Addressing the Female Deficit in Peacekeeping: Will the UN’s Rhetoric Finally Translate to Action?

An open Security Council debate in April of this year was the latest of a series of initiatives announced by the UN to address the gender disparity in UN peacekeeping missions. The number of women in peacekeeping missions is woefully low and has barely increased over the past decade, so the recent step-up in strategy is long overdue. As the primary enforcers of order in many conflict zones around the world, and the second-largest military force deployed abroad (after the US military), it is crucial that UN peacekeeping missions are credible and effective. Increasing women’s involvement in such missions is an imperative to achieving this goal.

Crucial role of women in peacekeeping

There is clear evidence that the participation of women in peacekeeping missions improves mission effectiveness and stability. By engaging with local women’s networks and parts of host communities that are closed to men, they enable a better understanding of local conflict dynamics and potential security risks and allow for more inclusive peace processes (see, e.g., the statement in April 2019 by the UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN). Their lower propensity to use excessive force means women are more likely to de-escalate tensions at checkpoints and build trust with communities (Council on Foreign Relations Report, September 2018). They also act as role models for local women to push for their own rights, particularly in societies where women are discouraged from speaking to men. In Liberia, for example, the deployment of a rotating all-female Indian police force has been said to contribute to the increase in women’s participation in Liberia’s national security sector from 6 per cent to 17 per cent between 2007 and 2016. These benefits are increasingly recognised by missions; last month, the African Union Mission in Somalia advocated for the deployment of more women in peacekeeping operations on the continent, emphasising that their role has been critical in stabilising Somalia.

Moreover, a visible presence of female peacekeepers on the ground is crucial to addressing sexual exploitation and abuse (“SEA”) of civilians in conflict. Not only does it encourage women and girls to speak out about their experiences of SEA, it helps to reduce the risk of SEA perpetrated by peacekeepers—a serious problem that continues to be prevalent in many peacekeeping operations. The 2018 Secretary-General’s Report on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse reported 259 allegations of SEA directly relating to UN peacekeeping programs – a number that is likely only a fraction of the real amount, given the numerous difficulties with collecting data of this nature, including the large number of victims that do not report (Royal United Services Institute Newsbrief). Recent reports also uncovered a large number of allegations of SEA by peacekeepers in internally displaced persons’ camps in the Central African Republic and Mali. The UN’s efforts to develop policies and procedures to prevent, investigate, address such abuse are bolstered by the increase of women participation in UN operations (see Jasmine-Kim Westendorf’s 2017 paper for a summary of such policies).

The persistent gender imbalance in peacekeeping

Despite evidence that women improve the effectiveness and credibility of missions, the UN has struggled to increase the presence of women in its peacekeeping forces, both in the field and at the leadership level. The UN conducted 48 peace operations between 2008 and 2017 to which it deployed military, police and civilian personnel but the proportion of women in the military personnel increased from only 1.9% to 3.9% over that nine year period, while the proportion of women in the police remained constant at around 10% after a small initial increase (SIPRI Policy Paper, October 2018).

Research has shown that this persistent disparity can be attributed to several national barriers to participation posed by member states’ policies and practices (as well as some challenges within the UN). The most significant barriers stem from two interrelated issues:

  1. The insufficient number of women available or prepared to deploy within member states’ national forces. For example, women only make up 16.5 percentof the Australian Defence Forces. This falls to 12.1 percent of soldiers who are actually deployed, because of their lower representation in the high-demand groups such as combat and security, engineering and construction. This barrier is exacerbated by the lack of training and self-development opportunities for women—such as participation in Military Staff Colleges—to meet qualification pre-requisites for UN deployment.
  2. Member states’ restriction of deployment opportunities to only male members through gender bias. In particular, gendered perceptions of the role of women in some states (e.g. that they should be at home with the family) can result in their exclusion from taking part in national selection processes for peacekeeping. In fact, many of the largest troop-contributing countries do not deploy any women to peacekeeping operations at all.

Some steps in the right direction appear to be taken by some countries in recent years. Bangladesh and India have deployed “all female units” comprising around 100 militarised police women who are specially trained in providing security and dispersing crowds (Royal United Services Institute Newsbrief). At the end of April 2019, the first batch of Arab female peacekeepers graduated from a three month UN training programme in the UAE—involving more than 130 women from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan—covering skills from first aid and medical training to basic conflict resolution skills and urban combat. However, without system-wide action to address the above barriers, we are unlikely to see any real expansion in women’s involvement in missions.

The UN’s recent steps toward gender parity

While the UN has publicly acknowledged the gender imbalance in peacekeeping for several years, this has only recently translated to action. In 2015 the Security Council adopted Resolution 2242 which, as part of its landmark Women, Peace and Security agenda, urged that the participation of women be integrated in all stages of the planning and implementation of peacekeeping operations and called on the Secretary-General to develop a strategy to double the numbers of women in the military and police contingents of peacekeeping operations over the next five years. However, little was done to implement these statements, requiring the Security Council to impose a deadline for completion of the Secretary-General’s strategy three years later (Resolution 2436). The Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy, published earlier this year, sets a target of 15% of women in military personnel by 2028 and outlines initiatives to meet this target in four areas:

  1. Communicating with member states and outreach to female military and police to increase awareness about such opportunities – for example, arranging meetings with senior management in the military and police to discuss the deployment of more women.
  2. Recruitment and training – for example, revising recruitment processes and procedures to ensure they are gender sensitive and creating a pipeline for senior female military officers.
  3. Creating an enabling environment in the field – for example, improving camp accommodation to address women’s needs and creating mentorship programmes for female officers and programmes to prevent sexual harassment on the ground.
  4. Leadership and accountability within the UN – for example, creating gender-related goals for military, police and corrections senior management in the UNHQ and in the field.

The above actions are not just directed at the highest troop-contributing countries and the UN. In parallel, countries that contribute comparatively fewer troops, such as Australia, can also assist in three key ways:

  1. Australia should work with some of the highest troop-contributing countries to seek to identify and address the barriers to women participation – including by comparing their national policies with the policies of those countries that have contributed more women. Further research could also be undertaken into why the representation of women is higher or improving faster in certain types of missions or locations.
  2. Australia should seek to bridge the gender gap in UN peacekeeping leadership by contributing women to mid and high level positions across operations to ensure that they have the opportunity to serve in influential roles. For example, with Australia’s contribution of Major General Cheryl Pearce to the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) earlier this year, UNCIFCYP became the first UN mission to have its three major leadership positions filled by women.
  3. Australia should contribute to the recently launched Elsie Initiative Fund for Uniformed Women in Peace Operations, which will create financing initiatives for increasing in the deployment in women. The Fund was launched in March 2019 by the UN and Canada—Canada is providing an initial contribution of $15 million and the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Finland have announced additional contributions. Most interestingly, the Fund will support financial premiums to troop-contributing countries for the deployment of units that include a substantial representation of women overall and in positions of authority and have provided gender-equity training.

The UN’s proposed initiatives are long overdue but the real question is whether they will lead to tangible changes in the approach to peacekeeping by both the UN and member states.

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