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Celebrating International Women Day: women in the changing world of peacekeeping

Celebrated for the first time by the UN on 8 March, 1977, International Women’s Day serves as a way to mark women’s contributions all around the globe. One area where women’s contributions are particularly worthy of celebration is in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Since the deployment of the first peacekeeping mission in 1948 to 1989, the end of the Cold War, only twenty women served in peacekeeping missions. Since 2000, with the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, women’s participation in peacekeeping has become a central tenant of mandates and operations. So, what is the current state of women’s participation in peacekeeping operations today? To what extent have peacekeeping missions realized gender equality in operations and been vehicles for promoting gender equality in post-conflict states?

The United Nations first started collecting and releasing data on the proportions of women in peacekeeping missions in 2007 (for women in the military) and 2009 (for women in the police). Based on Figure 1, we can see that there has been a steady increase in the numbers of female peacekeepers in the police and to some extent, the military. In addition to these improvements, three missions—the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) have received all-female formed police units. Countries that notably contribute higher proportions of women in police include the Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burundi, and Belarus; and in the military, they include South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Uruguay.

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Figure 1 by Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley. Data from the UN.

While there have been some improvements in the numbers, women remain a distinct minority in peacekeeping missions. Much more, women are especially underrepresented in some key missions. Women are more likely to deploy to the safest missions, not ones where they may be most needed. Specifically, female military personnel are more likely to deploy to missions with fewer instances of wartime sexual violence, higher economic development, and lower numbers of battle-related deaths. Within missions, women are often prohibited from leaving their bases to engage with the community. These restrictions and barriers pose a problem for peacekeeping effectiveness because the UN has suggested that female peacekeepers provide added benefits to operations. Specifically, the UN argues that female peacekeepers empower women in the host communities, address specific needs of female ex-combatants, help make the peacekeeping forces approachable to women in the communities, help interview survivors of gender-based violence, mentor female cadets at police and military academies, and interact with women in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men.

Despite the access gap in peacekeeping, female peacekeepers continue to make important contributions to peacekeeping missions. In UNMIL, they have helped establish the Women and Children’s Protection Unit for the Liberian National Police, as well as the Gender Unit in the Liberian National Police. They also helped establish a national rape law, and helped develop Liberia’s National Action Plan on UNSC 1325. But, the “access gap” limits the ability for peacekeeping operations to best respond to the complex security needs of local populations, and it is emblematic of deeper issues of gender inequality within peacekeeping operations. The local legacy of peacekeeping operations may very well be one of entrenching, rather than unraveling, gender inequality in host countries.

One way to remove barriers for women in peacekeeping missions is to implement equal opportunity peacekeeping. One of the key findings from our research is that when norms of gender equality become standard practice, women’s participation is more fully realized. For example, when peacekeeping missions consist of personnel from contributing countries with better records of gender equality, the missions tend to have higher proportions of women and also fewer allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. This means that fostering a culture of gender equality in missions is important for removing the access gap and improving the potential for peacekeeping operations to leave a legacy of gender security and equality.

Essential cultural and normative changes can occur at the leadership level, where Special Representatives to the Secretary General, Force Commanders, and Police Commissioners are selected with an eye toward gender equality. It can occur at the recruitment level such that standards are based on qualities in which both men and women excel, as well as standards that incorporate values for gender equality. Commendations within missions (such as promotions, lucrative placements, or medals) can be awarded based on performance on gender equality. Discipline can also be based on such standards. Another way to improve women’s ability to gain access is to provide them with role models and mentors. Moreover, attention to building women’s professional networks would improve their ability to seek advice and gain information in comfortable settings. Finally, training and professionalization for all peacekeepers could be tailored to instill an understanding in the link between gender equality and mission effectiveness. The culmination of these changes constitutes equal opportunity peacekeeping.

On International Women’s Day it is important to recognize women’s contributions around the globe, but also to reflect on what more can be done to close the gender gap in all spheres of life, including in peacekeeping.

Featured image credit: Women provide important capability for UN peacekeeping missions 150818-F-AD344-030 by Staff Sgt. Chris Hubenthal. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. PK Gardner

    This is not wholly accurate . There is absolutely no correlation between women working in a mission and less cases of SEA.
    It is obvious the authors don’t know peacekeeping – peacekeeping does not “promote” nor are medals given out for anything other than service uniformed personnel is tasked to do.
    More insight into actual Peacekeeping practice is required before writing about it. As an actual peacekeeper – I suggest the authors get to understand peacekeeping a little more and the complexities of deployment before putting pen to paper …

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