Research shows that uniformed women face myriad challenges that form barriers to their equal and meaningful participation. The assumptions and biases underlying these barriers influence policies, decision-making, and organizational culture in national security institutions, at United Nations (UN) headquarters, and in field missions. They negatively affect uniformed women’s experiences as peacekeepers, as well as peacekeepers’ gendered interactions with host communities where they are patrolling, and the overall operational effectiveness of missions.
In 2021, the UN unveiled A4P+, the 2021-2023 Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) implementation strategy. In signing onto the A4P Declaration of Shared Commitments, 154 member states have pledged to increase the numbers of uniformed women in peacekeeping. While some progress has been made toward uniformed gender parity targets, it has been modest and uneven. The UN, in its implementation of A4P+, must address the heavily masculine, exclusionary, and militarized structures which too often preclude women (and anyone outside of a very particular gendered profile) from deploying.
Within A4P+, gender is no longer siloed into WPS commitments. Rather, a gender analysis is applied throughout its seven priority areas. A4P+ presents an opportunity to address the exclusionary structures that have been made innate to peace operations until this point by mainstreaming “gender as a cross-cutting mode of analysis.” In a policy brief recently published by DCAF, we examined the major commitments made toward achieving gender parity and other WPS priorities in UN peacekeeping and what more can be done.
Assessing the Barriers
A4P+ calls on all stakeholders involved in peace operations to develop “common political strategies” and use their political leverage to achieve shared goals. The widespread support of both the A4P Declaration of Shared Commitments—with its WPS priorities—and UNSCR 2538 on women in peacekeeping is an example of the strong political backing that efforts to increase women’s participation currently enjoy. However, despite these initiatives’ popularity, a continued over-reliance on gendered stereotypes can lead to gender work being siloed or barriers to participation going unchallenged. Too often, the burden of change falls to individual women, often-overworked gender experts, or a few key leaders. This personality-dependent and impermanent strategy means the necessary financial and institutional support is rarely sustained for changes to take hold in the medium- and long-term.
Steps that member states—especially WPS champions—can take include implementing the Measuring Opportunities for Women in Peace Operations barrier assessment in their national armed forces, supporting policy research aimed at increasing and improving women’s meaningful participation in peace operations, and ensuring that uniformed women’s voices are included in policy processes and research. To set an example for member states that are considering completing the barrier assessment, early adherents should be transparent about the process and outcomes, even if the assessment reveals less-than-ideal aspects of a security institution.
A4P+ highlights the need to incorporate gender data and expertise across missions’ planning, reporting, and monitoring. Data indicate that uniformed women serve important roles in missions’ operational effectiveness, but those assessments fall short of the detailed gender analysis that is needed.
UN peacekeeping has made some progress in gendered data collection practices. Systems like SAGE and CPAS collect data that differentiates how men, women, boys, and girls are affected by conflict events and UN activities. However, gaps do exist. For example, the UN does not collect data on peacekeeping patrols’ gender composition, making it difficult to track uniformed women’s roles and contributions to mission mandates, as well as host communities’ gendered experiences and perceptions of peacekeepers. Likewise, SAGE could be used to track sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) incidents, which could lead to greater accountability for perpetrators and improved UN credibility.
Integration of gender data and expertise throughout peacekeeping missions requires un-siloing gender expertise and collecting gender-disaggregated data across all substantive aspects of UN peacekeeping—from supporting political processes and protecting civilians, to human rights, disaster risk reduction, SEA, and the mission’s gender composition.
Capabilities and Changing Mindsets
Key to building equitable and sustainable institutions are racial and gender bias trainings and ensuring that the integration of gender does not reinforce the harmful idea that “gender equals women.”
Using the words “gender” and “women” as synonymous is harmful in UN peacekeeping for two key reasons. First, women are consistently asked to do “gender work” that they may not be trained for. Not all women are gender experts or want to do gender work. Second, men also have gender identities and gendered experiences. Without expanding the UN-wide understanding of gender to include men and gender non-conforming people, gender will continue to be reduced to a “women’s issue.” This risks hindering efforts to mainstream gender across peacekeeping activities and concealing differences and similarities in peacekeepers’ experiences.
Uniformed women are frequently assigned roles—or kept from roles—based on their gender. A dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” skills, which are broadly associated with masculine and feminine characteristics, respectively, exists within security institutions. Masculinized “hard skills”—like weapons training and driving—are often valued above feminized “soft skills”—like interviewing, interpersonal communication, cultural sensitivity—which are often left to uniformed women with the false assumption that they innately possess these abilities. Research shows that military and police leadership and trainings should value soft skills in all personnel.
Accountability to Peacekeepers and Accountability of Peacekeepers
A4P+ acknowledges the importance of safety and security for peacekeepers and emphasizes accountability for crimes against them. It also refers to UN peacekeeping’s increased accountability to member states and host communities around SEA of host community members.
However, there has been a persistent gap when it comes to strengthening accountability to and for peacekeepers who face threats from their fellow peacekeepers. Experiences with sexual harassment and abuse (SHA) can preclude uniformed women from deploying or redeploying. Indeed, everyone on the gender spectrum can be vulnerable to SHA, particularly in military institutions, and these threats can erode congeniality and trust within contingents.
Despite the “open secret” of SHA by peacekeepers, leadership responses, accountability mechanisms, and reporting opportunities fall woefully short, and the burden of systemic change is often placed directly on women. In some cases, it has been expected that women can and should reduce rates of SEA or that their presence will hold male peers accountable.
UN leadership must create an environment that doles out consequences for sexual harassment without risk of reprisal for those reporting. This includes strengthening reporting mechanisms, screening out known perpetrators from deployment selection, destigmatizing reporting around male-on-male sexual violence, and ensuring that both internal (fellow peacekeepers) and external (members of the host community) reporting is available to all genders. Finally, missions should double down on existing efforts to ensure that camp design and layout enhance “working, living, and security conditions” for women personnel.
Research has shown that gender-specific communications can help overcome stereotypes and change gender norms, address certain issues related to gender-based violence, and promote women’s participation in political or public life. To do so, missions should illustrate uniformed men and women in “non-gendered” roles, highlight their non-gendered contributions to mandate implementation, and convey zero-tolerance for sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment.
To ensure all communication is gender-sensitive, missions should differentiate their target audiences by gender, take account of differences in access, undertake disaggregated perception surveys and evaluation, represent women and men equally, and portray women in a variety of roles, not as victims.
Strategic communication to change gender norms appears to be most effective when it includes a diverse range of stakeholders—including men and boys and community leaders—in two-way communication that creates opportunities for peer learning, discussion, and perhaps engaging with changes in gender norms that are already occurring in the host community.
In order to realize people-centric peacekeeping, all members of host communities must be able to formally provide input into mission activities. Missions should avoid perpetuating the “victim-perpetrator” binary and recognize the agency of communities as partners.
In the case of UN peacekeeping’s gendered community engagement patrols, community input is sporadic and often dependent on contingent leadership, the troop-contributing country, and the specialized trainings patrol teams have received. As the Office of Military Affairs rolls out its engagement platoons guidance and trainings, simultaneous community input will be essential to ensure that uniformed peacekeeping activities are responsive to the whole-of-community needs.
All trainings for uniformed personnel can better integrate gender. Peacekeepers need to understand the gendered dimensions of conflict and have the basic skills to constructively engage with all community members
Within the seven A4P+ priority areas, there is an opportunity to better integrate gender as a cross-cutting issue and address barriers facing uniformed women in UN peace operations. Next steps should include identifying which responsibilities sit with the secretariat and which sit with member states, as well as continuing to evaluate progress and gaps on these issues. The secretariat must also provide member states with clear implementation guidance for integrating gender across all A4P+ priority areas.
Addressing the heavily masculinized and exclusionary structures that exist in UN peacekeeping requires a transformative approach. All member states committing to A4P+ should vocally and consistently consider gender in every priority area, without foisting the responsibility for developing gender-sensitive institutions solely on women peacekeepers. In particular, “WPS Champions” should demonstrate progress, be transparent about challenges, and share lessons with other member states on how to overcome these challenges.
This article is based on a recent policy brief published by the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF).
Gretchen Baldwin is Research Fellow in the WPS program at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Jake Sherman was Senior Director of Programs at IPI at the time of writing.