Women Peacekeepers UNOCI

Addressing Taboos and Stigmas Military Women in UN Peace Operations Experience

A group of women peacekeepers part of the former UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire march in a parade. (UN Photo/Hien Macline)

Taboos and stigmas significantly impact the deployments of military women in United Nations peace operations, forming barriers to women’s inclusion and successful deployments. Over the past two decades the UN has sought to increase the number of women uniformed peacekeepers deploying to UN peace operations. Building on 10 UN Security Council resolutions on women, peace, and security (WPS) and the recently passed resolution 2538 on women in peacekeeping, a number of initiatives have been undertaken aiming to address the underrepresentation of women in UN peace operations.

Reinforcing these initiatives, UN leadership has emphasized the importance of increasing the number of uniformed women in UN peace operations and called for strengthening of collective efforts to achieve this during countless strategic level engagements. Despite these efforts military women in particular continue to be a rarity in UN peace operations.

Military women themselves are rarely consulted on the issues underlying the gender imbalance in UN peace operations, let alone how to address them. This is in spite of the clarion call by proponents of the WPS agenda to increase uniformed women’s participation in peacekeeping. As the UN increases its efforts toward gender parity, the WPS agenda must be used to forefront women’s agency and push leadership to give more attention to women’s voices to inform policies. Understanding taboos and stigmas that military women face within national defense structures and UN peace operations are key to this.

The taboos and stigmas military women experience will be described in greater detail in a forthcoming policy paper published by the International Peace Institute. This study represents the voices of military women from 53 troop-contributing countries (TCCs)[1]—ranging in rank from private to major general—and illustrates how taboos and stigmas continue to form key barriers to achieve equal opportunity in UN peace operations.

Types of Taboos and Stigmas

Regardless of their nationality, rank, or background (religious or other), military women experience striking similarities in the type of taboos and stigmas they face during their careers. Interviews with 142 military women who are/have deployed to UN peace operations as contingent members, military observers, staff officers and/or senior mission leadership, indicated that taboos and stigmas continue to form challenges a) at the individual/community level; b) within their national defense structures; and c) within UN peace operations.

There are many common taboos and stigmas experienced by military women deploying to UN peace operations, some of which will be described below. The first is the expectation by their communities at home that women in the military are to be “more man-like and less feminine.” Simultaneously, military women are still expected to perform traditional gender roles in most cultures, such as taking care of the family and running the household. In many cases, these expectations have led to scapegoating of military women as they do not fulfill social stereotypes around femininity. This increases when women deploy.

A second is that, in several countries, communities perceive military women as “unmarriageable,” “promiscuous,” and “unreliable.” Military women state this stigma increases when they deploy, often leading to false rumors about sexual relationships with their command which would allegedly have given them the opportunity to deploy.

Another stigma experienced by military women from all 53 TCCs represented in this study was that they were made to feel like bad mothers when deploying. Single women often face the societal expectation to settle down and start a family, and are questioned about why they choose a military career and deployment.

A fourth stigma that the majority of military women interviewed for this study experience is being seen as a woman first, soldier second. They are often judged according to stereotypical social/gender roles and receive comments from their male peers and seniors that they are not committed to their career or family and are denied career progression as a result. The overt and unconscious bias that military women cannot have a career and a family is common across the world.

Military women across the world experience taboos around speaking up about equipment issues. Generally, equipment acquisition by defense forces around the globe has been based solely on male anthropometric data, despite being called unisex. This implies that equipment is sub-optimized to meet the requirements of the diverse workforce defense organizations represent today. Wearing ill-fitting “unisex” equipment is not only uncomfortable for military women, it also impacts safety, the ability to move and performance, and limits functionality and capability. It remains taboo for women to speak up about this, yet equipment issues undermine their credibility.

A widespread challenge described by military women was discriminatory and sexualized behavior, including sexism, racism, and sexual harassment and assault. These actions are common in defense structures across the world as well as UN peace operations. For example, military women are regularly confronted with inappropriate behavior, ranging from sexual jokes and stories, comments about their bodies and sexist remarks, to unwanted (sexual) touching and rape. Military women highlight that the use of alcohol and/or drugs within their national defense structures and UN peace operations aggravates these dynamics. In order not to become victims of sexual harassment and/or assault during their deployments, many women decide to isolate themselves and avoid social gatherings, especially when the use of alcohol is permitted in mission. Discriminatory and sexualized behavior against women peacekeepers often goes unaddressed due to the (perceived) absence of leadership and accountability in UN peace operations, resulting in a sense of impunity.

A related manifestation of discrimination is that of women of color experiencing racism during their deployments to UN peace operations, adding a double layer of stigma to the challenges they were confronted with for being a woman. For example, many women of color receive insulting comments and/or are openly considered as “less educated, less trained, and less able to do the job” until they prove these perceptions wrong.

Another common experience shared by military women is that they are often appointed to take on gender roles and protection focused jobs in UN peace operations, while in many cases they have not been trained for such tasks. These appointments set military women up for failure and confirm persisting negative stereotypes.

Mitigation Strategies and Support Structures

Affecting their deployments and decisions to redeploy to UN peace operations, military women use a range of mitigation strategies to address these and other taboos and stigmas. Military women deploying to UN peace operations state they work harder to prove themselves, to try to fit in with the male-dominated environment, and attempt to deconstruct the perception that female peacekeepers are less capable, weak, and vulnerable.

In some cases, military women are able to resort to informal and/or formal national or international support structures to confront the challenges they face due to taboos and stigmas. Such structures have been helpful in areas ranging from enabling activities, networking, mentoring and coaching, family support, as well as addressing inappropriate behavior and cases of sexual harassment within national defense structures and UN peace operations. Still, military women from all over the world highlight the lack and/or inadequacy of national and UN support when facing challenges pre-, during, and post-deployment. In addition to this, representing a minority in defense structures combined with the culture of silence around taboos and stigmas have prevented many military women from speaking up.

Recommendations to Address Taboos and Stigmas

As taboos and stigmas continue to impact military women pre-, during, and post-deployment, military women recommended that TCCs and the UN address these challenges in efforts to create inclusive and gender-balanced environments within UN peace operations. Furthermore, military women need to be consulted consistently in work to advance the WPS agenda.

Representing the voices of military women themselves, the following recommendations are targeted at TCCs and the UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO):

For TCCs

  • Enhance accountability for discriminatory and sexualized behavior by adopting and strengthening zero tolerance policies, and integrating accessible, reliable, and confidential structures to report and address such behavior. The immediate and direct involvement of defense leadership is crucial.
  • Strengthen education efforts and conversations on taboos and stigmas within national defense structures, involving leadership and male colleagues.
  • The number of women in national defense structures matter. Recruitment practices and retention efforts need to be reinforced, as well as initiatives to broaden developmental career pathways for military women. Greater effort is required to increase the number of military women in leadership positions at strategic, operational, and tactical levels, ensuring diversity is part of decision-making processes.
  • Enhance enabling activities available to military women, including national or international training and education opportunities, such as military staff college and peacekeeping courses.
  • Improve deployment outreach and selection, as well as procedural transparency.
  • Establish and strengthen holistic, structured, and coordinated support structures, including policies, networks, and mentoring.
  • Improve design of equipment for military women.


  • Strengthen the narrative regarding uniformed women in UN peace operations and improve proactive and strategic communication on this. A greater emphasis should be placed on operational effectiveness and meaningful participation of military women, underlining the value of having women in all roles.
  • Strengthen overall education efforts in coordination with TCCs to ensure those deploying to UN peace operations respect its inclusive values. These efforts should address overt and unconscious bias against minorities, as well as gender stereotypes within UN peace operations.
  • Design mission specific gender strategies aiming to create an inclusive, gender-sensitive, and enabling environment for male and female peacekeepers alike.
  • Strengthen engagement with TCCs to increase the deployment of military women, using incentives—including financial—as well as stricter conditions for TCCs.
  • Increase engagement with TCC leadership on various matters including performance issues, increasing the nomination and participation of military women in enabling activities, ensuring transparency of selection procedures, and respecting and enabling home leave allowance during deployments.
  • Ensure gender sensitive recruitment processes and deployment selection by removing gender-biased language and unnecessary prerequisites from job descriptions.
  • Enhance accountability for discriminatory and sexualized behavior in UN peace operations through the development and implementation of more effective approaches, policies, and joint strategies with TCCs, reinforcing zero tolerance.
  • Establish in-mission support structures for military women, including networks, mentorship programs, and mission focal points.

Moving Forward

Direct and sustained involvement of UN and TCC leadership is crucial to address the issues underlying the gender imbalance in UN peace operations. Collective efforts need to be strengthened to put words into action, following commitments made in all of the Security Council resolutions on WPS adopted since 2000, as well as the recent resolution 2538. In addition to the formal commitments—and equally important—the voices and recommendations of military women themselves need to be heard, included, and acted upon to stand a real chance of creating the gender equal and inclusive environment the UN has been striving for over the past two decades.

Dr. Lotte Vermeij is a Senior Advisor to the Norwegian Armed Forces and her work focuses on UN peace operations, WPS and Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. 
This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.

[1] For the purpose of this study the author conducted interviews with 142 military women from 53 countries; Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Egypt, Fiji, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay, and Zambia. The interviewees are currently part of or have been deployed to the following UN missions: MINURSO, MINUSCA, MINUSMA, MONUSCO, UNAMID, UNDOF, UNMOGIP, UNFICYP, UNIFIL, and UNMISS.