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Women of Peace

Wanted: More Men to Champion Women in Peacekeeping

To boost the numbers of female peacekeepers, more male leaders need to become champions of women’s involvement and apply a gender perspective to this vital sphere of work, says Sahana Dharmapuri of the One Earth Future Foundation.

Written by Sahana Dharmapuri Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
India un sudan
Indian army soldiers gather at a farewell function ahead of their departure to Sudan on a U.N. peacekeeping mission in March 2009. Raveendran/AFP

Despite numerous pledges by U.N. member states to increase the number of women in peacekeeping operations, the international community hasn’t been able to move the needle on increasing the number of female peacekeepers. In 1993, less than 1 percent of U.N. peacekeepers were women. Today, that number remains dismally low, below 4 percent overall.

Hard evidence and field experience have both shown that female peacekeepers are able to gain access to greater numbers of people in the local population than their male counterparts, for the simple reason that in many conflict situations, female peacekeepers can talk to both women and men, whereas male peacekeepers often cannot.

This alone has made a significant difference in improving the protection of civilians in conflict and post-conflict situations. These findings reinforce the seminal work of Virginia Fortna, who showed the positive impact a U.N. peacekeeping presence has in increasing stability in conflict-torn areas and increasing confidence in peace processes.

Peacekeeping missions are not only in need of more female peacekeepers – they are required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 to apply a gender perspective in peace and security operations.

Applying a gender perspective is a critical skill that both men and women are capable of learning and using in their daily peacekeeping work. Studies by NATO, the U.N. and national forces have shown that a gender perspective increases operational effectiveness significantly in terms of having a better understanding of the population the peacekeeping mission serves.

A gender perspective helps identify strategic blind spots for peace and stability operations by regularly engaging with local civil society groups, in particular by consulting with women’s social justice organizations to understand vulnerabilities and threats to the area.

When done regularly – not solely as a photo opportunity – this approach has also helped increase acceptance of peacekeeping forces and the overall credibility of their operations.

For example, tasks such as land mine clearing in a post-conflict situation might appear to be “gender neutral.” But consider how men and women use land differently. In many contexts, men and women use different routes to walk to and from their towns to gather water and fuel and to perform agricultural labor. Girls and boys may also use different roads and fields to go to school or to help with household chores.

As former U.S. Ambassador to Angola Don Steinberg writes about his experience in the Angolan peace negotiations: “Even such well-intentioned efforts as clearing major roads of land mines to allow 4 million displaced persons to return to their homes backfired against women.”

“Road clearance sometimes preceded the de-mining of fields, wells and forests, resulting in premature resettlement and return,” he writes. “As women in this environment went out to plant the fields, fetch water and collect firewood, they suffered a new rash of land mine accidents.”

Can Men Fix This?

National forces, and by extension, U.N. peacekeeping missions, are male-dominated. The predominantly masculine environment within armies, police and peacekeeping missions has often been cited by female peacekeepers as a barrier to entry and as a major challenge in retaining female officers.

In fact, today there are more policies and resolutions than ever before that require the inclusion of women in all aspects of security decision-making, including peacekeeping operations. Yet the barriers to entry for women into this arena remain high, largely due to prevailing norms that do not support gender equality within male-dominated institutions.

While this paints a dismal picture, men could actually be the key to recruiting more female peacekeepers.

Male leaders can work to change attitudes toward women in the armed forces and in peacekeeping. They can work on structural reforms to allow for greater female participation.

These specific actions have the potential to transform international peacekeeping. When male leaders champion the tenets of the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the full participation of women in international security and peace decision-making, other men will follow because it will become clear that a gender perspective improves their work.

For example, the Swedish Armed Forces have instituted a gender coaching program for military and government officials to great effect. Both NATO and U.N. operations deploy male gender advisers who are trained in using a gender perspective in their daily work.

Male military leaders are able to convey the vital importance of a gender perspective to their troops in language that resonates with their audience and is relevant to their mission.

Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson, former force commander of the Nordic Battlegroup, once explained the link between gender and security: “If women are the daily bread-winners and provide food and water for their families, patrolling the areas where women work will increase security and allow them to continue. This is a tactical assessment. Creating conditions for a functioning everyday life is vital from a security perspective.”

Male leaders can also do more to groom upcoming officers, recognize their female colleagues and promote them to leadership roles or higher decision-making positions within peace operations. If male leaders took into account the barriers that their female colleagues face in terms of maternity leave, equal pay and childcare, they could make tangible structural changes to the peacekeeping system.

While detractors may say men have no role to play in advancing the Women, Peace and Security agenda, it should be remembered that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 was lobbied for and continues to be championed by a man, former U.N. Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury.

Today, there is an increasing number of men in leadership positions in the military and diplomatic sectors who recognize that the inclusion of women and the application of a gender perspective greatly improves the effectiveness of their work. But the engagement of men in championing the Women, Peace and Security agenda remains a blind spot for policymakers.

One Earth Future is documenting the influence of male leaders as champions of gender equality. Through interviews and surveys of more than 50 male leaders from across the U.S. government, U.S. military, other governments and militaries, civil society, and international organization sectors, we have collected perspectives and experiences of men who demonstrate a personal commitment to promoting gender equality.

The participants have shared their personal motivations for becoming advocates of gender equality, identified effective and ineffective strategies to expand the dialogue on gendered aspects of security and offered observations about the future of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda in the next decade and beyond.

Our key finding: Achieving the vision of Women, Peace, and Security hinges on women and men working together to achieve sustainable peace and security. Our full conclusions will be published in the report “Not Your Usual Suspects: Engaging Male Champions of Women, Peace and Security,” co-authored by Jolynn Shoemaker and myself, which is forthcoming in fall 2017.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.

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