Would more female soldiers improve UN peacekeeping missions?

With women only making up 3 percent of peacekeepers, the United Nations is ramping up efforts to add more to its operations as a way to combat violence and abuse by its troops. 

Ali Hashish/Reuters/File
Italian UN peacekeepers stand as honor guards during a visit by Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata to the Italian United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

When Carla Daniel, a Brazilian Naval officer, arrived in Lebanon last year, she found that her presence posed an unexpected logistical challenge to the UN peacekeeping mission there. 

On a ship of 263 troops, Lieutenant Commander Daniel was the only woman, and no one had bothered to figure out where she was supposed to go to the bathroom. 

To fix the problem, she was given a sign — a frilly thing, she says, featuring an icon of a woman in a bright pink dress — and whenever she went into the officers’ restroom, she hung it outside to let passerbys know she was inside. 

“When you’re the only woman, there are eyes on you from everywhere,” Ms. Daniel says. “It’s as if everyone is watching to see if you can do everything they can.” 

Among the three-dozen women gathered here over the past two weeks to train as UN peacekeepers — one of the first such programs in the world — Daniel’s experience is hardly unique. 

From Haiti to the Central African Republic, from Kosovo to Darfur, women make up just 3 percent of the 105,000 troops in the UN’s 16 peacekeeping operations. That proportion has barely changed over the last 15 years, despite UN resolutions  and pledges from member states to make their peacekeeping brigades more equitable.  

For the UN, the dearth of female soldiers extends all the way from support staff and combat troops up to the highest echelons of leadership — just 65 of the 1,757 military experts stationed on UN peacekeeping operations are women.

But now, amid fresh scrutiny over allegations that UN peacekeepers have raped women and children in the Central African Republic (CAR) and failed to properly investigate sexual assault within their own operations, the organization is redoubling its effort to deploy more female peacekeepers, under a simple if largely untested theory: More women means less violence. And less violence means more successful peacekeeping operations. 

“In general, women are inclined to nurture life rather than destroy it,” says Nozipho January-Bardill, a senior special advisor to UN Women. “We lose out, just as we do in the boardroom and the highest ranks of government, when we don’t have women’s perspectives alongside men’s.” 

Women on the ground 

Ms. January-Bardill’s view is shared by many of the 39 mid-ranking female military officers from 23 countries who joined this month's training at a South African military college. Their 10-day course covered the history and structure of the UN, its humanitarian operations, and its peacekeeping mandate. They role-played interviews with victims of sexual violence and gamed out strategies for interacting with communities recovering from rebel attacks.

The idea, organizers say, was to graduate a group of women ready to step into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis zones — Darfur, CAR, South Sudan — and help steer them out. 

Several participants came from previous peacekeeping deployments, where they say their presence often acted as a kind of reality check for male soldiers caught up in the infectious machismo of military operations. And gender also frequently worked in their favor when interacting with vulnerable local communities like children and victims of sexual assault. 

“In the field, I’ve always been the one called upon to work with local women — they trusted me more,” says Major Khadessa Sy of the Senegalese Army, who has been on UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. “I was naturally more well liked [by locals] than many of my [male] colleagues.” 

Using women for specific campaigns has worked in the past, the UN says. In post-civil war Liberia, for instance, a highly-visible all-female UN police force from India patrolled the streets and guarded the presidential palace. The UN says their presence helped drive down the instance of sexual assault by peacekeepers against locals there.   

A piece of the puzzle 

There is little information beyond the anecdotal, however, for how women change peacekeeping operations, says Cheryl Hendricks, the head of the politics department at the University of Johannesburg who studies women in peacekeeping operations. 

“I’m worried about the argument that’s often brought up that we should have more women in peacekeeping operations because they’re inherently more peaceful or more nurturing,” she says. “That shifts the burden onto women to justify their presence in the security sector, rather than giving them access simply because, like anyone else, they have a right to be involved.” 

For Rachel Grimes, a major in the British Army with extensive experience in conflict zones, training women to be more effective peacekeepers is only a piece of the puzzle. 

“I think it’s equally important to have men involved in conversations about gender and peacekeeping,” she says. “Honestly, women know a lot of this intuitively — it’s the men who need to be reminded.”

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