of adoption): UNSCR 1820 (2008), UNSCR 1888 (2009), UNSCR 1889 (2009), UNSCR 1960 (2010), UNSCR 2106 (2013a), UNSCR 2122 (2013b), UNSCR 2242 (2015), UNSCR 2467 (2019), UNSCR 2493 (2019).

  2. Empowerment is, however, mentioned in later WPS resoflutions, specifically in UNSCR 1888 (2 times), UNSCR 1889 (5 times), UNSCR 2242 (12 times), and in UNSCR 2467 (4 times).

  3. The literature on the WPS agenda is too vast to capture here. There are several useful overviews available (for example, Olsson and Gizelis 2013; Hudson 2019) and several wide-ranging edited collections (for example, Olonisakin et al. 2011; Gizelis and Olsson 2015; Davies and True 2019; Basu et al. 2020), in addition to numerous theoretical and empirical studies in scholarly journals. Our engagement focuses on the specifics of empowerment in WPS scholarship rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive overview of research on the WPS agenda.

  4. On the need to better understand the relationship between women’s security and economic empowerment, see also (MacKenzie 2009; Abdullah and Fofana-Ibrahim 2010; Kabeer 2016).

  5. The collection of NAPs analysed here has been curated over time as part of a larger research project. Some of the Plans in the database have been translated into English from their language of origin for the purposes of analysis; these are not official translations. The NAPs are available at

  6. This formulation owes a debt to Maha Muna’s comment about women having to be “superheroines” in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, such are the demands put upon them (Cohn, Kinsella and Gibbings 2004: 136).

  7. Relatedly, there is an interesting shift from the 2014 UK NAP (the country’s third) being dominated by the representation of women’s empowerment as central to sustainable peace (a security logic), to the fourth UK NAP (2018) emphasising economic empowerment (an economic logic). Other NAPs that shift logics over time include the Swiss NAP and the NAP from the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of which initially put forward a social logic (equating empowerment with gender equality) and then in the later iterations of their plans propound an economic logic. Detailed case-based research would be needed to explore the cause of these shifts and their effects.

  8. The second US NAP is oddly specific about economic empowerment in relation to the energy sector, which is unusual among the NAPs we analysed. One of the outcomes in US NAP II is enhanced “capacity and empowerment of women to fully participate in the energy sector, including women working in energy policy and as clean energy entrepreneurs” (Outcome 5.4, US NAP II 2016, 30). We are not quite sure what to make of this; further research more suited to exploring policy development is required to understand this inclusion.


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We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers and editors at the Journal of International Relations and Development for their careful and constructive engagement. This article began life as a paper presented at the 2018 EWIS-European Workshops in International Studies and we are grateful to the convenors, Caitlin Ryan and María Martín de Almagro, and the workshop participants for their feedback on our early draft. Research for this article was funded in part by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project ‘Women, Peace and Security: Rethinking Policy, Advocacy and Implementation’ (DP160100212). We would also like to thank Kit Catterson for invaluable assistance with data coding and analysis.

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Correspondence to Laura J. Shepherd.

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Boer Cueva, A.R., Griffin, P. & Shepherd, L.J. Logics of empowerment in the women, peace and security agenda. J Int Relat Dev 26, 453–480 (2023).

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