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Why UN Peacekeeping Falls Far Short of Female Soldiers


Sudanese police women, part of a network sponsored by the UN's peacekeeping mission in North Darfur. Fewer than 4 percent of UN peacekeepers worldwide are women soldiers or police. SOJOUD ELGARRAI/UNAMID

Since Security Council resolutions began demanding more significant attention to roles for women in conflict areas and the peace-building that follows, much of the discussion has justifiably centered on protection of civilians, because women and their children suffer most in war and dislocation. Less attention has been paid to the woeful numbers of women in uniform fielded by United Nations peacekeeping missions. The two subjects are not unrelated. Women in uniform can be a potent symbol and solace to those who quickly become the innocent casualties of war.

Yet fewer than 4 percent of UN peacekeepers globally are women in uniform, as soldiers or police, says a new report, “Not Just a Numbers Game: Increasing Women’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping,” published in July by the International Peace Institute in New York, a nongovernmental organization with close ties to the UN. The study, by Sahana Dharmapuri, an independent gender adviser and trainer, turned a glaring spotlight on the thin ranks of women. It concluded that both troop-contributing countries and UN peacekeeping officials share the blame for the shortfall of women and the responsibility to correct the imbalance. The outlook is not sunny.

“The UN is unlikely to reach its goals for gender equality in peacekeeping missions because it is not fully implementing its own two-pronged approach: increase the number of women in peacekeeping operations and integrate a gender perspective within these missions,” Dharmapuri wrote.

Three problems that are familiar to those who follow issues in the field of women, peace and security have created and sustained the situation, Dharmapuri said in her report. First, member states show “a lack of understanding” — a kind way to put it — of the groundbreaking Security Council resolution, 1325, and UN policies toward gender equality. Second, there is “a gap in data and analysis about women’s participation in national security institutions globally and in UN peacekeeping in particular.” Third and most important, the author wrote, is “the prevalence of social norms and biases that perpetuate gender inequality within the security sector.”

The top three troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping since 2000 have been Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, none of which have a significant number of women in their armed forces or efforts to recruit more, the report noted. On the other hand, some possibly unexpected countries are leaders in including women in their troop contingents: Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda, among them.

Arguably the global data vacuum needs to be tackled first, as officials in the UN system know well from experience on other issues. Determining the incidence of violence against women, for example — and an agreed definition of what constitute it — are instrumental in changing the attitudes of governments and cultural leaders, as this year’s session of the Commission on the Status of Women heard repeatedly. Statistically barren pleas for attention to women in any area can easily be denied or ignored by political and military leaders, most of whom are men. Presented with credible data, governments are more apt to listen.

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Dharmapuri pointed out in her report that the UN began collecting data on women in peacekeeping missions only in 2000, incorporating statistics going back just to 1994, when Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali sought a 50-50 gender balance across Secretariat posts, which would include the peacekeeping department. International studies of the  world’s militaries do not disaggregate by sex, and “very few countries produce country-specific assessments of female participation in their national forces or in their contributions to UN peacekeeping,” Dharmapuri wrote. (Exceptions, she footnoted, are Britain and the United States.)

There have been efforts to fix imbalances and to advise military officers in peacekeeping missions on sensitivity to women’s equality. Gender advisers are attached to missions, and some have told me that they need to approach not only men in societies (and the soldiers that they send to the UN) but also women who are constrained by cultural norms that discriminate against them in numerous ways.

Women in UN uniforms also make a difference on the street. India, for example, introduced all-female rotating UN police units in 2007 in Liberia, where they go on public security patrols. Indian women in the unit told me in 2010 that the excuse that separation from their families made the deployment of women abroad impossible was outdated. Internet connections at their base allowed them to talk with their children, husbands and other family members, in some cases daily. Women in all-female police units from Bangladesh, Peru and Samoa have since been deployed in Haiti, Timor-Leste and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Liberia, women from several Nordic countries were also serving as UN police but in mixed national contingents. One woman described how she was greeted on her morning jogs in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, with huge smiles from Liberian women, in a country with one of the highest levels of violence against women anywhere. In conservative societies, women are much more apt to talk with other women when rape or other human-rights abuses, including domestic violence, are at issue.

At UN headquarters, peacekeeping officials have developed and promulgated policies on women, peace and security since 2006 (the new report outlines them). Dharmapuri recommended that existing policy guidelines outlined by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support now “need to be operationalized through a comprehensive strategic plan supported by strong leadership.” In 2011, Hervé  Ladsous, the new chief of the peacekeeping department, said that among the pressing issues he would address was protecting the rights of women.

Dharmapuri makes five concrete recommendations that include more research and coaching in UN member nations.

Why press this issue, and why now? Dharmapuri has this to say: “Lessons learned from NATO, the UN, and member states show that information gathering and analysis is improved when the differential impact of armed conflict on women and men is taken into account. Attention to both men’s and women’s distinct experiences in conflicts reveals comprehensive information on the area of operation, including the identities of local power brokers; division of labor; access to resources; kinship and patronage networks; and community security threats, risks, interests and needs. Such thorough information gathering about the impact of a peacekeeping operation on the local population — men and women — can increase the capacity of the mission to effectively accomplish its goals.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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