Women Peacekeepers : Challenging the Gender norm?

Emily Lawrence (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 

On the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, a study was conducted to assess the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. This global study compiled research to determine guidelines for good practice and made recommendations for the effective implementation and enforcement of the normative framework created by the UN. While the study allowed that some progress had been made in the past 15 years, it urged that more must be done and that the UN had to be at the forefront of setting new standards. One of the key recommendations made was to increase the number of female peacekeepers and women protection officers. This recommendation challenges gender norms in a superficial way by providing a channel for the agency of women within a patriarchal framework. However, upon closer examination, the assumptions such a recommendation rests upon uphold gender norms in problematic ways that must be addressed. Specifically, the recommendation relies on the idea that women are inherently better at peacekeeping than men, and that they are exclusively responsible for gender issues. The fact that the recommendation has lacked meaningful enforcement upholds that the overarching mindset that women’s representation is secondary to other concerns.

The first and most obvious way that female peacekeepers challenge gender norms is in demonstrating the agency of women. The traditional gender narrative is of a masculine ‘protector’ and a feminine ‘protected’. By exhibiting that women have power and authority, women officers and peacekeepers are defying the ‘protected’ norm. This is important because this narrative is deeply embedded, even within the UN security resolutions. Over and over, women are grouped with children to emphasize their role as vulnerable mothers or are referred to as victims who are especially at risk. Nadine Puechguirbal notes in her article “Discourses on Gender, Patriarchy and Resolution 1325: A Textual Analysis of UN Documents” that language is a key way that patriarchal power structures are perpetuated. Puechguirbal (2010: 172) writes that in the UN Security Council resolutions “the construction ‘women and children’ was used 163 times compared with the much less frequent use of ‘women as combatants’ (six times) and ‘men as vulnerable’ (only mentioned once).” This type of language undermines the power women have and enforces a concept of a passive woman with little control over what happens to her. It supports the idea that women are natural victims because they are inherently vulnerable. It is important to note that while women may indeed be more at risk to certain types of violence, it is not due to a natural weakness. As Paula Donovan (2006:4) eloquently explains:

“Unlike children and the frail and elderly, women aren’t naturally in need of protection. But like subjugated groups throughout history, women have been overpowered. Women need protection from the unnatural order imposed on our universe – the man-made laws, customs, practices and indulgences that rule modern ‘civilization.’ They have the aptitude, but are denied the wherewithal to devise and construct their own protections”.

By challenging the idea of natural weakness and showing that women can become protectors if given access to operate within patriarchal power structures, female peacekeepers are challenging gender norms. They demonstrate that women are proactive rather than reactive, assertive rather than passive. Their impact is not least because they are highly visible in communities where the ‘vulnerable protected’ stereotype has been perpetuated and reinforced consistently, often violently. Female peacekeepers can act as role models and examples to women who have never been able to assert their own authority before. At a surface level, women peacekeepers do a great deal to challenge gender stereotypes.

However, once one begins to examine the assumptions inherent in the inclusion of female peacekeepers, the stereotypes are not as unseated as they may seem. The Global Study in 2015 referenced one such particularly problematic theme: that women are useful to include because they are better at addressing gender issues in peacekeeping operations. The argument that women are beneficial to missions is undoubtedly true. The Global Study (2015: 141) states that women peacekeepers “broaden the range of skills and capacities among all categories of personnel, enhance the operational effectiveness of all tasks, and improve the missions image, accessibility and credibility vis-à-vis the local population.” The report (2015: 41) emphasizes women’s effectiveness repeatedly, including the statistic that “peace processes that included women as witnesses, signatories, mediators, and/or negotiators demonstrated a 20 per cent increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years.” This is beneficial because it challenges the idea that women should not be included because, since they are not normally aggressors, they have no place at the peace table. A common belief is that only those who have been involved in the fighting have a chance of creating peace. Whether or not women have been aggressors, they are a critical part of society. Rebuilding the community will require their input if it is to have any chance of being a just and legitimate process. This is why including women as peacekeepers is a critical step forward for gender equality.

However, there is a certain danger in relying so heavily on the effectiveness of women as an argument for their inclusion. Women should not be included simply because they are instrumentally useful. To argue this would be to reduce women to a tool used by men. The representation of women is the key point that must be emphasized when arguing for their inclusion in peace processes. It is a human rights issue. Too often advocates must point to effectiveness as a way for women to get their foot in the door, and it is certainly useful in that regard. The Global Study (2015: 134) itself identifies the link between gender equality and peace as “the most powerful force driving the advocates for a resolution on women, peace and security.”

But a transition must be made eventually wherein women’s equality and rights are recognized, not just their usefulness. Peacekeepers are no exception. As Olsson and Gizelis (2015: 5) write: “Instrumentalizing gender equality in peace and security research and in policy risks diverting focus from the core problems of inequality.” In the Global Study by the UN, there are many references to the empirical proof that women are helpful to include, but far fewer references to the rights women have to equality and representation. In an article by Cohn, Kinsella and Gibbings (2004: 137) it is noted:

“What is potentially lost with the ‘use-value’ approach is that women should be there because they have a right and a reason as individuals, people, as human, not simply or solely because they are somebody’s vision of a peace-maker. I think it is politically unwise not to recognize that the construction of women as peace-makers and as pacifistic has not exactly ‘liberated’ women as equal participants in policy processes”.

There are two key issues here. The first is that women are seen to be naturally inclined towards peacekeeping. The emphasis on the effectiveness of women as peacekeepers could reinforce gender norms by describing women as pacifistic. The second is that women are seen to be naturally adept at handling gender issues, to the point that they are almost solely responsible for gender issues in the field. By essentializing women in this way, there is a danger that female peacekeepers will be limited to certain tasks, namely those related to sexual and gender-based violence (Toupin, 2014: 238). Olivera Simic argues (2014: 188) “The primary rationale for the inclusion of more women in PKOs has been that their presence will help to reduce the incidence of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse. They have been perceived primarily as a task force to combat sexual violence.” Women are included as a remedy for sexual exploitation. They are assumed to be gender experts simply by being women. Moreover, they are often not included in mixed groups with men. Instead, a common practice has been to send all-female groups of peacekeepers out separately from male units. One well-known example is the all-female unit from India sent to Liberia in 2007. Simic (2014: 188) notes that single-sex units “could be seen as a way to avoid changing the masculine police and military cultures of PKOs.” Another troubling trend is that female officers are less likely to be sent to more dangerous areas. This indicates that there remains a notion that women are in need of being protected from the more hazardous jobs. Olsson and Gizelis (2015: 6) found that “Safer and more stable areas tend to have higher numbers of female personnel.” It is clear that overall, the agency given to women as peacekeepers is undermined by the perpetuation of these gendered stereotypes within the UN structure.

Another assumption being made in the deployment of female peacekeepers is that because they are women they will understand and connect with other women. This is especially difficult for peacekeepers as they are going into communities that have radically different cultures from their home states. Furthermore, they are going into damaged communities that are more guarded because of the previous atrocities committed there. Female peacekeepers do not have an innate understanding of or sensitivity to the local culture because they are women. They may however, be given more trust and access because the community is unused to women as perpetrators of violence. Because violence and masculinity are gender stereotypes that are reinforced by militarization and conflict, damaged communities cannot help but be skeptical of masculine military authority figures. This is why women have a comparative advantage as peacekeepers in affected areas. It is an unnatural socio-political phenomenon, not a biological one. Nevertheless, it reinforces gender norms.

It brings up another issue of local women and peacekeepers. Which women are included in the peace process? Women are not one uniform group. Women from certain nationalities and backgrounds are more likely to be peacekeepers than others. They cannot be assumed to represent all women. There is an assumption of natural empathy between women that discounts all other nuances of identity. Peacekeepers who are women have similar motivations to male peacekeepers for their employment, including pay and benefits, but this is often overlooked. Indeed, Sivic (2014: 193) notes that in the 2010 survey by the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women “None of the female peacekeepers who responded to the survey identified, as their motivation, the desire to learn more about and support local women. And we may ask – why should they? Why is there an assumption that international female peacekeepers want first and foremost to help their ‘sisters in need’?” Though it may not be the reason female peacekeepers have joined the UN, it is certainly one of the main reasons the UN uses them. This is due to the impression that women are better able to interact with local communities. The UN report (2015: 141) states that women peacekeepers can “more effectively reach out to and interact with civilians in the host country, as they appear less threatening and more accessible to affected populations.” This demonstrates that instead of challenging gender norms, women are actually included because of gender stereotypes. Women that are described as non- threatening and more accessible are hardly challenging ideas of nurturing and sensitive femininity.

And yet, women who have worked on the ground acknowledge some truth to it. For example, Major Khadeesa Sy has said “In the field I’ve always been the one called upon to work with local women- they trusted me more” (UN Women, 2015: 142). Though Simic argues that there is no empirical evidence to support these claims that women are better able to gain the trust of local communities, one can find an underlying rationale- and one that does not rely on explanations of natural gender roles. It may be that this trust coincides with the abuse of power by patriarchal structures. These women have been subjected to disempowerment and abuse most often by men. In fact, a gendered narrative is just as damaging to masculinity as it is to femininity. As McLeod (2015: 60) writes: “Masculinity then becomes equated with bad behaviour, and men are not given the possibility of behaving or acting differently. This is not to deny that, statistically speaking, men are the perpetrators of violence and women are on the receiving end of violence.”

Because of this, women in these communities are wary of masculine authority. This is another crucially damaging aspect of essentialist gender perspectives: a distrust of men. Women are unlikely to have been the main abusers in the conflict because they are often in supporting roles. Feminine authority would be more approachable and less suspicious because these women see other women as their equals within existing gendered power structures. This is responsible for female peacekeepers being seen as more approachable, not a biological connection between all women or a universally nurturing feminine character.

The equity of gender-based power makes the ground between female peacekeepers and local women more even. This argument cannot be taken too far however, as the women peacekeepers have other forms of power, perhaps cultural or economic. There is an imbalance of power between local and international women that the peacekeeping of the UN is unable to address by adding more women. As McLeod (2015: 64) writes, “These insights about how both international and local experiences matter raise questions about how we ascribe importance to a particular set of knowledge and experience in agenda-setting. Whose experience of conflict matters in establishing post-conflict agendas?” The UN as an international organization powered by Western liberal ideals has its own power that it is imposing by deploying peacekeepers. To assert that all women are being given opportunities of empowerment through its bodies would be to lump all women together and discredit differences of identity that women of all nationalities have. There is no pre-existing connection between women, just a lack of one type of power barrier that would cause mistrust. In this one area- gender- women peacekeepers do have a comparative advantage in relating to local women, but by using it they are reinforcing a stereotype of sisterhood that has been unnaturally thrust upon them. Their inclusion in the UN missions is thereby giving a mask of legitimacy to the patriarchal structure that they are operating within.

Many feminist scholars have serious doubts about the equality that can come from simply accepting women into patriarchal structures. It seems to be rewarding women who are able to take on masculine qualities to get ahead in a male- dominated system. As Sivic (2014: 191) states, “It is apparent that many women peacekeepers prefer to embrace masculine norms over prescribed female gender roles. Indeed, it is unlikely that they even have this choice since they have to conform or they are unlikely to succeed in being a soldier or police officer.” If that is the case, then female peacekeepers are adding legitimacy and superficial balance to a system that is in need of complete overhaul. They may be contributing to the oppression of women in more complex ways, thereby actually reinforcing the idea that women are subordinate.

Rather than challenging stereotypes about femininity, they are conforming to masculine standards in order to advance in a patriarchal system. Further, they are expected to do everything a male soldier does in addition to their tasks as ‘gender experts’. Sivic (2014: 190) writes that “women peacekeepers end up bearing a double burden – of responsibility as soldiers and police, as well as of responsibility as ‘women’ – while men are let off the hook.” Women are expected to do everything a man can do, and more, to justify their inclusion in the process of peacekeeping.

Many argue that what is needed instead is radical transformation of the system itself. Sivic states (2014: 186):

I argue that feminist goals are endangered if gender equality is conflated with gender balance. Gender equality requires that women and men enjoy equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities, which demands transformative change in the way that gender has been conceived – a much more ambitious project than simply increasing the presence of women in existing masculinist institutions.

This concept is a familiar one. Virginia Woolf argued for a similar solution in Three Guineas as early as 1938. She called for change from the outside of the system, a rejection of institutions that uphold current power structures and an effort to strive towards familiar aims but from a new perspective (Woolf, 1938: n.p.). This is perhaps what Resolution 1325 attempted to do in 2000; to reframe the issue of security as a human concern, not just a military concern. It aimed to prevent war, not make war safer for women. Diane Otto (2014:167) writes “The narrative of feminist ‘progress’, whether cast in terms of celebration or danger, is especially suited to masking the military logic of international security that generates and relies upon women’s inequality and marginalization, in the west as well as outside it.” By recommending that gender equality be reached quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, the solution is not broad enough. Women are represented in a partial way, still seen as peacekeepers and relegated to being the specially appointed guardians of gender. Rather than complete equality, what is being offered is an illusion of equality. This is one of the key concerns surrounding the WPS agenda. What is called for is gender mainstreaming: a process in which actions are assessed on their impacts for both men and women before they are implemented so that everyone can benefit equally. Mainstreaming is more comprehensive than just adding women to existing structures- it is a reinvention of how policy is designed. The Women, Peace and Security agenda has been hijacked to lend legitimacy to the militarization of security. Women are being integrated into an existing structure rather than finding new ways to change it. In this way, women’s rights are being coopted and the hyper-masculinized war structure continues with the mask of women’s participation to give it credibility.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report’s recommendation on peacekeepers is that it remains a recommendation. Little progress has actually been made on the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the past 15 years. This is not the first time more women peacekeepers have been called for by the UN. One example was from 2000, the same year as Resolution 1825. The Best Practice Unit of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations organized a seminar, out of which came the Namibia Plan of Action. This plan called specifically for more female peacekeepers and UNPOL officers (Toupin, 2014: 233). Another example is the Zeid Report, published in 2005. This report specifically linked the presence of female peacekeepers to a reduction in sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping operations (Toupin, 2014: 234). Resolution 1820 in 2008 again reiterated this demand for an increase in female peacekeepers and UNPOL officers (Toupin, 2014: 234). It is clear that this information is not new, nor is it unfamiliar to the UN. The fact that it is presented time and time again with seemingly no real changes is discouraging. Overall, the level of female UN military officers has only risen from 1% in 1993 to 3% in 2015. Based on the need for the UN to make the same recommendation in the Global Study in 2015, it is difficult to see how much real progress has been made or how this call to action will be more effective than those in the past.

The report does note some encouraging facts. For example, the UN has deployed its first female commander of a peacekeeping mission, and in 2015, almost 40% of peacekeeping missions were led by a woman (UN Women, 2015:14). But the study also repeatedly states that more must be done. Progress has yet to be fully incorporated as standard practice. Enforcement is the crux of the WPS agenda and its main weakness. The WPS agenda has become rhetoric, not a framework for action.

The problem is the lack of enforcement or incentives to support the WPS agenda. This stems from the well-held belief that women’s issues somehow represent a special interest, and one that is secondary to greater concerns of security. Marilyn French (1992: 17) writes “Men treat women as marginal to the real business of life, not the essential maintainers they are. Even when feminists oblige men to hear them, politicians treat them as a “special interest group” – as if their concerns affected a small fraction of the population, not all women (51 percent of the population in most countries).” This lack of real commitment upholds gender norms of women as secondary and subordinate to men.

In fact, the WPS agenda allows governments a way to hide their lack of action behind a shield of rhetoric. Karen Barnes (2006: 2) states that a “rhetorical commitment to gender mainstreaming often disguises the reality that due to a lack of political will, organizational accountability, and competing or contradictory discourses, rather than being mainstreamed gender issues become lost along the way and what results is tokenistic gestures that contradict the essence of what mainstreaming seeks to achieve.” Responsibility is often passed off from the UN to the countries that it relies on for military peacekeeping support. The UN calls for National Action Plans, but has no way to require their institution. It recognizes its shortfalls with no way to remedy them. The Global Study (2015: 14) states that the countries that have national action plans for women, peace and security “are focused on process, with neither mechanisms for accountability nor budgets available for real implementation.”

And while the UN can buck-pass the gender balancing of its peacekeeping forces to the recruitment incentives of states, it fails to lead by example. Its own structures remain grossly unbalanced. One reason may be that those who have benefitted from existing power hierarchies have no incentive to disrupt that which they have been able to manipulate to their advantage. This trend is true at the national, as well as the international level. The UN is far from leading by example as only 1 of its 24 Special Representatives to the Secretary General is female (Puechguirbal, 2010: 142). Sivic (2014: 188) summarizes this lack of accountability by stating, “This public recognition of the role that the contributing countries play in determining who is deployed allows the UN to implicitly distance itself from any responsibility if its targets are not achieved.” For any real progress to be made, the UN must act as a norm-promoter by leading by example. It cannot continue to make feeble recommendations that lack any enforcement or incentive measures. The recommendation to increase female peacekeepers is therefore too weak to challenge gender norms.

In conclusion, the recommendation made by the Global Study to increase the numbers of female peacekeepers only scratches the surface of addressing actual inequalities. While it does challenge the gender stereotype of women as passive victims by allowing them agency, it keeps them pigeon-holed as natural pacifists who are more inclined than men to establish and maintain peace. This recommendation relies on the effectiveness of women to justify their inclusion rather than their right to participate. In this way, women remain a tool to be used by men. Their own goals are secondary to the uses the UN’s patriarchal power structure can put them to: namely gaining the trust of local communities because women are ‘more approachable’, reducing gender based violence because women are the designated guardians of gender issues, and providing the appearance of progress towards gender balance. In reality, the levels of women in UN missions remains abysmally low despite repeated calls for more inclusion. This supports the gender norm of women’s rights being seen as less important than other security matters. No actual action has been taken to incentivize the norms that the UN espouses. Until the rhetoric of the UN is enforced by gender mainstreaming tactics rather than slight overtures that fail to address root causes of gender inequality, the recommendation to increase female peacekeepers will perpetuate gender norms rather than challenge them.


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