UNIFIL Women Peacekeepers

Women in Peacekeeping: Signs of Change at the United Nations?

The first all-female foot patrol of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon patrolling in 2017. (Pasqual Gorriz/UN PHOTO LIBRARY)

On August 28, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2538 on women and peacekeeping under the leadership of Indonesia, the latest in a series of resolutions focused on the inclusion of more women in UN peacekeeping missions. The resolution is historic for the UN, peacekeeping, and women peacekeepers in several ways.

Most notably, though it is the first standalone resolution on women in peacekeeping operations, it reads in many ways as a women, peace, and security (WPS) resolution, despite falling outside of that thematic family and being negotiated as a peacekeeping one. It is also the first resolution in Indonesia’s history of UN Security Council diplomacy. The country has been involved in advocating for previous resolutions, and mandate and sanctions extensions have been adopted under its presidency, but according to a statement by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, resolution 2538 is the first successful resolution that Indonesia has initiated.

Increasing the participation of women in peacekeeping, particularly in military and police components, has become a major aim of the UN and many member states over the past two decades. This has been driven by the women, peace, and security agenda ushered in by resolution 1325 in 2000 and pressure from civil society, activists, governments, and academics. Efforts such as the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy of the UN and the Elsie Initiative established by the Canadian government currently aim to rapidly increase the number of women in peacekeeping and dismantle barriers to their participation. While gender parity initiatives and WPS thematic resolutions have been met with considerable backlash in Security Council negotiations due to the contentious nature of certain gendered language, resolution 2538 survived as an impressively progressive text and enjoyed an incredible level of support. Indeed, it has been announced as one of just seven “presidential texts” in the Security Council’s history.

Another reason resolution 2538 is important relates to its language and the progress in thinking that was evident in negotiations during its drafting and by its passage. Historically, much of the justification for the participation of women in peacekeeping has consistently been premised on the operational effectiveness argument. This often relies on problematic stereotypes and essentializations of women being more empathetic, approachable, and peaceful than men. This view uniquely situates women in relation to local women and children, and sees women as responsible for dealing with issues such as sexual violence. It is then argued that these qualities are needed to improve the effectiveness of the mission, and women are better placed to contribute such “soft” skills. Seen through this lens, women bring “added value” to the mission, justifying their inclusion, something that is not asked of men.

The fact is, however, that most recorded abuses committed by peacekeepers, which harm the people they are supposed to protect and damage the legitimacy of the mission, are committed by men against women or girls. Despite this, a commonly cited benefit of increasing uniformed women’s participation is the expectation that this increase will lead to a decrease in instances of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by male peacekeepers. This mindset places the burden of preventing men’s misconduct on women, implying or stating that their presence and actions will keep men from committing harm, rather than focusing on men’s responsibility for their actions.

This mindset also relies on problematic gender stereotypes, placing a double burden on uniformed women: not only must they protect the host population from their male peers, but they also have a responsibility to bolster the UN’s credibility for improving missions’ image. It is far beyond professional expectations to place the burden of their male colleague’s behavior on uniformed women. It adds to existing extracurricular concerns that many uniformed women have expressed feeling on deployment, such as a common perception that the actions of one woman represent the actions of all women, the stereotype that women on deployment are sexualized distractions rather than fellow soldiers, or the idea that only women can address “gender issues,” regardless of whether or not they are gender experts.

Such a problematic basis for women’s participation in peacekeeping, which tends to mention their right to engage in the same important work as men as an afterthought, has been thoroughly deconstructed and criticized by a wide range of (primarily feminist) scholarship. This work has noted that the official rhetoric tends to ignore the social construction of gender, pigeonholing women into certain roles on the basis of their gender (often in combination with their race or nationality) rather than their skills as professionals.

It also neglects that men also have a gender identity and have the capacity to be empathetic and cooperative, while perpetuating a binary view of gender. Empirical research has demonstrated the complexity and nuances of gender in peacekeeping contexts, and the pitfalls of neglecting the important constitutive roles of masculinity and militarism in defining and organizing peacekeeping. However, these critiques have so far not had a significant impact on UN rhetoric or policy.

The use of and reliance on such stereotypes in official discourse and during negotiations has long been an issue, but the process of resolution 2538’s drafting could be a sign of change. As reporting on the resolution’s drafting demonstrates, some of the original, stereotypical language about women in peacekeeping—e.g., referring to the “female peacekeeper’s indispensable role” in community relations and protection—was changed under pressure from the Dominican Republic and several European states—presumably Belgium, Estonia, and/or Germany, as they are current members. While the new language still focuses on operational effectiveness, it no longer discusses sexual exploitation and abuse as a problem intrinsically connected to women peacekeepers, and relates increasing the effectiveness of community engagement and protection and improving the credibility of the mission to the balance of women and men, not directly to the presence of women. The final draft also removed language advanced by Russia that noted the importance for women, but not men, to be qualified in order to be appointed to leadership roles in missions.

The final resolution had a total of 97 co-sponsoring countries, including all fifteen Security Council members. Contrasted against the chaotic history of many of the WPS resolutions, it is interesting that a key component of the WPS agenda—addressing uniformed women’s participation in peace operations—enjoyed unanimous support in the Security Council upon its finalization. Much of this can be attributed to Indonesia’s hard work as a “bridge-builder,” which is certainly a positive example of middle power diplomacy in the Security Council.

The strategic choice to negotiate a women-centric resolution outside of the ten existing WPS resolutions is also noteworthy. Particularly given that the resolution is devoted to women’s participation in (and right to deploy to) military and police structures and faced relatively little backlash, while just last year, the United States threatened to veto a WPS resolution that aimed to protect women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. Nevertheless, the substance that the Security Council was able to retain in the negotiation process is impressive, given the expectation of compromise for a unanimously adopted resolution.

As discussed above, the resolution is impressively progressive in certain key ways. Given how heavily initiatives to increase women’s uniformed participation have relied on gendered stereotypes until now, a resolution that instead emphasizes cooperation, collaboration, and understanding among peacekeepers of any gender is a welcome shift. Likewise, situating this resolution within the peacekeeping agenda, rather than explicitly in WPS, may have allowed for deeper discussion among member states during negotiations, and certainly allowed Indonesia to lessen old-school gender stereotyping in the final text.

While a small step in rhetoric, there appears to be growing recognition at high levels that the standard arguments about women in peacekeeping need to be altered to reflect a more nuanced understanding of gender and to not reinforce gendered stereotypes that do little to challenge the masculine culture of the military and peacekeeping. Alongside this new resolution, current research projects on gender in peacekeeping—funded by the Elsie Initiative and other bodies—that take a somewhat more critical stance, provide welcome signs of change at the UN and among member states. It is too early to say if this signals a broader change in approach, but it is a step in the right direction.

Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies, and Senior Research Officer at the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security at Dalhousie University. He tweets at @WarAndCoffee.

Gretchen Baldwin is a Senior Policy Analyst for the International Peace Institute’s WPS program. Her research primarily focuses on uniformed women in UN peace operations. She tweets at @gretchenbaldwin.

This article expands upon a blog post by Dustin Johnson on the University of Gothenburg’s “School of Blogal Studies.”