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The UN wants to deploy more women in peacekeeping, so why are there so few?


One of the most puzzling developments of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda—originated by the UN Security Council’s unanimous endorsement of UNSC Resolution 1325 in October, 2000—is the lack of progress in increasing the percentage of uniformed women in UN peacekeeping operations.

UNSCR 1325 is quite explicit in ‘[urging] the Secretary-General to seek to expand the role and contribution of women in United Nations field-based operations, and especially among military observers, civilian police, human rights and humanitarian personnel’ (emphasis added). This lack of progress is the more frustrating given the repeated commitments by the UN and its Member States to increase the percentage of female peacekeepers. In 2009, just before the tenth anniversary of UNSCR 1325, the number of female peacekeepers had plateaued at around 1%.

The UN Police decided to launch a ‘Global Effort’ with the aim of increasing the number of female police officers in PKOs to 20% by 2014. In 2015, UNSCR 2242 called upon ‘the Secretary-General to initiate, in collaboration with Member States, a revised strategy, within existing resources, to double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations over the next five years’. Yet one year before the deadline, the results are disappointing: the percentage of deployed military women currently hovers at 4%, and has not increased significantly since the end of 2009; as for police women, the percentage has danced around the 10% mark since 2011.

An increase in the percentage of uniformed women in PKOs is generally recognized by the UN and its member states as a necessary and desirable goal for a variety of reasons: a more gender-balanced peacekeeping force may improve operational effectiveness and it may enable PKOs to better achieve the objectives set by the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Additionally, increasing the number of women is considered a worthy goal in itself, as it fulfils women’s right to serve in police and armed forces in all capacities.

It is in this context that Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada launched the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations at the 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) describes the Elsie Initiative as ‘an innovative and multilateral pilot project that will develop, apply and test a combination of approaches to help overcome barriers to increasing women’s meaningful participation in peace operations … The Elsie Initiative’s framework comprises a number of components, including significant research, monitoring and evaluation.’

Current data on women in peacekeeping is scant and scattered so, in November 2017, GAC commissioned DCAF to conduct a baseline study with the goal of describing the current situation on women’s participation in military and police roles in United Nations peacekeeping operations, documenting international good practice to increase such participation, and identifying barriers to the recruitment, training, retention, deployment and promotion of uniformed women in peacekeeping operations.

We published the Baseline Study in July, 2018, identifying 14 barriers to the deployment of uniformed women in PKOs, ranging from the lack of equal access to opportunities, to gender biases in the deployment criteria. The Study considers these barriers through a series of questions examining, among other things, whether women are actually given equal opportunities to deploy; whether deployment criteria are set in a way that effectively excludes a large number of otherwise eligible women; whether inadequate infrastructure or institutional culture is preventing women from being deployed; the impact of family-related constraints; whether the experience of deployment prevents or dissuades women from redeploying in future PKOs; and whether deployment in PKOs has a positive or negative effect in uniformed women’s careers in their home institutions. In addition to documenting these barriers, the study provides preliminary recommendations for actions that would address them.

The challenge to increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping is that barriers that prevent women’s participation are often context-specific and vary between troop and police contributing countries and each peacekeeping operation. Furthermore, evidence regarding measures to increase women’s participation is largely anecdotal and has not been systematically gathered and analyzed in a single coherent study. Finally, it is difficult to analyze trends and participation of women in peacekeeping as the data does not include information on ranks and is inconsistently reported.

Supported by the governments of Canada and Norway, in the next three years, DCAF will embark in a large research project seeking to answer some of the questions posed by the Baseline Report. By developing and applying a Barrier Assessment Methodology, we hope to identify the most prominent obstacles to the deployment of uniformed women in UN PKOs, to quantify their relative impact, and to propose policy-relevant and programmatic solutions to allow military and police women to finally break through the blue ceiling.

(Photo: UNMISS)

Daniel de Torres
Daniel de Torres is the Head of DCAF's Gender and Security Division. A Spanish native, Daniel has enjoyed a varied professional career which included emergency relief work during and after the war in Bosnia, an embassy posting in Washington, DC, service in the Spanish Marines, and more than ten years of work on gender and security. During this time he developed and managed field projects; designed and delivered training for military and police personnel, prosecutors, judges, parliamentarians, development professionals, and civil society organizations; and provided policy analysis and advice. He has worked in Europe, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia.