Engendering Peace Support Operations: Benefits of Increased Female Participation and Leadership
May 23, 2011
By Mayesha Alam - Women are systematically targeted during violent conflict and subjected to rape, torture or indentured servitude all too often. Recognizing this reality, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 in 2000 formally acknowledging the unique burdens faced by women in war, the urgency of gender mainstreaming, and the need to integrate women in peace initiatives. A decade on, implementation of the necessary reforms proposed in 1325 has yet to be secured. In fact, UN research suggests that in some post-conflict environments, women's inclusion in political processes and reconstruction has actually decreased. Despite this worrying trend, the recent growth of female participation in UN peace support operations is an encouraging development in the struggle for women's empowerment and protection worldwide.
Acknowledging and Addressing the Unique Impact of Conflict on Women
Women are uniquely affected by armed conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, the effects of war on civilians have gained more attention and are understood to be critical to the outcomes of conflict and peacebuilding efforts. During the Rwanda genocide, for example, sexual violence against women was used to dehumanize its victims and women's bodies became a battleground for ethnic cleansing. In Bosnia alone, during the Balkan wars, some 40,000 women reported being raped but many more rapes went unreported due to social stigma, repression or death. Women in war may also face the burden of child-rearing without the support of spouses, while securing the family's livelihood and protecting the home.
Potential Benefits of Increased Female Representation in Peacekeeping and Peace Support Operations
The potential added value of more equal female participation in peacekeeping is multi-fold. In conflict, perceptions matter and the way in which people identify themselves as well as those around them shape individual and collective behavior. There is symbolic value in having women peacekeepers holding positions of authority and not just as support staff or domestic help. Female peacekeepers and policewomen in Liberia have supported "self-defense" training for women, community outreach, and public security patrols. Women in positions of authority, whether civilian or military, have greater opportunity to communicate with the local population and can collect valuable information on a wide range of issues including sexual violence, humanitarian access, human rights abuses and needs of survivors. Furthermore, the experience of women in peace operations helps inform gender mainstreaming efforts in program design.
Challenges and Opportunities
The gender disparity in U.N. peacekeeping and peace support operations is symptomatic of various forces at play. For one, the ratio of men to women in national militaries throughout the world reflects the underrepresentation of women, especially in cases where military service is not required of all citizens. Troop-contributing countries may traditionally be unwilling to deploy women soldiers to some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones, including places where women are known targets of gender-based or sexual violence. Barriers to greater participation of women in military and civilian capacities also result from internal U.N. bureaucratic or political hurdles. Since the inception of UN peacekeeping, only seven women have headed missions as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG). Recent appointments include SRSG Ellen Løj to Liberia and Gender Advisers to nine peacekeeping missions, as well as the creation of an SRSG position exclusively for sexual violence. These are encouraging but need to be part of a continuing trend.
Women today comprise less than five percent of all U.N. military experts on mission and the number of civilian women working under UN mandates is also relatively low. The U.N.'s targeted 20% threshold is far from being met but Nigeria, India and Bangladesh are currently leading the wave of change by recruiting and deploying women peacekeepers, police and civilian officers to the field. Bangladesh recently deployed some 260 policewomen as part of MINUSTAH in Haiti while Indian peacekeepers working in Liberia are trained to actively reach out to and help empower the local population through self-defense training, basic medical training, technological-tools training and dialogue. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Liberian President and first female head-of-state in Africa, has supported these efforts in her country, claiming "What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity." 
Increasing the visibility of women in the field is only one component, however, in a range of needed reforms. More women peacekeepers may result in better protection for women civilians, greater reporting of sexual violence and fostering women's sense of self-empowerment. Just because women are present, however, does not guarantee their participation and just because women are nominally in power does not mean they are empowered. Beyond first steps of appointment and recruitment, a normative shift is needed within the culture of U.N. peacekeeping and preparation of troops. Even if the number of women in the security components of peacekeeping is increased significantly, their ability to fulfill their duties and win the respect of the local population is contingent upon cooperation with and respect from their male counterparts.
More than a decade since the passing of 1325, there has been limited progress in the empowerment of civilian women in conflict zones, but women peacekeepers, and more of them, can serve as important role models. Men and women experience peace differently, just as they experience war differently. Facilitating women's inclusion in multidimensional peacekeeping operations must be buttressed with a renewed international consciousness about women as stakeholders of peace and important actors in security sector reform, conflict mediation, responsible governance and post-conflict reconstruction.
 Crosette, Barbara (2010) From conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change. State of the world population 2010. UNFPA, 2010. Available from http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2010/web/en/pdf/EN_SOWP10.pdf
 Carvajal, Doreen (2010). "A Female Approach to Peacekeeping" by Doreen Carvajal. The New York Times. 5 March. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/world/africa/06iht-ffpeace.html
Photo Credit: Bangladeshi All-Female Police Unit Arrives in Haiti, June 2010 (UN photo # 438559, Marco Dormino)