The Missing Link: Gender and the 2015 UN Peacekeeping Review


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Photo: UNAMID/Sojoud Elgarrai | Source: UN News Centre

by Gabe Dayley

Last September, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon established a High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations to undertake a comprehensive review of UN peacekeeping and political missions. The review is both timely and much needed, given that 15 years has passed since Lakhdar Brahimi conducted the last major review of UN peace operations.

This year also marks the 15th anniversary of the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace, and security, which called for the greater inclusion of women in all aspects of peace and security operations. Yet to the chagrin of many women’s rights activists, the initial Panel exhibited a stark gender imbalance: eleven men and just three women. Ironically, the announcement of the Panel’s composition came on the same day as the 14th anniversary of UNSCR 1325. Under pressure from civil society, the Secretary General added three more women—still a far cry from the UN’s goal of gender parity in its leadership.

Equally unsettling was the absence of a gendered perspective and of any key issues concerning women among the topics under review. Instead, the Secretary General’s remarks at a peacekeeping summit on September 26, 2014 highlighted “six critical necessities” for peacekeeping in the 21st century: (1) rapid response capabilities, (2) greater troop mobility, (3) enhanced medical support, (4) protection against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), (5) better information and analysis, and (6) stronger regional partnerships. One month later, when the Panel was formally announced, the following issues were identified: “the changing nature of conflict, evolving mandates, good offices and peacebuilding challenges, managerial and administrative arrangements, planning, partnerships, human rights and protection of civilians, uniformed capabilities for peacekeeping operations and performance.”

Although these are key topics, they omit equally “critical necessities” such as improving peacekeepers’ capacity to address the gendered dimensions of violent conflict—and to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers themselves. The panel’s mandate also fails to acknowledge the important participatory role that women ought to play both in leadership positions and in peace operations on the ground. The omission of gender in the key issues and necessities of peacekeeping is as gross a failure to implement UNSCR 1325 as the Panel’s lopsided composition. If UN peace operations are to fulfill their mandates and support the peaceful resolution of conflicts, addressing gender is as much a “critical necessity” as the six outlined by the Secretary General.

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UN Photo/Martine Perret | Source: UN News Centre

In addressing the issue of gender in peace operations, it is important to consider the challenges and limitations of past efforts to implement UNSCR 1325. It is equally important to explore creative approaches to integrating a gendered perspective in missions, taking into account the experience of women as both agents and objects of peace and violence. For example, UNSCR 1325’s call to increase women’s participation has been a major focus of stated UN policy—in rhetoric if less in practice. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that including more women peacekeepers enhances mission effectiveness. According to Sahana Dharmapuri, a respected independent gender advisor, boosting the numbers of female peacekeepers can make a UN force more acceptable to local communities, reduce sexual exploitation and abuse, and “improve the daily tactical level work of missions.”[1] Increasing participation thus supports the other pillars of UNSCR 1325, protection and prevention of violence against women.

Numbers, however, cannot stand alone; Dharmapuri argues that “the UN and member states’ focus on increasing the numbers of female uniformed personnel has obscured the equally important goal of integrating a gendered perspective into the work of peace operations.”[2] This focus mirrors civil society’s outcry over the Panel’s composition and relative silence on the issues under review. Moreover, it assumes a particular direction of influence: increasing the participation of women will lead to greater sensitivity to the experience of women on the ground in conflict. While this is likely true, the reverse effect may also exist; incorporating a gendered perspective into peace operations may be necessary to encourage the UN to hire more female mission experts and to persuade troop contributing countries (TCCs) to deploy more female troops. Ultimately, these elements reinforce each other and create a virtuous cycle. Hence, the failure to properly integrate a gendered perspective into peacekeeping may explain why the UN’s rhetorical focus on numbers has seen slow implementation.

In their article “Female Peacekeepers and Gender Balancing: Token Gestures or Informed Policymaking?”, Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley illustrate Dharmapuri’s contention that a gendered perspective cannot be reduced to numbers alone. Analyzing data on peacekeeper deployment, Karim and Beardsley test the hypothesis that TCCs send their female troops to missions that present the least risk to their own safety, rather than deploying them where they are most needed.[3] The authors’ quantitative analysis strongly supports their hypothesis. Gender biases and stereotypes among TCCs constitute one possible explanation, suggesting a failure to mainstream the principles of UNSCR 1325. The data illustrate that transforming underlying attitudes and beliefs about women is as important as increasing the number of female troops. Indeed, peacekeepers, troop contributing countries, and the international system must come to see that women—and their unique perspectives—are vital to the pursuit of genuine peace.

As it embarks on its review of peace operations, the High-Level Independent Panel should recognize that gender intersects all aspects of peace operations. Applying a gendered perspective to peacekeeping, therefore, is not merely an intellectual exercise or the fulfillment of abstract principles; it directly informs the issues that the Panel is charged with reviewing.[4] Integrating a holistic perspective on the experience of women in peace and conflict into peacekeeping operations will empower peacekeepers to maintain a more inclusive and sustainable peace. Ultimately, it will help the UN realize the aspirations of Security Council Resolution 1325 for women and men worldwide.

Gabe Dayley is a master’s candidate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service. His focus is applied conflict resolution and peacebuilding.


[1] Sahana Dharmapuri, “Not Just a Numbers Game: Increasing Women’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping,” Providing for Peacekeeping No. 4, (New York: International Peace Institute, 2013), 7.

[2] Dharmapuri, 1.

[3] Sabrina Karim & Kyle Beardsley, “Female Peacekeepers and Gender Balancing: Token Gestures or Informed Policymaking?,” International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations 39, no. 4 (2013): 461-488.

[4] For example, accounting for the gendered dimensions of conflict arguably would lead to better information and analysis, one of the “six critical necessities” outlined in September. Dharmapuri (2013) notes that a gender perspective provides greater “situational awareness” and knowledge of local context (p. 7).