International Order & Conflict

Engendering Peace Support Operations: Benefits of Increased Female Participation and Leadership

in Program

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.[1] 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

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.” [2]

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

[1] Crosette, Barbara (2010) From
conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change.  State
of the world population 2010
. UNFPA, 2010. Available from

[2] Carvajal, Doreen (2010). “A Female
Approach to Peacekeeping” by Doreen Carvajal. The New York Times. 5 March. Available from:


Photo Credit: Bangladeshi All-Female Police Unit Arrives in Haiti, June 2010
(UN photo # 438559, Marco Dormino)


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