Can Women Correct Peacekeeping?

Samin Huq
Samin Huq
Aug 26 · 6 min read
UN Photo/Isaac Alebe Avoro Lu’ub

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 [1].

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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5]. 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 [6].

Female peacekeepers (headed for Liberia) at attention during a send-off at military headquarters in Manila, Philippines. January 28, 2009. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

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 [7].

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 [8].

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 [9].

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 [10]. 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 [11].

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 [12].

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 [13].

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 [14]. 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 [15].

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.


[1] McKay, Susan. The Effects of Armed Conflict on Girls and Women. Peace and Conflict, 1998

[2] UN Women. 2015. ‘’Inputs for the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations Financial Incentives to Increase the Percentage of Military Women in Peace Operations’’, Exploratory Options on Using Financial Incentives to Increase the Percentage of Military Women in UN Peacekeeping Missions, 2015.

[3] Kenney, Charles. ‘’Using Financial Incentives to Increase the Number of Women in UN Peacekeeping.’’ Center for Global Development, October 17, 2016.

[4] Dharmapuri, Sahana. ‘’Not Just a Numbers Game: Increasing Women’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping’’. Providing for Peacekeeping, №4, July 2013.

[5] Lonsway, Dr. Kim, Michelle Wood, Megan Fickling and Alexandria De Leon, Margaret Moore,

Chief Penny Harrington, Eleanor Smeal, Katherine Spillar. ‘’Men, Women, and Police Excessive Force — A Tale of Two Genders, A Content Analysis of Civil Liability Cases, Sustained Allegations & Citizen Complaints’’. The National Center for Women and Policing, 2006.

[6] Links, Gender. ‘’’Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations: South Africa Case Study’’. 2002.

[7] Bigio, Jamille, and Rachel Vogelstein. “Increasing Female Participation in Peacekeeping Operations.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2018.

[8] Deschamps, Marie (Chair), Hassan B. Jallow, and Yasmin Sooka, ‘’Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers — Report of an Independent Review on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by International Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic’’, 17 December 2015.

[9] Larson, Krista, and Paisley Dodds, “UN Peacekeepers in Congo Hold Record for Rape, Sex Abuse.” AP News. Associated Press, September 23, 2017.

[10] Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. “To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women.” Crisis Group, November 13, 2017.

[11] Dillon, Tara. May 29 2018. ‘’A Case for Gender Mainstreaming in Peacekeeping Missions’’. Our Secure Future, May 29, 2018.

[12] Baruah, Bipasha. “Short-Sighted Commitments on Women in Peacekeeping.” Policy Options, November 23, 2017.

[13] Kumar, Akshaya. “UN: Stop Sexual Abuse by Peacekeepers.” Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2016.

[14] Kumar, Akshaya. “UN Plan to Stop Peacekeeper Abuse Puts Victims First.” Human Rights Watch, March 10, 2017.

[15] Wolfe, Lauren. “The U.N. Is Not Serious About Its Peacekeeper Rape Problem.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, August 13, 2015.


“Ready for Peacekeeping Deployment, with a Gender Lens.” UN Women, May 29, 2018.

Jennings, Kathleen M. “Conditional Protection? Sex, Gender, and Discourse in UN Peacekeeping.” OUP Academic. Oxford University Press, January 17, 2019.

Karim, Sabrina M., and Marsha Henry. “Gender and Peacekeeping — Oxford Handbooks.” Oxford Handbooks — Scholarly Research Reviews, November 25, 2017.

“Women, War and Peace.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2019.

“What You Need To Know About Women and Peacekeeping.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, March 19, 2019.



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