As of December 2016, over 118, 000 military, police and civil personnel are working as United Nations Peacekeepers on 16 operations worldwide. Women make up only 3 per cent of the military peacekeeping workforce and 10 per cent of the police workforce. These statistics are a significant improvement from those published in 1993, when women accounted for only 1 per cent of uniformed personnel. Nonetheless, 17 years after UN Resolution 1325 called for gender equality in decision-making roles in peacekeeping, there is still significant horizontal and vertical segregation within all units of operations. As long as this lack of parity continues, it will continue to have a knock-on effect on the quality and success of peacekeeping missions.

Peacekeeping operations have been a key aspect of the United Nations mandate since the first mission was launched during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Today, 125 states contribute military and police personnel to this project, the core aim of which is to ‘help countries torn by conflict create the conditions for lasting peace.’ The official UN defines the role of peacekeepers is those who seek to assist in reforming political processes and judiciaries, training law enforcement and disarming former combatants. In addition, peacekeepers provide day-to-day support to local populations and aid refugees and internally displaced persons. Those at the front line of this work have attested to the fact that these roles can be carried out with equal success by men and women. It is therefore unfounded that while women make up 48 per cent of those working at UN headquarters, they only account for 29 per cent of international and 17 per cent of national peacekeeping personnel, serving almost entirely away from the front lines in lower-level administrative roles.

United Nations Photo

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 1980, some rights reserved.

The need for gender equality across UN peacekeeping operations is exacerbated by the fact that experiences of conflict are so often heavily gendered. In the words of UN Women Country Director, Zebib Kayma, ‘Women, men, girls and boys experience violence before, during and after armed conflicts differently and have different vulnerabilities, insecurities and coping mechanisms. However, the reality remains that women and girls continue to pay a high toll, given the gender roles assigned by society and their vulnerabilities.’

Female peacekeepers are often better equipped to provide support in regards to gender-based violence including sexual assault, gynaecological care and maternity support. Local women may feel more comfortable going to female peacekeepers about a whole range of issues. Indeed, in some communities they may only feel comfortable doing so, or may be socially barred from reaching out to male peacekeepers. The official UN stance on gender in peacekeeping references this by pointing out that missions have previously taken place in societies where women are forbidden from talking to male strangers. While a goal in the long term might be to challenge this norm, in the short term the goal of the peacekeeping unit should be to assure that there is always a female member of personnel local women can go to for support and advice. In 2014, Major General Kristin Lund of Norway became the first female force commander in the Cyprus. At the time, she spoke of the importance of having more women in her team and across the board, stating that, ‘Being a female, from my recent deployment in Afghanistan, I had access to 100 per cent of the population, not only 50 per cent.’

Gender norms may begin to be questioned naturally as a result of an increase in female peacekeeping personnel. Having role models such as Lund will encourage women in peacekeeping to pursue such authoritative roles themselves. Seeing other women playing an integral role in the decision-making processes of rebuilding conflict-torn societies may inspire and empower local girls and women to actively engage in and even lead political and social movements. Providing this space for the visibility of strong women could thus contribute towards increasing gender equality and empowerment on a much larger scale over time.

The UN continues to recognise these arguments, and in 2015 reaffirmed its commitment to gender parity in peacekeeping operations. However, while UN support is essential, member states are responsible for providing their own officers to UN projects. It is thus at national level that inequality exists and needs to be rectified. More than 60 countries have now agreed to double the number of women in their military peacekeeping units in order to achieve at least 15 per cent female representation on the ground by the year 2020. If these targets are met, it will be a considerable step in the right direction. On the other hand, it may not be a dramatic enough push for gender parity. After all, less than half of member states have made this commitment.

Moreover, even in countries where women make up more than 15 per cent of field troops, there is still much to be done in terms of changing attitudes towards female peacekeepers. Kenya is currently the highest ranking country for female peacekeeping participation, which stands at more than 19 per cent. South Africa follows close behind at 18 per cent. In both cases though, women tend to remain in lower-level positions with minimal authority. Key missions that are taking place today also remain held back by a ‘prevailing machismo culture.’ In 2015, women made up just 2 per cent. of the world’s largest peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anne Marie Obuyo, a native peacekeeper who has been the sole member of staff at the country’s gender office for a number of years, expressed doubt to the Guardian about how seriously her male peers took the issue of gender parity. She also pointed out that, ‘The higher you climb, women are very rare.’

In spite of these challenges, female participation in UN peacekeeping missions is moving in the right direction. The newly appointed UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, recently announced that French diplomat Jean-Pierre Lacroix will be taking over as head of UN peacekeeping operations in April. In June Lacroix will be responsible for conducting a peace and security review to be shared with member states. Through conducting this review, Lacroix’s team has the opportunity to reemphasise gender parity as an issue of top priority. In doing so, they could improve peacekeeping operations immeasurably through the service and empowerment not only of female personnel but of the local women they will assist in creating conditions of lasting peace within their society.