An Overview of Gender Equality in Peacekeeping: The United Nations’ Approach

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This is a two-part series that introduces the approach and implementation of gender equality in peacekeeping. This Part I explores the theoretical and normative framework adopted by the United Nations (UN), while Part II will examine the gap between the proliferation of norms and guidelines presented in the first article, and their implementation in field operations.

On the international scene, the UN has undeniably played a leading role in the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights since its creation in 1945. Indeed, not only has it introduced a new emancipatory human rights discourse; it has also provided a platform for interaction and cooperation (Kabasakal, 2015), ultimately fostering political change. Most importantly, the UN has made gender equality a primary issue in development, economic and social matters as well as security and peacekeeping. However, the persistent inequality, discrimination and violence faced by women globally are a reminder of the long road to promoting gender equality in international policy-making and call for an assessment of the United Nation’s approach to promoting it. Due to the UN’s large scope of action in various fields, this article focuses on peacekeeping operation as it brings both normative and practical perspective on this issue.

First and foremost, the first attempts at promoting gender equality undertaken by the UN focused on access to equal political rights and representations for women. By the mid-1970s, the scope of issues addressed for the promotion of gender equality expanded in an effort to reflect the growing complexities of the international community. From 1976 to 1985 the ‘UN Decade for Women’ organised several conferences focusing on different aspects of gender inequality. Held in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985), they addressed topics such as women’s issues and development (Klemesrud, 1975), securing women’s representation in all national and local legislative bodies (United Nations, 1985) and presenting women as putative agents in policy-making.

Since the mid-1990s, the strategy for promoting gender equality has predominantly been led by the pairing of gender mainstreaming and gender-balanced decision making (Krook and True, 2010). They have encouraged the development of a normative framework of conventions, norms, declarations, treaties, reports and seminars addressing women’s rights (Kabasakal, 2015). It was during the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 that gender mainstreaming was officially introduced as the leading strategy in “international policing, economic, humanitarian (and) development bodies of the UN” (Charlesworth, 2005, p.2). The ECOSOC defined it as

“the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels.  It is a strategy for making women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated” (United Nations, 1997).

The adoption of gender mainstreaming in all departments seems encouraging as we move beyond the scope of political representation and supposedly tackle gender inequalities in every sphere. Additionally, the introduction of intersectionality – the analytical tool “for studying, understanding and responding to the ways in which gender intersects with other identities and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of oppression and privilege” (Symington 2004, pp.1-2) – as a reinforcing mechanism to gender mainstreaming makes us hopeful for a more holistic approach to gender inequality.

This concerns not only victims of conflict, but also female peacekeepers.

In the field of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, it is fundamental to understand the role and experiences of women and in what ways they differ from those of men. This concerns not only victims of conflict, but also female peacekeepers.

The principal concern over gender in peacebuilding revolves around the vulnerability of women during conflict. Women are particularly at risk with the increasing use of sexualised violence as an instrument of warfare (Mazurana, 2005), but can also suffer more in the economic, social, and political spheres. In the context of conflict, informal economies often become the only means of survival which forces many women and girls into servitude and sexual exploitation, whilst their predominance in certain basic activities such as fetching water and market trading leads to a radical decrease in schooling among women (Mazurana, 2005). Nevertheless, women are also crucial actors in peacebuilding. Indeed, as active social economic agents, they play an essential role in grassroots initiatives to either “end intra-state violence or facilitate reconstruction processes” (Gizelis, 2009, p.507). Moreover, in her analysis, Theodora Gizelis (2009) also underlines the potential of women-led initiatives because of their position and social value within the community which makes them essential to rebuilding and reconciliation processes.

As a result, five key documents have been adopted to promote initiatives on women and girls in armed conflict (Mazurana, 2005, p.8): the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women (1985), the Vienna Declaration Programme for Action (1993), the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and the Windhoek Declaration and the Namibia Plan of Action on Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective on Multidimensions Peace Support Operations (2000). These initiatives aim to promote the protection of women and children during conflict and advocated for the association of women’s rights as fundamental human rights. Despite increasing awareness regarding women’s issues during conflict, by the 1990s there was still a tendency to collapse women and children in a single category, ultimately reducing women to “their roles as mother and caregivers” (Mazurana, 2005, p.8).

[T]here has been progress on the normative level which is encouraging as gender issues are increasingly becoming part of global governance and central to policy-making.

Nevertheless, in 2000 the UNSCR 1325 constituted a ground-breaking milestone in the pursuit of gender equality. It entails a double sensitivity towards gendered violence as well as gender inequalities (Shepherd, 2011, p.504) whilst also being legally binding, thus requiring  a commitment on its implementation both at the national and international level. Most importantly, this Resolution acknowledges the role of women as essential actors in peacebuilding, recognising “their equal participation and full involvement” in all related activities (UNSC, 2000). Similarly, UNSCR 1820, also strengthens actions against sexualised violence whilst stressing the importance of including women-led organisations in decision-making processes. The following year, UNSCR 1888 also inscribes women’s agency and roles in the normative framework by presenting women as indispensable actors to “build a security sector that is accessible and responsive to all” (UNSC, 2008). Finally, the preamble of Resolution 1889 (2009) is almost exclusively devoted to women's activities in conflict, conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction (Shepherd, 2011, p. 515).

Overall, there has been progress on the normative level which is encouraging as gender issues are increasingly becoming part of global governance and central to policy-making. However, scholars have raised significant issues with gender mainstreaming and the initiatives taken to tackle gender inequality (Charlesworth, 2005, p.11; Kabasakal, 2015).  In Susan Willett’s words: “[g]ender mainstreaming is effective in the preparatory phase of programming and planning, but less so in the implementation and monitoring phase” (Willett, 2010, p.149). These mixed effects are illustrated by mild increases or stagnation in numbers where gender-balancing strategies are involved, on the one hand; and a lack of intersectionality in their approach as the exclusive focus on women (Krook and True, 2010, p.112) ignores structural inequalities like race and class. Finally, in the case of peacekeeping, the transformation on the normative level has certainly been crucial to addressing issues such as sexualised violence; however, it remains to be seen how these initiatives are implemented in field operations.

Milena Reig-Amette is a student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po Paris. Follow her on Instagram: @milena_reig

List of references:

Charlesworth, H. (2005). Not waving but drowning: Gender mainstreaming and human rights in the United Nations. Harvard Human Rights Journal 18: 1 – 14.

Gizelis, T. (2009). Gender Empowerment and United Nations Peacebuilding. Journal of Peace Research 46 (4):  505 - 523, 507.

Kabasakal, Z. (2015). Feminisms, Women's Rights, and the UN: Would Achieving Gender Equality Empower Women? American Political Science Review. 109 (4): 674-689.

Klemesrud, J. (1975). International Women’s Year World Conference Opening in Mexico [Online]. The New York Times. [Accessed 5 April 2018].

Krook, M. L. and J. True. (2010). Rethinking the life cycles of international norms: The United Nations and the global promotion of gender equality. European Journal of International Relations 18 (1): 103 – 127.  

Mazurana, D.; Raven-Roberts, A.;  Parpart, J.; and Lautze, S. (2005). Introduction. In.: Mazurana, D.; Raven-Roberts, A.; and Parpart, J.. Gender, Conflict, and Peacekeeping. Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Shepherd, L. (2011). Sex, Security and Superhero: From 1325 to 1820 and Beyond. International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (4): 504 – 521.

Symington, A. (2004). Intersectionality: a tool for gender and economic justice. Women’s Rights and Economic Change [Online]. 9: 1 – 8.

United Nations (1985). Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies. [Accessed 29 March 2018].

United Nations, General Assembly (1997).  Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997, A/52/3 (18 September 1997). [Accessed 18 March 2018].

United Nations Security Council (UNSC). (2000). ‘Resolution 1325’, S/RES/1325. [Accessed 2 April 2018].

United Nations Security Council (UNSC). (2008). Resolution 1820’, S/RES/1820. [Accessed 2 April 2018].

Willett, S. (2010). Introduction: Security Council Resolution 1325: Assessing the Impact on Women, Peace and Security.  International Peacekeeping 17 (2): 142-158.

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