As the conflict wages on, the UN is making a conscious effort to employ more women as peacekeepers in their Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The push for gender equality is not only to empower local women but also to improve conflict resolution. Force Commander Lieutenant General Gyllensporre endorses female peacekeepers in Mali, stating, “[t]hey, and only they, can access female networks in communities, thereby enhanc[ing] the overall understanding of the situation.” In the city of Gao, local women cannot speak with male strangers due to strict cultural customs, but they often release important information through conversations with female peacekeepers.
While the number of female peacekeepers has doubled since 2016, there are currently 363 – a mere three percent of the ‘blue helmets’ of MINUSMA. Many of the stoic female blue helmets do not seem phased by their minority status. Kadiatu Bah, 33, is the sole female driver of the mobile vehicles fleet in Kidal, north of Mali. “It doesn’t matter whether I am the only woman in the group of 50 men,” she told BBC. Similarly, Superintendent Catherine Ugorji polices the tumultuous city of Gao, asserting, “I like action. Whatever they say a man does, I like doing it.” For these women, the opportunity to work towards peace alongside the world body is welcomed.
Unfortunately, most women do not share their vigor. The UN has struggled to recruit female peacekeepers in arguably the most dangerous peace deployment in the world. In 2013, the UN first deployed over 12,000 peacekeepers in Mali following the removal of jihadists by French forces, World Vision writes. The BBC reported that 106 blue helmets have been killed by hostile forces with many more lives claimed by illness and accidents. Women also face the threat of sexual abuse from colleagues and civilians. Malian law does not prohibit sexual assault, breeding a culture of negligence to women’s safety. The UN has attempted to mitigate this threat. Captain Ahlem Douzi, a Tunisian army engineer, promotes gender equality on the Gao base, BBC reports. Yet, the raucous on-site bar packed with inebriated men and the unlit pathway to the shared bathroom are potentially dangerous for the outnumbered female staff.
The UN has aptly recognized that female peacekeepers contribute a unique perspective, thus play a significant role in conflict resolution. Their goal to achieve gender parity by 2028 is admirable, but they need to do more than simply hiring more women. They must address how they can improve the safety and well-being of female staff on the job, which will, in turn, encourage more female recruits. It will be difficult to disrupt something as culturally-embedded as the treatment of women in Mali – but not impossible. Limiting alcohol consumption at the bar and implementing separate bathrooms would be an obvious first step toward improving women’s safety. Mandatory workshops for all peacekeepers about sexism should also be introduced, to make sure all employees understand what is not tolerated and what incidents they should report. This means there must be a formal reporting process and adequate repercussions for perpetrators. Female staff must know that their concerns will be taken seriously.
Despite UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ zero-tolerance policy, a recent exposé by the Guardian revealed sexual harassment remains rife and rarely punished across the 14 global peacekeeping missions. There will be growing pains as the UN addresses the sexist culture of various sites. Consistency across sites is important to repair the UN’s reputation and appeal to potential female recruits. Although resources are limited, it is important that the UN invests in the safety of women, who are a core part of the success of missions such as MINUSMA. Meanwhile, grass-roots changes are already being implemented by peacekeepers like Kadiatu and Catherine, whose enthusiastic approach challenges female stereotypes in Mali and fosters a safer environment for new female recruits.