Within the United Nations, peacekeeping is one of the most effective tools for promoting and maintaining international peace and security. However, U.N. peacekeeping faces numerous challenges to effective implementation, undermining its ability to deliver on its mandates and contribute to long-term, sustainable peace. Of these challenges, the direct participation of women in formal peace processes remains a predominant obstacle, despite reform efforts to explicitly address the problem.
In 2018, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative to strengthen peacekeeping operations worldwide. In the creation of A4P, the Secretary-General called on Member States, the Security Council, host countries, regional partners, and financial contributors to renew a collective engagement with U.N. peacekeeping. Through this global partnership, he requested that all parties mutually agree on principles and commitments that strive to overcome complex challenges as well as make operations more effective, safer, and stronger. Pleading to do so, over 150 endorsements have been made to the Declaration of Shared Commitments on U.N. Peacekeeping, which highlights a set of key goals that build on both new priorities and existing frameworks. Of the commitment areas under A4P, the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security (W.P.S.) agenda is at the top of the list.
By collectively committing to the implementation of the W.P.S. agenda, the A4P reaffirmed that women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation at all stages of peace and decision-making processes is essential for effective peacekeeping efforts. As such, the A4P parties have committed to “increasing the number of civilian and uniformed women in peacekeeping at all levels and in key positions,” according to the Declaration of Shared Commitments.
However, three years after launching A4P, the overall progress of empowering women in peacekeeping missions remains slow. At an event celebrating the three-year anniversary of A4P on March 28, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said that “significant progress” has been made “but our work is far from done.”
While strides towards achieving gender parity within uniformed components of peacekeeping missions have been made, it remains a significant challenge that must be addressed. Currently, only two women are surviving in the most military level within the 12 ongoing field missions – one is the newly appointed Force Commander in the peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, and the other is a Deputy Force Commander in the Western Sahara mission – according to U.N. News. Despite increased participation at the highest levels of peace operations, the U.N. also reported that less than one-fifth of military experts on mission and staff officers were women in January 2021. Additionally, women currently make up less than 7% of all uniformed military and police personnel working in field missions. This percentage is only up 6% from nearly three decades ago – when it was estimated that only 1% of deployed uniformed personnel were women.
The continued lack of women’s involvement in peacekeeping operations goes against the very principles that the A4P is anchored in. For example, the first resolution on Women, Peace, and Security, Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), recognized the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and recognized women’s under-valued and under-utilized contributions to conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace-building, and peacekeeping. This resolution – along with the nine other subsequent resolutions that make up the W.P.S. agenda – stresses the importance of women’s leadership and meaningful participation as active agents in peace and security.
There is a myriad of reasons why more women in peacekeeping means more effective peacekeeping. Firstly, women peacekeepers improve overall peacekeeping performance and operations. This is because greater diversity and a broadened skillset lead to improved decision-making, planning, and results, which creates greater operational effectiveness. Speaking at an event during the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (C.S.W.), Lacroix underscored this point by stating, “Diverse leadership and teams bring diverse perspectives so we can make better decisions and improve our operations.” Having more women peacekeepers on the ground can help address the disproportionately negative impacts that conflict has on the livelihood of women, as they bring new perspectives and solutions that effectively confront the needs of women in conflict and post-conflict settings. As such, diversity in peacekeeping can help better prevent and mitigate conflict within local communities.
Additionally, diversity in U.N. peacekeeping helps personnel better reflect the communities they serve, allowing better engagement with all members of host communities. This can be inspiring to women and girls in post-conflict settings, as it exposes them to women peacekeepers who serve as powerful role models. Seeing many uniformed female military and police personnel may help women and girls to pursue non-traditional careers and advocate for their own rights, according to the United Nations University (U.N.U.), the academic and research arm of the U.N.
Likewise, increasing the number of women peacekeepers on missions can prompt better access to local populations, which can engender a number of other positive outcomes. Namely, women peacekeepers are better able to establish rapport with the most vulnerable segments of a population, such as women and children. This is extremely beneficial not only for building trust and confidence with local communities, but also for intelligence gathering and conducting capacity building. For instance, by interviewing and supporting survivors of gender-based violence, women peacekeepers are able to generate critical information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. By gathering such valuable information, they are then able to better support local women, especially in conservative, male-dominated societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men. This has been proven in numerous U.N. studies conducted in support of Security Council Resolution 1325, which demonstrated that female soldiers were able to gain more critical information from women and children than their male counterparts throughout operations in Cambodia, Kosovo, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Liberia, and the D.R.C. In fact, according to the U.N.U., “female engagement teams” in Afghanistan were able to regularly interact with local women, gaining their trust until they were willing to share useful information about Taliban recruiting areas.
Going forward, increasing women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in U.N. peacekeeping should continue to be a top priority, and A4P parties must accelerate efforts to achieve gender parity in the next phase. It is essential that all nominations and deployments to peace operations meet or exceed the uniformed gender parity targets set out by the U.N. Without doing so, it will be far more difficult to prevent and mitigate conflicts in the future and promote sustainable peace and security.
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