Amelia M. Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
During the frenzy of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, thirty-one countries met on September 26 for a summit on “Strengthening International Peace Operations,” during which the importance of expanding the participation of women in peacekeeping operations was the theme.
To reverse the imbalance, the UN launched an initiative to recruit more female police officers in August 2009, with the goal of women comprising 20 percent of police by 2014. However, between 2009 and today, women involvement in police increased by a mere 2.5 percent—from 7.3 to 9.8 percent. And shockingly, recruitment for involvement of women in military forces has been even less successful as women comprise a mere 3.2 percent of military forces, down from 4.9 percent in 2009.
This isn’t to say the recruitment of women to uniformed positions has been a complete failure. Three all-female police units have served in peacekeeping missions. India deployed a unit to Liberia in 2007, and Bangladesh deployed a unit to Haiti in 2010 and one to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2011. In the civilian sector of peacekeeping operations, gender diversification has been progressive, with women now making up 30 percent of personnel. However, much progress has yet to be made. Women make up less than 4 percent of uniformed peacekeeping operation personnel—approximately 3.2 percent of the 84,743 military forces and 9.8 percent of the 11,465 police.
The role of women in peacekeeping operations is vital, not only because they contribute to the same extent as men, but they are more suitable to carry certain essential tasks. This includes interviewing and working with victims of sexual and gender-based violence, relating to and working with child soldiers, and assisting female ex-combatants with demobilization and reintegration into civilian life, for example. In her latest book, Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention, Severine Autesserre found that the lack of female peacekeepers in the DRC—making up just 2.26 percent of peacekeeping troops, primarily in administrative and medical positions—diminished the capacity of agencies on the ground to respond to sexual abuse. “The mass rapes that took place in August 2010 in Luvungi illustrate the negative effect of the lack of female soldiers among the peacekepeers,” Autesserre wrote. According to a UN investigation, one reason local populations did not alert UN peacekeepers patrolling the area during the three-day assault was because the women could not find any female peacekeepers with whom they would be comfortable to raise the issue of sexual abuse.
Gender balance can have other benefits such as improved situational awareness, reduction of uncertainty in operation plans, increased acceptance of a UN force by local communities, and the prevention of unintentional negative consequences of operations. These consequences could include the temporary and unsustainable stimulation of the local economy, fueling of resentment for minority populations by including them in political processes they might not otherwise have been a part of, or increasing corruption resulting from the influx of aid and assistance without adequate legal bodies in place. Awareness of gender components of conflict can also increase the effectiveness of the mission. “Attention to both men’s and women’s distinct experiences in conflicts reveals comprehensive information on the area of operation, including the identifies of local power brokers; division of labor; access to resources; kinship and patronage networks; and community security threats, risks, interests, and needs,” according to the International Peace Institute. In essence, peacekeeping units with a balanced gender component can better understand drivers of conflict or peacebuilding mechanisms, and therefore, are greater enabled to uphold their mandate of keeping the peace.
In peacekeeping units, a primary challenge to the recruitment and retention of women is the existing gender imbalance and the male-dominated culture that is deeply engrained, leading women—particularly in small numbers—to be ostracized or discriminated against. “Gender mainstreaming”—a strategy for promoting gender equality by “ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central” to all UN activities—has been criticized for being vague and does not propose any suggestions for shifting the fundamental gender norms already present, but instead suggests that women should fit into existing frameworks. “On a daily basis, these attitudes regularly interfered with the UN mandated work off promoting women’s rights and responding to sexual violence,” wrote Autesserre.
One way to shift culture within peacekeeping units is to ensure that units are mixed-gender rather than having women be largely outnumbered—as is the case for most police and military units—or having only one woman. This has been found to increase cohesiveness of the unit. While all-female units would have to be integrated into mixed-gender units to achieve the UN’s goal of “gender mainstreaming,” they are a step toward increasing the number of women so that they are a “critical mass” within units and would therefore have greater power to break conventional gender barriers.
These include integrating women into senior decisionmaking positions and increasing recruitment by publicizing the experiences of women currently in military and police peacekeeping units to make the idea more mainstream. These efforts should be targeted to educators, professional associations, and students, as younger populations tend to make up a large percentage of forces. For example, the average age of a Chinese unit in Haiti and a Irish unit in Syria was twenty-eight-years-old.
Although the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations can increase the recruitment and retention of women, member states control whether women are integrated into their peacekeeping unit contributions. Bangladesh and India are the second and third largest contributors of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping operations, behind only Pakistan, and are the two countries that have made the integration of women a priority, suggesting they are feasible targets for increased recruitment and retention efforts. Though the United States currently contributes only 117 personnel to peacekeeping operations, it is by far the largest donor providing more than 28 percent of funding. Given that Bangladesh is the third largest recipient of U.S. assistance in Asia—understandable behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan—the United States has the ability to pressure and support Bangladesh to increase the role of women in its peacekeeping contributions. The United States potentially holds similar leverage with India as one of the country’s largest trade and investment partners.
The United States would not face much opposition from either country, particularly given that both countries already have all-female units. But why would it be in the interest of the United States to add another item to its bilateral agendas with India and Bangladesh? First, the United States strongly advocates for, and should therefore uphold, UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for incorporating “a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations.” Second, this effort would reflect and give weight to similar initiatives to integrate women into the U.S. military. Lastly, in the long term, supporting the inclusion of women could have positive implications for U.S. peace and security engagements abroad if the documented benefits of the full integration of women into peacekeeping operations come to fruition.