The Curb-cut Effect in Peace and Security: Why Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Benefits Everyone

Curb cuts
Photo courtesy Wheelchair Travel.

I hesitated to write this because so much has already been said about this topic by those more versed than I am. But, at the risk of mansplaining, I wrote this with the hope that my realization may also resonate with others who aren’t on board yet or know much about the WPS agenda.

For those of you who don’t know about this policy agenda, Women, Peace and Security was codified internationally with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, and in the US with the Women, Peace and Security Act in 2017. As someone who previously did not recognize the importance of WPS and gender mainstreaming, I want to illustrate how and why it is important that you care about WPS, even if you don’t know anything about it.

While gender mainstreaming was part of my curriculum in conflict resolution, I did not focus on it since I didn’t recognize the far-reaching impact of the WPS.  Rather than viewing WPS as a social justice issue or something that benefits just women and girls, however, I realized that it bolsters traditional security dimensions and improves outcomes for everyone.

This realization came when I noticed that the impacts of the WPS agenda are analogous to what is known as the curb-cut effect in urban planning. During the 1970s in Berkeley, CA, before ramps were paved into every street corner, activists were calling for sidewalks to have ramps paved into the curb for the benefit of people in wheelchairs. Once the ramps, or curb-cuts, were installed on street corners, they observed that it wasn’t just wheelchair users who benefited. 

Pedestrians of various types were also benefiting from them, including people pulling suitcases, parents with strollers, delivery workers, bicyclists, and seniors using walkers. In essence, the policy was designed to address the needs of one demographic, but other members of society also benefited. Economists refer to this type of impact as a positive externality, and security analysts would call this a force multiplier

Vaccinations are an example of a positive externality, one we are all painfully aware of today, because they protect individuals from an illness but also externalize the positive impact by preventing the spread of that illness. Force multipliers are factors that allow a military force to achieve the same impact as a larger force without those factors, like defensive fortifications allowing a smaller force to defeat a larger force. 

WPS has the potential to be both a positive externality and a force multiplier by extending benefits to the whole of society and by improving the likelihood of success and durability of peace and security outcomes, respectively. For example, when women meaningfully participate in peace negotiations, the resulting peace agreement is more likely to last compared to those that have no women signatories. 

Whereas meaningful participation is a direct benefit to those women and the women they represent; the impact, or positive externality, of a successful peace agreement, is felt by everyone in that society. Further, achieving a longer-lasting peace agreement is a force multiplier since it increases the impact of the agreement compared to one without women’s meaningful participation.

As such, not incorporating the WPS agenda is irresponsible and counterproductive. If in the 1970s we decided not to listen to the advocates for curb-cuts and didn’t mandate every street corner to have ramps, then we would have missed out on this now obvious benefit that we are all familiar with today. We would be fools to knowingly walk away from vaccines. 

Similarly, we are leaving the proverbial money on the table by not incorporating or implementing the WPS agenda. We are excluding the interests of half the population and knowingly reducing the probability of successful peace agreements. Most importantly, we are failing to take advantage of a policy that benefits everyone.