UN Peacekeeping: Where is the Gender Expertise?

The National Forum of Bangui held from May 4-11, 2015 concluded with the adoption of the Republican Pact for Peace, National Reconciliation and Reconstruction. (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

The United Nations is in a series of peace and security restructuring and management reforms aimed at improving the organization’s response to prevention and conflict. In the midst of these complex and highly political reforms, as the UN Security Council meets today to discuss Women, Peace and Security (WPS), and as Canada prepares to host a high-level summit on peacekeeping, questions remain as to how gender expertise and analysis can be qualitatively improved within UN peace operations—a pressing issue for both the field and New York headquarters. Indeed, as the Informal Expert Group on WPS illustrates, conflicts on the Council’s agenda have distressing gender dimensions, including the use of sexual violence and abuse employed as a tactic of war, as in the Central African Republic (CAR).

For five years now, CAR has been tormented by sectarian violence between two main armed groups: the predominantly Muslim Séléka fighters and the primarily Christian anti-Balaka militia. The violence has included an alarming number of cases of sexual violence and abuse committed by both parties, and the targeting of women and girls based on their presumed religion. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented widespread cases of sexual violence and pointed to the use of rape and sexual slavery as tactics of war. The country has long been known for impunity in cases of sexual violence and the social and logistical barriers to reporting these cases within the country are considerable—from pressure, fear of reprisals, and rejection, to the ravaging of the country’s judicial institutions by the conflict and the ongoing insecurity that continues to paralyze other institutions. The impact of this is significant as, for example, of the 296 cases of sexual violence and abuse documented by Human Rights Watch, only 11 women sought judicial redress. In addition, other reports have documented sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, which are regrettably common in the wider context of conflict-related sexual violence, as Dr. Jeni Wahlan also recently highlighted. In the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), egregious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers and troops operating under UN authorization continue to emerge. Clearly, gender expertise and mainstreaming is needed now more than ever within MINUSCA.

In numerous resolutions and statements, the Security Council has made gender expertise in peacekeeping missions a priority. In 2000, through the landmark resolution 1325, the Security Council called for the incorporation of this gender perspective into all aspects of peace and security efforts, from peacekeeping operations, to the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements, in humanitarian activities, and in planning for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. Subsequent women, peace, and security resolutions have strengthened these calls, including resolution 2122, which recognized the need for “timely information and analysis” on the impact of conflict on women and girls, and resolution 2242,  which urged both the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) to “ensure the necessary gender analysis and technical gender expertise is included throughout all stages of mission planning, mandate development, implementation, review and mission drawdown.” The resolution further called for “senior gender advisors and other gender officer posts to be budgeted for and speedily recruited where appointed in special political missions and multidimensional peacekeeping operations.”

Progress has been made towards implementing these recommendations. The creation of gender adviser positions and gender units within peacekeeping operations represented a major step and was supposed to help mainstream gender within all activities of UN missions. There are currently seven gender advisers deployed across the fifteen UN peacekeeping missions, tasked to provide strategic advice and guidance to senior leadership and management; offer technical and policy guidance to ensure gender is fully integrated into mission components across civil, military, and the police; prioritize targeted efforts to reach out to women civil societies to ensure that women’s voices are central to peace and security decisions across mission functions; and offer relevant capacity strengthening to staff and partners to guide implementation.

Unfortunately, gender advisers and efforts to incorporate gender expertise face significant challenges. UN peacekeeping missions are facing increasing budget cuts affecting all components and staff positions, and gender expertise and analysis in peacekeeping missions appear to be particularly vulnerable. In addition, the placement of the gender expertise and the focus of their work has led to their increased sidelining within missions. In an ironic twist, having gender advisers can allow other mission staff to assume that the gender expert will take care of gender, and they themselves do not have responsibility for the issue. This has the potential to aggravate silos and to prevent key sections of peacekeeping missions, including peacekeepers, to truly mainstream gender in their activities. Some argue that gender advisers have, as a result, increasingly focused their work on less strategic activities. This in turn has allowed those interested in cutting gender expertise to argue that the current gender sections have not been effective.

The case of CAR illustrates the impact of these challenges. MINUSCA, with its 12,870 armed forces present throughout the country, has a critical protection of civilians mandate that includes protection against sexual violence. In 2016, the Security Council requested that MINUSCA mainstream gender throughout its work, including through the provision of gender advisers, and also to monitor, investigate, and report on abuses committed against children and women, including rape and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict, and to provide for women affected by armed conflict through the deployment of Women Protection Advisers and Gender Advisers. The language of the Security Council is clear and aims to enable the mission with the capacities to mainstream gender through all of its work. Yet, a gap exists between the language used by the Security Council and realities on the ground.

Despite the increase in reported cases of sexual violence and abuse in CAR, gender expertise fails to be mainstreamed within MINUSCA. MINUSCA’s gender affairs unit is composed of a senior gender adviser, a post which was recently downgraded from P5 to P3 and who works with a few national staff, limited to the capital, Bangui. The downgrading of the senior gender adviser’s role in the mission to a middle-ranked P3 professional level—in lieu of the usual and highest-level of P5 for such roles—due to peacekeeping budget cuts indicates a worrying trend. At a time where gender analysis and expertise is most needed, this will certainly affect the gender adviser’s influence and leverage within the mission. Furthermore, the 2015 HIPPO report recommended that senior gender advisers be located within the office of the Special Representative for the Secretary-General (SRSG) in missions, and that the adviser report directly to the SRSG in order to ensure direct engagement with senior mission leadership. Due to the access the UN system allows to different ranks, a P3 adviser has far less capacity in decision-making and orienting senior level leaders regarding gender. Here lies the importance of training and proper recruitment within the UN. Missions often face difficulties in recruiting experienced and well-trained senior gender advisers; of the seven gender advisers currently deployed across peacekeeping missions, only three are senior. Reports indicate that downgrading has also occurred in missions in Liberia and Haiti. Worth noting as well, the senior gender adviser positions in Mali (MINUSMA) and Haiti (MINUJUSTH) remain vacant. As inevitable budgetary cuts portend additional cuts to gender expertise, investing in developing the capacity of senior gender advisers is critical if they and gender analyses are to be taken seriously. Efforts undertaken by DPKO and DFS through programs aimed at identifying properly experienced gender adviser candidates should be given adequate political and financial support, both within the UN and by UN member states.

There are numerous opportunities and developments that can reverse this trend of undermining gender expertise in UN peace operations. The Security Council’s open debate on WPS and the renewal of MINUSCA’s mandate in November will be opportunities for countries to demonstrate that their commitment stretches beyond words and into action. Continuing to inadequately address the gender dimensions in conflict, including by defunding gender adviser positions in CAR in the current context, is likely to have a long-term negative impact. Sustainable financial commitment must be dedicated to ensure that gender adviser positions within missions are not only funded, but are also given the appropriate seniority.

At the Vancouver peacekeeping defense ministerial summit, also happening in November, governments can further strengthen their commitments and pledges towards the presence of gender expertise within UN peacekeeping, especially since gender is a “crosscutting theme” of this summit. As host, Canada could take this opportunity to promote its “Gender-based analysis Plus” (GBA+) tool, which aims to integrate gender in all stages of the Canadian Armed Forces’ operations, through for example deploying gender advisers to directly counsel commanders at strategic and operational levels.

At the UN, Secretary-General Guterres’ proposed new peace operations departments aim to “maintain their respective specialized gender capacities and functions with a view to ensuring the mainstreaming of gender at all levels and in all areas of the Organization’s work.” Building on Security Council expectations, he further called for mechanisms to be put in place to “ensure the coordination of efforts, the participation of gender expertise and capacity in all mission assessments and their rapid deployment to mission and non-mission contexts at critical periods, including during transitions.” The Secretary-General’s call could not be more timely and necessary. These opportunities to make gender expertise more strategic, beyond the box-ticking exercise of adding a gender presence in missions, would improve both mission effectiveness and the lives of women and girls. The question is whether this call will result in the much-needed deployment of robust gender expertise and analysis in some of the globe’s most conflict-ravaged areas. Already in 2017, in addition to numerous cases of downgrading gender expertise and budget cuts, reports indicate that more than one DPKO technical assessment team has been deployed without gender expertise. Member states and the UN should not wait for further reforms to improve gender expertise in conflict: necessary action can be taken now, in each mission, if the political will is forthcoming.

Aïssata Athie works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.

Sarah Taylor is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute and oversees the organization’s work on women, peace, and security.