By Eric Rudberg
Female participation in both conflict prevention and conflict resolution enhances security interests. Studies have found that a significant inclusion of women and civil society groups in a peace negotiation makes the resulting agreement 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years. Evidence has repeatedly illustrated that full and meaningful participation of women in peace operations broadens the perspective on conflict management, allows for more inclusive political resolutions, and, in the end, improves international peacebuilding strategies. It has also been shown that there is a direct correlation between the meaningful participation of women in peacekeeping and the performance and effectiveness of peacekeeping units. This participation of uniformed women peacekeepers can be divided between the police component, justice and correction, and, finally, the military. Of the three, this paper will exclusively examine the military component in depth. It will explore the importance of meaningful participation of female peacekeepers as well as examine the current status of military women in peacekeeping operations.
Importance of Meaningful Participation of Female Peacekeepers
The increase of women’s participation in global peacekeeping operations has been shown to improve the effectiveness and stability of a mission. Missions with more women personnel are more likely to achieve their mandate and bring sustainable peace. However, evidence strongly shows that it is the “meaningful” participation of women and not just numbers that matters. The Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations defines meaningful participation as “the presence and leadership of women in UN peace operations, across all ranks and functions.” According to the Elsie Initiative, women can participate meaningfully “when they contribute to, and are included in, all aspects of operational and mission planning, and decision-making processes…[and] when they hold operational command and leadership positions, and non-traditional as well as non-stereotypical roles.” Additionally, women can participate meaningfully “when they have access to the same training, promotion and career advancement opportunities as their colleagues who are men;…when they hold positions that are in line with their training, rank and area of expertise; and when their workplace is free from all forms of harassment, bullying and intimidation.”
Meaningful participation of female peacekeepers improves the operation and performance of a peacekeeping force. They enhance the overall holistic approach in today’s peacekeeping operations by contributing an additional perspective to the planning and key decision-making process, especially those affecting civilians, particularly women and girls. A diversity of backgrounds and experiences has been proven to enhance a unit’s performance and ability to solve problems. This female perspective enables the peacekeeping operation to successfully address the needs of the entire civilian population it is there to serve. Female peacekeepers also bring a unique set of tactical skills that their male counterparts often do not possess, including the ability to physically screen/search females. Knowing that peacekeepers are supposed to abide by the cultural sensitivity of not having males searching females, it is not uncommon for spoilers, also known as the opposing force, to have females carry illicit items under their clothing since the females will probably not be screened and searched.
Women peacekeepers’ access to the local population is particularly valuable when there are cultural restrictions around interaction across gender lines and in venues that are closed to men. Reflecting on her service in Afghanistan, Major General Kristin Lund pointed out that, “being a female, from my recent deployment in Afghanistan, I had access to 100% of the population, not only 50%.” Locals often feel more comfortable liaising and sharing information with military troops that include women peacekeepers, giving them better situational awareness of the environment they are operating in. The ability to gain the trust of local populations is a vital component of any peacekeeping operation. It results in good intelligence and a reduction in violence in the communities that peacekeepers seek to protect.
Female peacekeepers often cultivate trust and confidence with local communities which in turn encourages these populations to work with the peacekeeping force by reporting a variety of crimes, in particular, sexual violence. Major General Lund explains, “if a woman has been gang-raped by men, she will most likely approach a woman in uniform rather than a man. And men that are raped will, I think, also approach a woman soldier rather than a man.” Women’s participation is also connected with fewer misconduct complaints lodged against the peacekeeping force since these women are perceived as being more effective at de-escalating potential violence and are less threatening. Finally, the inclusion of female peacekeepers has been associated with fewer allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by the peacekeeping force. Studies have found that an increase in the proportion of women from zero to five percent reduces the expected count of sexual allegations by half.
Current Status of Women in Peacekeeping Operations
Despite evidence that the meaningful participation of women in the military contingent of peacekeeping operations is both the right and smart thing to do, they are routinely underrepresented. For example, led by the United Nations Department of Peace Operations, there are currently twelve peacekeeping missions deployed worldwide to help countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace. According to the Contribution of Uniformed Personnel to UN by Mission, Personnel Type, and Gender spreadsheet for October 2022, out of 63,310 strictly military peacekeeping troops deployed to these twelve missions, only 3,789 are female, or roughly 6.0%. However, this percentage has very slowly been increasing throughout the years. In 1993, women comprised less than 1% of the uniformed personnel deployed. In 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2242 encouraged the Secretary-General, in collaboration with member states, to “double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations over the next five years.” Regardless of this call to action, there has not been a significant increase in female participation since the end of 2009. In 2018, UN member states adopted the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028, which set the goal of 15% for female participation in the military contingent by 2028. It also established annual targets for the Secretariat to accomplish this lofty goal. The target for 2022 was 9% but fell short by 1,909 female peacekeepers.
Nevertheless, some countries have managed to deploy significantly higher percentages of female peacekeepers. As of October 2022, of the fifteen countries that deploy over 1,000 troops to peacekeeping operations, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, and the United Republic of Tanzania exceeded the UN’s contribution target (9%) for the percentage of women deployed. Additionally, multiple countries that deploy fewer troops have done better. Nigeria, for example, has 21.5% of women in their peacekeeping forces (14/65) and Estonia is at 100% (1/1). On the opposite end of the spectrum is India, which only deploys 51 women on their missions (0.9%), despite being the second largest troop-contributing country in the world, with 5,548 troops deployed. As of October 2022, the top three UN peacekeeping missions with the highest number of female troops are the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) with 781, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) with 776, and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) with 746. In spite of those large numbers, relative to the proportion of the total force, female troops only made up 6.4% of MINUSCA, 5.9% of UNMISS, and 6.0% of MONUSCO. The top three missions with the highest proportion of female troops are the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at 40.0% (8/20), the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) at 8.9% (66/740), and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) at 7.3% (692/9490).
Although the number of female peacekeepers and the proportion of the military contingent made up of women is slowly increasing, this does not mean that meaningful participation of women is rising in UN peacekeeping missions. Often, women peacekeepers who do serve are limited to stereotypical roles such as nursing, community engagement, administration, and domestic services, which include such tasks as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, irrespective of their skills and experience. Missions with a higher percentage of combat-related forces tend to have the lowest percentages of women, in part because of a reluctance to send female peacekeepers to dangerous areas of conflict, where there are higher levels of sexual exploitation and abuse or higher numbers of peacekeeping deaths. The belief that women cannot protect themselves is still prevalent among peacekeeping forces today.
This tendency results in women peacekeepers being underutilized since they rarely conduct patrols or interact with locals, especially with the women and children in the community. Even though their numbers and proportions are expanding, women might not be deploying to missions evenly or where they might be most needed. Consequently, these operations lack added benefits and the potential impact that meaningful participation of females brings to a mission. Ambassador Melanne Verveer bluntly explained, “Inclusion is not enough for meaningful participation, which is what matters in the end.”
There are numerous barriers and challenges women must overcome in order to participate in peace operations. Females experience similar stigmas and taboos throughout their military careers regardless of their rank, nationality, or background. These stigmas and taboos create challenges at the individual and community level, within women’s national defense structures, and within UN peace operations. In July 2018, the Elsie Initiative published a baseline study which was the first attempt to systematically gather, analyze, and categorize the barriers female soldiers face in their pursuit of deploying on peacekeeping operations. Fourteen different barriers that can prevent women from deploying on peacekeeping operations were identified and organized into six main categories: equal access to opportunities, deployment criteria, the working environment, family constraints, equal treatment during deployment, and career-advancement opportunities. Since the baseline study was published, further research has reduced and combined these fourteen barriers into ten: eligible pool, deployment selection, deployment criteria, household constraints, top-down leadership, inadequate accommodation and equipment, negative experiences, disincentives to redeploy, stereotypical gender roles, and social exclusion. Many of these barriers address cultural challenges women face in their home countries, both in society and within the military itself. Studies show that when a troop-contributing country has a better record of gender equality, it is more likely to send female peacekeepers. In other words, when a country strives to gender mainstream its own national military, it is more likely to send women to a peacekeeping mission, which, therefore, improves the gender balancing in said mission. Ghana is an example of this since it was among one of the few countries globally to have started enlisting females as far back as 1958, barely a year into its independence. It is also given credit for having trained the first female officer pilots in the sub-region in 1965. Thus, it is not surprising that Ghana’s contributing percentage for female peacekeepers in October 2022 was 14.1%.
On October 31, 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 to address women, peace, and security. This groundbreaking resolution highlighted a shift in UN policy to engage more females in peacekeeping operations. It stressed “the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” In the two decades since Resolution 1325, the UN has continued to adopt numerous other resolutions and initiatives aimed to address the underrepresentation of women in UN peace operations. This includes both the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028 and Resolution 2242, which, among other things, encourages troop-contributing countries to hit targeted female participation percentages. Also, in August of 2018, 152 member states of the UN committed to “ensuring full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all stages of the peace process” and “recommit[ted] to increasing the number of civilian and uniformed women in peacekeeping at all levels and in key positions” in their Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN
Peacekeeping Operation as part of the Action for Peacekeeping initiative. This initiative was a call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a renewed collective engagement with UN peacekeeping and to mutually commit to reaching for excellence for all those involved. Most recently, in August 2020, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2538 which unequivocally recognizes “the indispensable role of women in increasing the overall performance and effectiveness of peacekeeping operations.” It also offers clear direction on how member states can increase the deployment of female peacekeepers. Finally, it supports the need to ensure that the working culture is gender-sensitive for women, and addresses threats and violence against them. Despite all of these efforts, female military troops continue to be a rarity in UN peacekeeping operations.
The meaningful participation of women is not only an extremely important issue for peacekeeping but also for gender equality. The benefit they bring to a mission can be the difference between success and failure. Because of this advantage, everything possible must be done to ensure that women are an integral part of every peacekeeping operations. It is inspiring to imagine how the world will be once this is accomplished. The UN, along with all its member states, must continue to strive for this goal.
The opinions expressed here are solely the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates
After graduating from the United States Military Academy, Eric served as an Army infantry officer, which included two combat tours in Iraq. Wanting to share the hard lessons he had learned, once out of the Army, he began to train and mentor future peacekeepers across Africa through the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). He then returned to academia and earned both a master’s in Security Policy Studies and a graduate certificate in Global Gender Policy from The George Washington University. He now serves as the Finance and Operations Analysis for the African Team within GPOI where he works on increasing the meaningful participation of females in peacekeeping operations.
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