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Women’s Roles as UN Peacekeepers: A Status Report


In June 2018, a new rotation of a Rwandan police unit arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to work for the UN mission there. The unit consists of 80 men and 80 women and is led by a female officer. Before arriving in Juba, the unit underwent a six-month pre-deployment training in Rwanda. UNMISS 

Women have historically been underrepresented across the United Nations system, but notably in peacekeeping, one of the most highly visible activities of the world body. And while the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations publishes monthly data on troop- and police-contributing countries, by missions and by gender, the numbers are not easily comprehensible.

There are some limited interactive graphs on the UN peacekeeping website regarding the UN’s 14 peacekeeping missions as well as overall national contributions, but the gender breakdowns are buried in a monthly “summary” that is more than 100 pages long.

A basic analysis of the May 2018 report reveals, unsurprisingly, that female participation in peacekeeping remains low, especially in military and combat roles, partly due to the low number of women in the military in their own countries. Moreover, women who do participate in military roles in UN peace operations are sometimes kept from the most dangerous missions, says one expert, ostensibly to protect them.

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But progress has been made in civilian roles in peace operations.

Twenty-two percent of peacekeeping personnel classified as civilians are women, while only 10.8 percent of UN police and 4 percent of military personnel are women. UN police officers are active members of their home police services, which is secondary to their work for the UN. They are meant to be key players in conflict prevention and in the early stages of peace-building and reconciliation.

Part of the discrepancy between police and military personnel can be explained by recruitment practices. When a member country of the UN deploys troops for peacekeeping, they are already formed into a contingent and the number of women in it determines how many are sent to keep the peace. Police officers are recruited one by one — officers apply or are selected.

“In many countries, the information to apply to peacekeeping missions doesn’t trickle down,” said Dr. Sabrina Karim, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University and a co-author of “Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping.” (An original audio interview with Karim is below.)

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“Not everybody knows they have this opportunity because of discriminatory practices, whether it’s the old boy network or who has access to the information,” she added.

Women may also be excluded from police units because of mandates requiring recruits to be able to drive a manual or stick-shift car and use a computer. Karim’s book recommends modifying recruitment standards to favor skills where women have an advantage. She cites training programs where women in national police forces are taught how to operate cars and computers.

Although progress has been made to recruit more policewomen — the number has increased 54 percent since 2009 — peacekeeping’s military branch still lags far behind. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has committed to having women involved in all peacekeeping operations, but only 3.7 percent of troops are women; in contrast, roughly 10 percent of staff officers and military experts are women.

Ethiopia has the highest number of female peacekeepers — 612 —including military, civilian and police personnel. (It is also the largest overall troop-contributing country to the UN.) But that number constitutes only 7 percent of Ethiopia’s total contribution. Ghana maintains the largest proportion of women in peacekeeping among the top-10 personnel-contributing countries, at 9.6 percent.

Based on the May 2018 UN Monthly Strength Report.

The highest number of female peacekeeping troops work in the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco), at 584, followed by the mission in Lebanon (Unifil), at 527. Unisfa, a mission in both Sudan and South Sudan, has the highest proportion of female troops at 9.6 percent, but the other major missions range from 2.6 percent, in Mali (Minusma), to Lebanon’s 5.3 percent.

Egypt is among the top-10 troop-contributing countries but has the fewest women deployed in missions in that cohort. “We look forward to increasing the number for practical reasons, but there are practical difficulties,” said Mohamed Edrees, Egypt’s ambassador to the UN. “Sometimes, there are family matters, women want to stay close to families and not work in missions far from them; this is also a situation in most of the countries and not specific to Egypt.

“We could have more incentives to incorporate in peacekeeping missions, such as allowing times for women to go back home to their families — more time than is entitled to men.”

Missions with a higher percentage of combat-related forces tend to have the lowest percentages of women.

“Female peacekeepers are actually being sent to places that are safer and not necessarily places where they are most needed or where it’s more dangerous,” Karim said. “There is an active strategy to actually keep them away from more dangerous locations where there’s combat, higher levels of sexual exploitation and abuse, or higher numbers of peacekeeping deaths. There’s still this idea that women need to be protected.”

But women see things that men don’t, and that can apply to personnel in peace missions, said Jane Connors, the UN rights advocate for victims of sexual abuse. She noted that a mission should reflect the population it serves and that women can be a factor in providing an additional “humanizing” dimension to what male peacekeepers can provide.

The first all-women police contingent to UN peacekeeping came from India and was sent to the mission in Liberia in 2007. The unit was followed closely for its groundbreaking role working in such a violent setting, after a gruesome civil war. The Indian women were deemed successful, but it helped that their government reportedly looked after their safety and even helped them keep their ties to their families via Skype calls, as many of the women had children back home.

Without women in some areas, you cannot even fulfill the task, Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund of Norway, chief of staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, told PassBlue last year. “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. These issues — sexual violence in conflict — have not gone away, unfortunately.”

Adriana Abdenur, a researcher with the Igarapé Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro, argues that women in combat-related roles can make it easier for peacekeepers to reach women and children in conflict areas, especially where there are cultural restrictions around interaction across gender lines. “They are also able to address the needs of women ex-combatants,” she said.

“Because women who are victims of rape and other gender-based violence typically feel more comfortable speaking about these experiences to other women,” Abdenur added, “increasing the number and role of female peacekeepers beyond the mission headquarters and offices allows for a more accurate diagnosis of the causes and dynamics of the conflict, including, but not exclusively, from a gender perspective.”

Rwandan women have been showing their mettle in Sudan and South Sudan for many years. Aleksandar Ljubicic, an adviser to the UN mission in Cyprus, was part of a selection team interviewing female Rwandan contingents for peacekeeping in 2010; five years later, an all-female contingent from Rwanda was sent to the South Sudan mission, specializing in “public order management, like crowd control, facilitating delivery of humanitarian assistance, escort duties and protection of UN facilities, among other important tasks,” he told PassBlue, noting that the contingent carried out its role “despite a volatile environment.”

In June, Rwanda deployed its first formed police unit led by a female officer. The contingent of 160 officers is mainly women and will serve for one year with the UN mission in South Sudan, called Unmiss.

However, Karim cautions that increasing the number of women is not a simple formula to quell gender-based violence.

“I think we need to be careful saying that if you add women, the numbers of sexual exploitation and abuse will go down,” she said. “If they’re supposed to reduce numbers of sexual exploitation and abuse and they don’t, that’s the reason for not including women in the first place because they’re ‘failing’ at their job when they’re set up to fail in the first place. It shouldn’t be a woman’s responsibility to police men’s behavior, especially in a context where they have little power to do so.”

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

Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.

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