An Overview of Gender Equality in Peacekeeping: Norm versus Implementation

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

The United Nations’ (UN) normative framework promoting gender equality in peacekeeping and addressing gender issues during conflict and post-conflict situations has further developed in the past decades. However, there is a fundamental gap between norms and provisions, and their application in field operations particularly regarding women’s representation and in cases of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).

Firstly, under-representation of women in peacekeeping is still striking. Indeed, despite initiatives such as the UN Policy Directive on Gender Equality in Peacekeeping Operations (2006) and the “Guidelines for Integrating a Gender Perspective into the Work of the United Nations in Peacekeeping Operations” (2010), the goals set by these initiatives remain largely unmet by 2013 (Dharmapuri, 2013, p.9-10). In 2013, women still represented less than 4% of UN peacekeepers globally, 3% of UN military personnel, and 9.7% of UN police (Dharmapuri, 2013, p.1) . The gap becomes even greater when looking at women in decision-making positions.  In 60 years of UN peacekeeping (1949 – 2009), only seven women have been special representatives to the Secretary-General (Pampell-Conaway and Shoemaker, 2008), while in 2008, UNIFEM noted women’s absence from formal peace negotiation processes (Goetz, 2008) with only 1.2% of signatories to peace agreements being women and the complete absence of women as chief negotiators in 13 cases (Willett, 2010, p.151). Finally, less than 40 women have been heads of mission and deputy heads of mission between 1992 and 2013 (Dharmapuri, 2013, p.4), and by 2015, only  15 percent of missions had a woman deputy (UN Women, 2015, p.1), and only 19 percent of missions were headed by a woman. Unfortunately, these inequalities are broadly reflected in the whole of the UN system (Charlesworth, 2005). Gender balancing practices need to not only take into account the inclusion of women in every field, but also their equal access to decision-making positions.

What these facts tell us is that by merely integrating women in institutions and fields dominated by sexist and patriarchal dynamics, power relations remain unchanged, and, thus, inequalities persist (see Tickner, 1992, p.94; Willett, 2010, p.145). Willett (2010) pertinently points out that the perpetuation of discrimination and abuse that is an inherent part of these institutions, makes women reluctant to join. This is even more so in the male-dominated military realm where gender roles are exacerbated, and female inclusion prevented.

Secondly, the persistence of SEA cases by UN peacekeepers during their missions illustrates the prevalence of gendered power relations and the limitations of gender mainstreaming. Between 2003 and 2006, 358 military personnel were investigated after allegations of SEA were made, accusations which included sex with minors, employment for sex, sexual assault and rape (Grady, 2010, p.218). Moreover, just between January and July 2017, 55 peacekeepers were accused of SEA of civilians across UN missions with over 33 allegations involving 37 survivors, including 6 children (Essa, 2017). What is particularly alarming in these cases, beyond the act itself, is that they reflect that the provided regulation and trainings on the prevention of SEA are not adapted or efficient. As a matter of fact, Willett (2010) notes that the inquiry held after the 2005 MONUC sex scandal - a case that consists of over 155 staff who faced accusations of “organised prostitution, abuse and exploitative sexual relations” (Willett, 2010, p.152) - was obstructed by commanders. The report following the subsequent inquiry held by Office Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse states that there was a general “climate of suspicion” (Dahrendorf, 2006, p.4) and insists that senior managers - such as contingent commanders - initially downplayed, or even ignored allegations and rumors of SEA cases and were then “defensive” (Dahrendorf, 2006, p.10)  and reluctant to cooperate during the investigation.

Ultimately, these cases have very serious and long-lasting implications for local communities and the UN in general.  On the one hand, Kate Grady (2010) rightly argues that these abuses jeopardise the principle of impartiality, and thus the legitimacy not only of the UN, but of peacekeeping in general. Ultimately, it works against the efforts to establish humanitarian norms and the fostering of cooperation for the protection of human rights worldwide, undertaken by the UN through the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) norm, for example. Ultimately,

“by taking part in the sex trade, peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers support economies that maintain instability in the region, perpetuate abuses of women’s, girls’ and boys’ human rights, further entrench systems of inequality and exploitation, and, thus, thwart a return to real peace and human security” (Mazurana, 2005).

On the other hand, cases of SEA in peacekeeping missions illustrate the persistence of misogynist attitudes and rape culture at the individual, national, and, therefore, international level. These attitudes seem to be so entrenched in social norms and behaviours that, despite the effort on the rhetorical and normative level, gender issues are not addressed in practice to the extent that international missions and initiatives even provide opportunities for more abuses.

These cases expose a number of fundamental issues that need to be addressed in a serious, pragmatic and committed manner. First, the persistence of patriarchal structures, culture and behaviour is still a major challenge. While Sahana Dharmapuri (2013) makes the same claim in regard to the security sector by pointing out the incidence of social norms and biases, this factor is arguably the most preeminent and ultimately stems from the limitations of the liberal feminism approach adopted by the UN. Indeed, while liberal feminism advocates for integrating women in political, social and economic institutions; to bring gender inequality to an end, it does not address the multi-dimensionality and complexity of gendered power relations. With patriarchy and sexism primarily stemming from, and reproduced by, socialisation processes and by the governing system, gender inequality needs to be addressed both in the socio-cultural as well as political and institutional spheres. Second and third wave feminist perspectives are particularly valuable in this context as they put forward the value of intersectionality to identify the contingent dynamics of oppression that are both strengthened by and foster gender inequality. Tackling patriarchal structures entails a deconstruction of the binary opposition and conceptualisation of women and men through which the former is linked to motherhood and vulnerability and the latter to protectors and policy-makers (Willett, 2010).

[G]ender balancing practices not only needs to take into account the inclusion of women in every field, but also their equal access to decision-making positions.

The second barrier that needs to be overcome is related to political will and the elusiveness of gender mainstreaming’s implications and other core concepts. Indeed, the general consensus among scholars is that there is “a lack of political will to take gender seriously” (Puechguirbal, 2010, p.183; Kabasakal, 2015; Dharmapuri, 2013; Charlesworth, 2005) and ultimately to see the implementation of the legislation. This is partly due to the absence of a “lead agency within the UN tasked with implementing 1325” (Willett, 2010, p.143) ultimately resulting in the lack of accountability. Also, a factor contributing or more accurately enabling this “unaccountability” is the elusiveness of what gender mainstreaming entails. Indeed, arguably this strategy has both a too broad and too narrow definition (Charlesworth, 2005). For example, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995)   includes terms such as “empowerment” without , proper definition nor what they entail or outlining how it should be implemented (Kabasakal, 2015). This translates not only on decision-making circles at the political level, but also on the field in the case of peacekeeping missions. The case of Female Engagement Teams (FETs) in Afghanistan, for example, is particularly relevant here. FETs were part of a counter-insurgency strategy aiming to build relationships with other local women in order to gather information and gain the trust of the wider community. However, Sahana Dharmapuri (2013) shows that because of the little attention and understanding of the role of women in their community, female soldiers were easily manipulated which compromised the information they were supposed to gather (Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, 2014). This case illustrates the lack of knowledge and information regarding the implications of gender in conflict and ultimately the incapacity to use it as an analytical tool.

To conclude, the current approach to achieve gender equality adopted by the UN presents the expected positive outcomes to be expected from liberal feminism: an impressive development of the normative framework at the institutional level. Certainly, the UN has showed the importance and potential of international institutions as champions for gender equality by including it as a priority in every institutional body and area of work through its gender mainstreaming strategy. However, the gap between regulations and their implementation are undoubtedly still significant: the prevalence of entrenched patriarchal structures of oppression and the ambiguities surrounding the implications of core strategies such as gender mainstreaming illustrate the limitations of the current approach. Achieving gender equality demands going beyond institutional and normative frameworks; it implies acting on the sources of power and oppression and seeing that transformative changes also reach individual experiences. Otherwise, efforts are doomed from the start.


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:

Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, S. (2014). Seeking out their Afghan sisters, Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. Bergen, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

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

Dahrendorf, N. (2006). Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: Lessons Learned Study Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in MONUC. United Nations Peacekeeping.

Dharmapuri, S. (2013). Not Just a Numbers Game: Increasing Women’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping. International Peace Institute.

Essa, A. (2017). UN peacekeepers hit by new allegations of sex abuse [Online]. Al Jazeera.

Goetz, A. (2008). Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations. Where Are the Numbers? UNIFEM briefing paper.

Grady, K. (2010). Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers: A Threat to Impartiality. International Peacekeeping 17 (2): 215 – 228.

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

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

Pampell-Conaway, C. and Shoemaker, J. (2008). Women in United Nations Peace Operations: Increasing Leadership Opportunities. Women in International Security briefing paper. Washington, Georgetown University.

Puechguirbal, N. (2010). Discourses on Gender, Patriarchy and Resolution 1325: A Textual Analysis of UN Documents. International Peacekeeping 17 (2): 172–87.

Tickner, A (1992). Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York: Columbia University Press.

United Nations Women (2015). UN Field Missions - Senior Women Leaders. UN Women Policy Brief February 2015.

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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