The work of female peacekeepers in crucial missions around the world brings irreplaceable advantages, but the United Nations and its member countries have much to overcome if they are to harness that potential, Donna Bridges writes.
When Security Council Resolution 1325 was released by the United Nations (UN) in the year 2000, it emphasised the importance of integrating a gender perspective in peacekeeping. This meant recognising and responding to the impact of wars and conflicts on women and girls, and placing emphasis on the need to include women at all levels of peace processes.
In the resolution, the UN ambitiously aimed to increase the numbers of women within the ranks of military personnel, police forces, and civilian organisations. Importantly, they endeavoured to encourage local women involved in conflicts to participate in the peace process.
It also stressed that military personnel would require specialised training to adequately understand the needs of women and girls in conflict and that female peacekeepers were essential to the integration of this gender perspective. At this time, experience had demonstrated that female military personnel performed a unique role in peacekeeping.
Women in peacekeeping roles can transform how civilian populations in host countries respond to peacekeeping forces. Importantly, the UN found female peacekeepers engendered trust in military forces, encouraged the reporting of crime, particularly sexual violence, and were an essential part of empowering local women to join peace processes.
20 years on, the ability of female military personnel to achieve these tasks is well established and the UN continues to actively pursue a greater role for women as military personnel. However, its aspiration to increase the number of female military personnel exponentially has not been achieved. Whilst numbers of female military service personnel have increased, the extent of that growth is marginal at best, and is due to problems recruiting and retaining women in the military.
Whilst armed forces have many of the same issues in recruiting and retaining women as in other male dominated industries, the particular nature of military life can make it even more difficult. Most of the barriers preventing women’s employment in the military can be explained by the way that work in society has traditionally been arranged by gender.
Most young women leaving school, for example, don’t see a military role as attractive and those that do might find themselves swimming against the tide. They could be encountering resistance from parents, a lack of information from schools, and discouraging attitudes from their peer group.
Once women do enter the male dominated domain of the military, they often confront numerous barriers associated with discrimination and harassment. Whilst many women survive in this environment, and indeed, even thrive within it – many do not, and attrition is high at all stages of women’s military careers.
Being a soldier has historically been associated with masculine gender identity. Still, many people in society and in the military believe that only men should, or even can, effectively perform military work. Such beliefs have led to decades of debate globally about the inferior strength and performance capabilities of women’s bodies, their capacity to withstand trauma, and their inability to ‘bond’ as well as men.
There are established links between this mindset and other issues for women in military roles, including peacekeeping. These include a lack of opportunity based on gender, including a lack of women in leadership – reducing the pool of role models for women, and gender based violence.
All opportunity and promotion in the military is said to be based on merit, however, for women this is much more complicated. Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that the measures of ‘merit’ are subjective, and that they are influenced by stereotypes and subconscious bias. Secondly, gender biased attitudes see women’s accomplishments as not on merit, achieved through a quota system, playing ‘the gender card’, or the result of special treatment. In some cases, gender bias can also lead to the exclusion of women from missions deemed to be too dangerous for them.
Lastly, an endemic problem for militaries worldwide and for UN peacekeeping is the sexual exploitation and abuse of women by military personnel, police, and civilian personnel deployed in host countries. Women in the ranks can actually provide a deterrent to male troops engaging in prostitution or perpetrating sexual assault during missions.
Peacekeeping missions that are not plagued by sexual violence do come closer to providing the environment necessary to meet positive and successful peacekeeping objectives. The goal of eliminating sexual violence against women on peacekeeping missions has generated some UN policy changes, but sexual violence perpetrated by military personnel remains an issue that needs more attention.
Further, there are clear links between sexual bias and sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence. Issues for women in the military can be linked to sexual violence, which is itself linked to gender bias, and for this reason military organisations must take tackling gender biases seriously.
Increasing the number of women on peacekeeping missions could be achieved with a quota system, but UN member country militaries need first to tackle gender bias and unfounded assumptions that quotas give preferential treatment to unqualified and undeserving women.
Research has found that women on peacekeeping missions are often ill-prepared for the magnitude of their role in preventing sexual exploitation and violence, and training is an area in need of improvement if violence against women in peacekeeping is to be reduced, let alone eliminated.
This is an important issue for women, but also for peacekeeping. Greater gender balance in military peacekeeping has been shown, at a UN level, to increase the success and effectiveness of operations. It is inspiring to imagine what could be achieved around the world if member nations focused on gender bias training and positive leadership to achieve a gender sensitive peacekeeping force, as well as achieving targets for increasing the numbers of women in peacekeeping, but the UN and member countries must work together to make this happen.