Women Peacekeepers MINUSCA

Beyond “Women and Children”: Gendered Community Engagement Strategies in UN Peace Operations

Women peacekeepers part of the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) on patrol in Bangui. (UN Photo/Herve Serefio)

Practitioners and advocates have made the call for uniformed women’s increased participation in United Nations peace operations as a central feature of the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda’s implementation. The UN Security Council is expected to include a woman peacekeeper as a briefer in this month’s Open Debate on WPS alongside the traditional civil society briefer, indicating that the Council recognizes uniformed women as central to implementing the WPS agenda. As their participation increases, it is critical to elevate uniformed women’s voices, which includes inviting them to have input in the research and policies that affect them, particularly when evaluating uniformed women’s role(s) in UN missions’ operational effectiveness and community engagement. How can this be done without reducing uniformed women to their gender identity alone or erasing uniformed men’s responsibility to also engage with local communities?

Uniformed women in peace operations are especially seen as critical for accomplishing missions’ community engagement goals, and the UN has emphasized that they play an important role in engaging local women and children. Two tactics for carrying out gendered community engagement strategies currently in use at UN missions are Female Engagement Teams (FETs) and mixed-gender engagement platoons. The section of Security Council resolution 2538 which highlights community engagement follows a recent trend in military peace operations to utilize FETs. FETs  as we now know them originated with the United States military’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early-2000s. Engagement teams—groups of four military peacekeepers deployed on patrols into local communities—have been used in UN peace operations only recently, and the actual number of uniformed women peacekeepers deployed with these teams is fairly low (exact numbers are unknown).

Nevertheless, the UN’s Office of Military Affairs (OMA) has determined that peace operations should formally move from FETs to mixed-gender platoons. The latest (January 2020) edition of the United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual (UNIBAM) seeks to clarify the make-up and goals of the tactical units used to achieve missions’ strategic community engagement goals. Efforts to implement the mixed-gender engagement platoons through coordinated trainings have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but OMA nevertheless intends to implement a pilot training in 2020.

Understanding the historical use of FETs in peacekeeping will be critical as the UN standardizes its approach to and justification for using engagement platoons, particularly to address gendered protection concerns.

FETs in UN Missions

Female engagement teams are made up of only uniformed women—though there has been some debate over the definition—and they represent only one role of many that women play in peace operations’ military components. They are “tactical sub-sub-units,” and as such, FETs are not a strategy to meet the numerical targets laid out in the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy. In its call for community engagement in peacekeeping, resolution 2538 names “the establishment of mixed [gender] engagement teams” as one means to achieving the “full, effective, and meaningful participation of women.”

Currently, there are a number of instances of troop-contributing countries (TCCs) deploying women but only assigning them on-base roles, so those women are effectively invisible beyond their barracks and offices. Therefore, for some missions—particularly those with protection of civilians mandates—engagement teams, mixed-gender or otherwise, add value at least in part by including uniformed women in off-base activities, making them visible to host populations.

The length of time the UN has been using FETs in peacekeeping is difficult to assess because they became part of the UN system on the initiative of individual TCCs, and there is no official UN policy on them. While there is no definitive evidence of when the first FET was formed, early interviews indicate that a FET formed by uniformed Zambian women at the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in 2016 may have been the first. Even now, FETs often lack a clear structure or defined, standardized capabilities. Instead, they continue to be formed on an ad hoc basis, often at the mission level, after troops have been trained and deployed.

Reporting appears to be inconsistent and mission-dependent, and even when reports on FET activities are filed, the lessons learned therein are not necessarily institutionalized, according to a former military gender advisor. According to women who have deployed with engagement teams, uniformed men sometimes patrol with FETs, but with a mandate to protect the uniformed women rather than sharing the team’s primary community engagement goals. This sort of situation can actually exacerbate existing gender stereotypes and reinforce essentialist images of what men and women soldiers can and should do, respectively.

The publicized roles of FETs across various missions include improving the image of TCCs in host countries, information gathering, and improving local women’s access to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) reporting, among other things. While enabling gender-responsive, diverse engagement teams has its positives, the perennial problem of “gender” being equated to “women”—rather than representing the whole range of gendered experiences in communities—persists. This has a dual effect of essentializing women and erasing men as also being gendered members of both peace operations and the communities within which peace operations function. When uniformed women are used to connect to “womenandchildren,” but peacekeepers are not also sensitized to the unique, gendered protection and engagement needs of men in host communities, UN peace operations are ultimately not considering the full range of a community’s needs, nor are they considering the interrelated protection concerns of community members. Likewise, women peacekeepers can be then relegated to “traditionally female” roles, regardless of their training.

Currently, there is a recognized over-emphasis both in gender-responsive protection and the WPS agenda’s protection pillar on defining “protection” as protection against CRSV, which includes not recognizing CRSV against men and boys and needing to expand definitions of gender-based violence more broadly, both of which would lead to a fuller recognition of community protection needs. Finally, research has shown that peacekeepers’ relationships with local communities is context-specific, and that “determinants such as race, language familiarity, and respect for local culture” are important regardless of peacekeepers’ gender.

Mixed-Gender or Women-Only?

As the UN slowly integrates the move from ad hoc FETs to specially trained, mixed-gender platoons, the fact remains that little is known—even by seasoned researchers of peace operations and the WPS agenda—about the historical and current use of FETs and other gendered engagement strategies in peacekeeping. Because, according to early interviews carried out for research for the International Peace Institute, the decisions at mission-level to deploy FETs are not linked to the policy decisions at UN headquarters, it is unclear whether there is a UN-wide rationale for moving from FETs to a mixed-gender model. All too often, policies which center gender are built from a small body of anecdotal evidence, or from binary, essentialist assumptions about gender. As many have pointed out, including Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre LaCroix, there is still a dearth of data on WPS, particularly women’s participation in UN peace operations. As such, UN decision makers would do well to be cautious about arguing that any intervention is based in hard, cross-mission data.

Going forward, those decision makers integrating and implementing the WPS agenda in peace operations should move beyond a hyper-focus on a few very particular goals (e.g., “participation by the numbers” and protection against sexual violence as a centerpiece of the agenda) and into a broader understanding of gendered engagement. These decision makers, especially when integrating uniformed women into peace operations, should be working at all times to “transform gender-biased institutions without reinforcing gender stereotypes.” Why is it assumed that local women need to be “engaged” with, but not local men? Which stereotypes does this assumption grow from, and can these assumptions actually be harmful to missions’ effectiveness? For example, a blanket assumption that local women will be willing to speak freely with and provide only useful information to uniformed, gun-toting, UN-employed women considers only a common gender identity, rather than recognizing that numerous other factors may play into local women’s willingness to speak to uniformed foreigners, or that local women might have their own political ends in mind and therefore could strategically release only certain information or false intelligence.

The move toward mixed-gender units has the potential to increase the UN’s operational effectiveness, uniformed women’s substantive participation, and responses to gendered protection needs in host communities. However, this move does not yet seem to recognize the social importance of engaging local men as well as local women and recognizing women as independent political actors with agency. The WPS agenda does provide us with language that can dissolve the binaries that see women as the only civilians worthy of being engaged with, which will ultimately mean increased safety for all community members. In order for mixed-gender units to actually have an impact on gendered protection of the whole community, they will need to be mandated to understand victimhood, gendered community needs, and gender-based violence more broadly than FETs typically have.

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 is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.