The United Nations was established to make the world a safer place. Women are close to half of the world’s population, and yet are greatly underrepresented in the United Nations at all levels. The fact that the UN is supposed to act in defense of women, who are among those most likely to be victimized by war and conflict, shortchanges the organization’s ability to promote meaningful change when the voices of women are not adequately represented .
Nearly half of all peacekeeper-contributing nations fail to contribute any female officers whatsoever. The rate of female participation in peacekeeping forces has grown from 1% total in 1993 to just 4% of military peacekeepers and 10% of police personnel in 2017 — far short of the targets of 15% and 20%, respectively .
Although countries argue that they simply don’t have enough skilled female officers, the proportion of those deployed in the UN relative to those deployed in domestic security forces is far less . The UN could also do more to hire women among civilian peacekeepers, who take on work in the critically important areas of ‘’finance, logistics, communication and technology (ICT), human resources and general administration’’ as opposed to those pertaining to security more directly — though ultimately relevant to providing peace and security all the same .
Populations in Namibia, Rwanda, and South Africa perceived female peacekeepers as being better at de-escalating potential violence, less dangerous, and more receptive to citizens’ concerns . Female officers are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to abuse force and much more likely to de-escalate tensions and build trust with communities, which advances opportunities for peace in the region .
According to Gender Links, if at least 30 percent of mission personnel are female, local women are more comfortable joining peace committees, which make them more responsive to female concerns. This strengthens the position of women in local societies as well, making achieving global peace and safety more feasible .
One frequently cited reason for including more women would be reducing the incidence of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. There is indeed a serious problem concerning sexual assault by peacekeepers. An independent study in 2015, for instance, documented that children as young as nine in the Congo were made to perform sexual acts by peacekeepers in exchange for food or money and decried ‘’gross institutional failure’’ by the UN in addressing these allegations, as well as the lack of concern for the wellbeing of those victimized .
Investigations and prosecutions of peacekeepers in their home countries are incredibly opaque, as Human Rights Watch has noted. One example of this lack of transparency and accountability at work was demonstrated when UN uncovered a Sri Lankan child sex ring in Haiti, yet Sri Lanka did not prosecute anyone .
Including women among peacekeepers may indeed go some way in reducing the issue of sexual violence, and perhaps makes it easier for victims of assault and harassment by peacekeepers or other groups to come forward . However, this act of inclusion doesn’t by itself change those institutions’ fundamental patriarchal structures or cultures. There needs to be renewed efforts and funding to implement gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping .
It is important to not overstate the actual ability of women peacekeepers to prevent sexual violence. In practice, women peacekeepers — if a minority — often feel pressured to imitate the men or self-segregate at work, neither of which is remotely adequate to solving the UN’s peacekeeper rape crisis. There is the fact that women in national militaries such as Canada’s also face sexual harassment and assault themselves, and it would be a mistake to think that involving them in peacekeeping missions would somehow make them safer .
In reality, the answer to reducing sexual violence committed by peacekeepers lies not in simply adding women to the UN’s peacekeeping forces and calling it a day. Rather, it lies in ensuring that troop-contributing nations actually pursue transparent and thorough investigations of the accused — as Human Rights Watch suggested .
Acceptance of troops should be conditional on how thoroughly said investigations are conducted, and countries that don’t investigate properly should have their funds curbed and transferred to survivors, as the Secretary-General suggested . Nor is the UN itself without blame. Unlike with troops contributed by other nations, the Secretary-General could revoke the immunity of civilian peacekeepers (who commit 70% of the assaults) but hasn’t done so .
There is a plethora of evidence supporting the conclusion that including more women in peacekeeping would make it easier to achieve goals of peace and stability. However, when it comes to resolving the deep problems of sexual abuse pervading the United Nations, the solutions lie with reforming the UN’s idea of peacekeeper immunity as well as pushing troop-contributing countries to be vigilant and responsible for investigations.
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