The impact of anti-genderism on the Women Peace and Security Agenda in Central and Eastern Europe

August 26, 2023

Recently Europe has been witnessing the rise of the anti-gender movement, a series of interventions publicly opposing the so-called “gender ideology”. The anti-gender actors successfully managed to mobilise people against issues related to women’s rights, including reproductive services, marriage equality, sex education, gender studies and gender mainstreaming (Grzebalska et al., 2017). What started as an isolated incident in countries such as France, Croatia, Hungary and Poland, quickly transcended borders and became a transnational movement (Kuhar and Zobec, 2017), spreading across Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.

However, by rejecting the notion of “gender”, such interventions have the potential of threatening all the efforts made towards achieving gender equality across the world, including in combatting violence against women and gender-based discrimination. This aspect is particularly relevant to the implementation of the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS Agenda), which relies on decades of efforts towards challenging the existing heterosexual and patriarchal status quo (Corredor, 2019).

In the context of an increasing opposition to “gender” as a socially constructed concept, it is crucial to understand to what extent such a movement can impact gender mainstreaming and gender equality policies, including in the field of women, peace and security. It is even more important to analyse such an impact in Central and Eastern Europe. This region is currently facing a security crisis due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the rise of anti-gender and far-right leaders dominates the political landscape. Moreover, the feminist movement is relatively new in Central and Eastern Europe and often relies on national institutions and transnational networks to pursue their work (Roggeband and Krizsán, 2019b).

The anti-gender movement as a transnational phenomenon

While its roots in Europe can be traced to the early 2010s, the anti-gender movement was born as a response to the gains of feminist activists during the UN World Conferences in the early 1990s (Garbagnoli, 2016; Corredor, 2019). Representatives of the Vatican were the first to use the opposition to “gender ideology” as a strategy against topics related to sexual and reproductive health policies. The progressive views on gender, sex and sexuality promoted by the feminist movement in this international context, which eventually led to more instruments for protecting women’s rights, were seen by the Vatican as a threat to the Catholic dogma. The term “gender” became one of the main topics under debate during the Fourth International Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 (Fassin, 2011; Anić, 2015; Case, 2019) and the Vatican, with the support of some Islamic states, was the main opponent to the use of this concept. The notion of “gender” was seen as a threat to the traditional family and the different roles attributed to men and women based on their biological differences, especially their reproductive system.

Nowadays, the movement has gained support among a wide variety of actors, moving beyond religion and mobilising political groups and parties from different ideological backgrounds, members of academia, civil society representatives, parents’ associations and media outlets, among others (Mayer and Sauer, 2017). Particularly in Europe, the anti-gender movement has been recently linked with the rise of right-wing populism (Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017a), with increasing research on how “gender” as a concept became part of the populists’ agenda. Ultimately, what all these actors have in common is their opposition to what they call “gender ideology” and its promotion of “gender theory” which sees “gender” as a different concept from “biological sex”.

But what exactly is “gender ideology”? Kováts and Põim (2015) see the anti-“gender ideology” movement as a “symbolic glue”, bringing together under one concept different conservative actors who would not normally collaborate towards a common goal. For other authors (Mayer and Sauer, 2017; Darakchi, 2019), “gender ideology” functions as an “empty signifier”, a vague association between different concepts of existing feminist and queer theories, which can hardly be linked to any ideological background. Others associate “gender ideology” with a neo-colonial project (Kuhar and Zobec, 2017) and the West’s intention to impose certain values upon the rest. Particularly in the Central and Eastern European context, “gender ideology” is seen as a form of totalitarianism, a “leftover from communism” (Korolczuk and Graff, 2018), which in reality proves to be an attempt to reframe the discourses against Marxism and reignite the fear towards certain concepts, in post-socialist countries.

In reality, this narrative is used as a counter-strategy, a political tool (Corredor, 2019) against the efforts of feminist and queer activists to advance human rights and to influence legislation and public policies. As a consequence, the anti-gender movement often targets institutions, laws and programmes in place, related to gender mainstreaming and equality.  Various actors put pressure on eliminating the notion of “gender” as a socially constructed concept from education, they target gender studies and sex education programmes, and any other materials that would expose society to sexually-related topics, including reproductive rights, contraception or abortion (Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017b).

Most recently in Europe, their efforts have also been targeting legal instruments which are crucial in challenging gender-based discrimination and violence. It is important to mention, for example, the opposition against the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). Moreover, while most of the legal instruments on gender equality are still in place, actors of the anti-gender movement tend to influence subtle changes to domestic legislation or to push towards prioritising other policies which indirectly affect women’s rights (Krizsan and Roggeband, 2018).

Gender mainstreaming policies are also a target of this movement and are deemed as a “hidden agenda” (Mayer and Sauer, 2017), aimed at threatening the traditional family and the natural order. While in some countries such as Hungary or Poland, it is seen as a reverse process against gender equality efforts, in others, such as Romania, Slovakia or Croatia, the gains of the anti-gender movement often translate into the lack of implementation of existing laws (Roggeband and Krizsán, 2019a). The movement has gained political representation, while where the debate exists, civil society has been deliberately excluded (Grzebalska and Pető, 2018) and their efforts to influence policy-making are slowly undermined.

The impact of anti-genderism on the WPS Agenda

The concept of “gender” also represents an integral part of the UN’s thematic agenda on women, peace and security. The UNSC Resolution 1325 and the subsequent resolutions are currently the most important international policy framework in addressing the gender-based impact of conflicts on women and girls (Davies and True, 2019) and their participation in the peacebuilding process. The WPS Agenda has also enhanced the efforts on adopting a feminist approach towards foreign policy, at both the national and international levels. As a consequence, over 100 UN Member States integrated the objectives of the WPS Agenda into their policy through the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) for implementation of the WPS  agenda  at country level and recognised the gendered impact of conflicts as one of their main priorities of foreign policy (Basu, 2016; Aggestam and True, 2021). The known NAPs as they are published and updated are available for further analysis on the SecurityWomen website. Among the countries posting are the post-socialist states across Europe, which strengthened their security policies in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, as True (2016) has shown, the adoption of NAPs as a “check the box” tool does not represent a full institutionalisation of the commitments made towards implementing the WPS Agenda. They represent an opportunity for national governments to engage with international frameworks and change policies and attitudes towards women’s role in society and the peacebuilding process. However, they also depend on numerous factors, such as the declared commitment to other international instruments on the protection of women’s rights, the presence of women in structures of power, the level of democracy and the states’ membership in intergovernmental organisations, among others (True, 2016;Jacevic, 2019).

In this context, does the rise of the anti-gender movement and its gain of political representation pose a threat to the implementation of the WPS Agenda? Does it affect its transposition to the domestic policy-making process? As previously shown in this article, the anti-gender actors reject any idea related to the concept of “gender”, including existing gender equality norms and gender mainstreaming processes. Such concepts are embedded in the WPS Agenda and thus in the frameworks put in place for its implementation.

To date, there is not much research on the potential impact of the rise of the anti-gender movement and the WPS Agenda, especially in the Central and Eastern European region. Several authors (Thomson and Whiting, 2022; O’Sullivan and Krulišová, 2023) explored how NAPs are produced in countries with a rise of the anti-gender movement, especially within the government which may oppose gender mainstreaming and equality policies. The reality shows that despite the rise of the anti-gender narrative, the WPS Agenda received less opposition in Central and Eastern Europe and, on the contrary, it was highly promoted, even by conservative political actors.

A notable example, analysed by the research conducted on this topic, is Poland. The country adopted its NAP under the current conservative government, which is known for its restrictive policies towards sexual and reproductive health and the backlash against gender equality. Even in this context, the government committed to implementing the WPS Agenda in its foreign policy and strongly promoted women’s participation in military service. As a consequence, the number of women involved in the Armed Forces doubled under the current conservative government (Grzebalska, 2022).

On the other hand, in the Czech Republic, for example, several anti-gender actors within the government used their influence to criticise the WPS Agenda (O’Sullivan and Krulišová, 2023). Their opposition however did not impede the adoption of a second NAP from 2021 to 2025. Similarly, other countries in the region adopted their first or even second NAP in the last 5 years, without any opposition. It is therefore interesting to understand why states dominated by anti-gender political actors supported the WPS Agenda in their foreign policy approach, despite their opposition to “gender” on the domestic level.

According to the same authors who explored the creation of NAPs under the growing influence of anti-genderism, international pressure played an essential role in this context. Post-Soviet countries were driven mainly by their membership in United Nations, NATO or European Union to comply with gender equality policies, to avoid sanctions, whether their ideological background opposed them or not (Thomson and Whiting, 2022). Thus, NAPs became an instrument of soft power, which ensured the position of certain countries at the international level, in a context where their pushback against gender equality policies was still predominant inside the country. With Russia’s aggression and remilitarisation, fewer anti-gender actors are willing to publicly challenge the WPS Agenda at the international level.

O’Sullivan and Krulišová (2023) observe also that the framing of issues within the NAPs represents a reason for the lack of opposition towards it. More specifically, the WPS Agenda is seen in some of these countries as a low-profile matter of foreign security, which often focuses only on increasing women’s participation in the military. Therefore, it has received less interest from anti-gender actors, who tend to concentrate their efforts at the domestic level. As a consequence, most NAPs adopted in this context are seen as a symbolic tool rather than documents with substantive objectives, budgets, monitoring and implementation mechanisms (Thomson and Whiting, 2022). This can ultimately impact the actions taken by the government and its commitment to tackle gender-based discrimination and violence.

Another concerning issue regarding the rise of the anti-gender movement and its possible impact on the implementation of the WPS agenda is also its growing influence within the United Nations. The remaining research on this topic, up to August 2023, focuses primarily on how conservative groups gained political representation not only on the domestic level but also in international organisations. As previously mentioned, what started as opposition from representatives of the Vatican and some Islamic states quickly became an entire front of actors from conservative organisations and countries across the world, including from the post-socialist region. Structures such as the G77 coalition, the League of  Arab States, the Organisation for  Islamic  Cooperation and the UN Africa  Group, became supporters of the anti-gender narrative within the international forum (Cupać and Ebetürk, 2022).

Nowadays, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) are just some of the intergovernmental bodies who experienced opposition to “gender” from conservative groups representative of the contemporary movement. Recent accounts remind us of the attempt to prevent the production of “agreed conclusions” at the fifty-ninth meeting of the CSW, due to the notion of “comprehensive sexuality education” rejected by some North African and Middle Eastern nations, led by the Russian delegation, or the most recent United States’ opposition against references to reproductive health services (Goetz, 2020).

The former incident is particularly relevant to this discussion, as it involved the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2467, the ninth resolution in the WPS Agenda, on combating sexual violence in conflict. In April 2019, the content of this Resolution sparked debates due to the opposition to the use of the “sexual and reproductive health” notion. Donald Trump, at that time the President of the United States, strongly demanded that these words be deleted from the final document of the Resolution, which eventually led to a more nuanced version adopted by the Security Council (Goetz, 2020). The anti-gender movement’s intervention inside the United Nations became slowly a crucial factor in how policies are framed in this intergovernmental organisation (Cupać and Ebetürk, 2022), with potential consequences on other issues related to women’s rights, including the development of the WPS Agenda.

One year later, on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 1325, Russia, which is already known for its anti-gender government and domestic backlash against gender equality, reiterated its support for the traditional role of women and the importance of family (Santoire,2023). Fortunately, the draft of the new proposed resolution was rejected, but Russia’s conservative narrative as a president of the Security Council reminded us of the power that anti-gender actors have in the United Nations and their potential to undermine the efforts taken to implement the WPS Agenda.


The rise of the anti-gender movement across the world, especially in Central and Eastern Europe could have a significant impact on the implementation and development of the WPS Agenda. We are currently witnessing what Aggestam and True (2021) call a ‘remasculinisation’ of international politics with the emergence of anti-gender political groups and male leaders, strongly opposing gender equality and mainstreaming policies at the national level.

As this article has shown, many of these anti-gender actors commit to the implementation of the WPS agenda in their foreign policies, despite their attitude towards domestic legislation. On a closer look, although anti-gender governments did not block the adoption of a NAP and in some instances, they even supported it, they still successfully undermined the efforts taken to achieve gender equality. Their influence translates into a lack of interest in the effective implementation of such action plans, despite officially declaring themselves pro-gender equality in their foreign policy.

Moreover, an anti-gender political leadership can still negatively impact foreign policy due to the influence of conservative groups at the international level, especially within the United Nations. The past decade has witnessed strong opposition from powerful Member States such as the United States and Russia, supported by other countries, who determined significant changes to the development of the WPS Agenda, due to their anti-gender beliefs and narrative. Such changes can have a devastating impact on the current gender equality and mainstreaming policies and could threaten the progress made towards advancing women’s rights in the field of peace and security.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the Russo-Ukrainian war and the migration crisis currently represent a test for the commitments made in implementing the WPS Agenda, a test that many countries in the region are currently failing (O’Sullivan and Krulišová, 2023). Despite their commitments at the international level, the strengthening of the military support and security measures, and the NAPs in place, these countries are still unable to successfully respond to the needs of refugees coming from Ukraine, many of which are women and children. One of the main reasons for this current failure is also represented by their anti-gender legislation, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights. Therefore, it is important to further research the impact of the anti-gender movement on the implementation and development of the WPS Agenda, and showcase the possible threats against women’s rights, especially connected to the field of peace and security.


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