Today, the UN celebrates International Peacekeepers Day – a time to honor the 81,000 peacekeepers serving in difficult and dangerous conditions around the world. This year, the UN is paying special tribute to the women serving in peacekeeping missions, who deploy to protect civilians from violence and bring peace to war-torn countries. UN leaders, the Security Council, and member states all have called for more women to serve in greater numbers, especially in military and police contingents. Despite efforts to increase women’s participation in peacekeeping, women serving in uniform continue to encounter gender barriers. Understanding why, and how to address those barriers, can ensure that women peacekeepers succeed in the field.
Women who have served in UN peacekeeping missions overwhelmingly describe positive experiences. “It is an epic experience one will never regret. It is challenging yet more rewarding at the same time,” says Ms. Unaisi Bolatolu-Vuniwaqa from Fiji, serving as the Police Commissioner in the UN Mission in South Sudan.1Hyun Jin Kim and Lea Angela Biason, “An Epic Experience One Will Never Regret,” Medium, 24 July 2019, https://medium.com/@UNPeacekeeping/an-epic-experience-one-will-never-regret-31cf1c083fc1
Yet the number of women who have the opportunity to serve in the field remains low. In 2019, women made up only 4.7 percent of military contingents and 10.8 percent of formed police units in UN peacekeeping missions.2“Women in Peacekeeping,” UN Peacekeeping, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/women-peacekeeping. Though this number represents a significant increase from the one percent of uniformed personnel deployed in 1993, it still falls short of UN targets to ensure that women constituted 10 percent of personnel in military units and 20 percent in police units by 2019.
These low numbers reflect many factors, including under-recruitment of women in the military and police services of troop-contributing countries; barriers for women to access the training needed to serve in a UN peacekeeping mission; bias among superior officers that disinclines them from selecting women to serve in UN missions; and cultural factors that make it harder for women in uniform to accept overseas deployments.
Systemic barriers are difficult to tackle. Many initiatives – most prominently Canada’s Elsie Initiative – are underway to analyze and address these challenges in a holistic way. But even if they clear all these hurdles, there are also challenges that women encounter once they arrive in a peacekeeping setting.
Despite overall positive experiences, women serving in uniform in peacekeeping missions also report experiencing some difficulties on the basis of their gender. Some challenges are basic, such as inadequate facilities provided for women. As the first female Force Commander in a UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, Major General Kristin Lund from Norway made several changes in facilities to accommodate female peacekeepers. “Female soldiers in one of the sectors were accommodated outside the camp. I said, that is not acceptable. They have to be accommodated in the camp, they have to be integrated as a normal part… We had facilities or permanent locations along the buffer zone. A lot of them were not designed to accommodate both men and women. Now, when I left, all of them are,” she says.3Video: “Promoting Gender Equality in Peacekeeping Operations,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (GIWPS), 22 October 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=41&v=U4L9tyEI_wU&feature=emb_logo.
Female peacekeepers may also be wrongly assumed to be naturally skilled at communicating with women and girls in local communities, especially with those who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. Indeed, the idea that female peacekeepers will be able to communicate with women and girls, particularly about sensitive topics, is a commonly cited rationale for why women should be included in peacekeeping missions. But according to Dr. Georgina Holmes, female uniformed peacekeepers do not necessarily receive specific training of this kind, and may be overwhelmed when tasked with spending hours engaging with women and girls who have experienced extreme trauma.4Georgina Holmes, “Female Military Peacekeepers Left Feeling Overwhelmed after Inadequate Training,” The Conversation, 29 May 2019, https://theconversation.com/female-military-peacekeepers-left-feeling-overwhelmed-after-inadequate-training-114887.
Women additionally face challenges related to being stereotyped as more nurturing and less threatening. This stereotyping can sometimes present unexpected opportunities. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Tara Willis from Canada, who served in the UN Mission in South Sudan, observed that as a woman she was able to pass checkpoints more quickly than her male counterparts, to gather more information from everyday interactions with civilians, even those who are usually suspicious of people in uniform, and collect intelligence from military and opposition forces leaders.5“Breaking Barriers, Being Better: The Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations,” UN Web TV, 26 September 2018, http://webtv.un.org/search/breaking-barriers-being-better-the-elsie-initiative-for-women-in-peace-operations/5840546318001/
Viewing women as vulnerable or non-threatening, however, can also limit the deployment of female peacekeepers in dangerous missions or from certain roles. According to Dr. Sabrina Karim, the notion that women need to be protected from harm results in female peacekeepers being kept away from places with more combat or potential sexual violence. This phenomenon may also result in female peacekeepers being underutilized in missions where they are deployed. “Women are deployed but not utilized effectively. They are kept in the units. They are not part of patrols, operations, planning,” says Major Pearl Block from South Africa.6“Breaking Barriers, Being Better,” UN Web TV.
These limits on where and how women serve in peacekeeping missions may have important repercussions. It could reduce the potential impact of female peacekeepers’ service if they are kept away from the areas where civilians are at higher risk. It also means that women may derive fewer opportunities for professional advancement from serving in UN peacekeeping missions, which could deter them from wanting to accept another peacekeeping deployment or deter other women from serving. Kadiatu Bah, a Guinean peacekeeper who served in the high-risk town of Kidal in northern Mali, says that she hopes her experience will help dispel myths about where women peacekeepers can serve: “I think it’s time, and I think it’s important, that other women see that it’s possible, also in the UN system, to get into the military hierarchy and serve in harsh environments.”7“Under a Blue Helmet in Mali: Voices of Guinean Women Peacekeepers,” MINUSMA, 12 November 2018, https://minusma.unmissions.org/en/under-blue-helmet-mali-voices-guinean-women-peacekeepers.
The UN and its partners have undertaken major efforts to increase the recruitment and retention of women peacekeepers. Some of the most vocal advocates of female participation in peacekeeping are fellow women peacekeepers in leadership positions. General Lund placed the topic of gender parity in peacekeeping on the top of her agenda in every meeting with representatives from troop-contributing countries and every public appearance. Today, the UN mission in Cyprus is the first to be entirely led by women and it has some of the highest numbers of women amongst its uniformed and civilian personnel.8“Blue Beret Special Edition,” UNFICY, Spring 2020, https://unficyp.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/bb-_spring-covid-19-2020.pdf, p.9.
The critical role of women is already evident to many in the field. Special Representative of the Secretary-General Elizabeth Spehar, the head of the UN mission in Cyprus, made it clear that when “women constitute at least 50 percent of any society across the world, how can anyone hope to run an effective government or an effective organization if your representatives or your employees do not reflect this reality?”9Ibid, p.8.
Recruiting and retaining more women in peacekeeping missions may in itself begin to challenge the cultures, assumptions, and practices in peacekeeping settings that create additional hurdles for women peacekeepers. This approach, alongside more conscious efforts to identify and break down gender barriers, are needed. Though this work will be difficult, the results for longer-term peace and successful peacekeeping missions are worth it.