One of the highlights of the UN peacekeeping conference that Canada hosted recently was the announcement of a five-year pilot fund worth $15 million, which will be used to recruit, train and promote female military and police personnel for United Nations peacekeeping missions. In making this commitment, Ottawa takes its cues from, and throws its weight behind, United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, on women, peace and security, passed in 2000. The resolution urged all member countries to increase the participation of women in militarized peacekeeping operations (PKOs). It also called on all parties in conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.
The central premise of the resolution was that increasing the number of women in a PKO will improve the operational effectiveness of the mission. It assumed that appointing or recruiting more women leaders, decision-makers, military and police officers, and soldiers is a way to better protect the safety and rights of women and girls in the countries in which PKOs are deployed. It assumed that female victims of sexual violence would be more comfortable speaking to and being protected by female peacekeepers. Incorporating more women into peacekeeping missions was also a way for the UN to counter mounting evidence of sexual abuse or exploitation committed by male peacekeepers. In having a “civilizing” effect on their male colleagues, the presence of women peacekeepers was expected to lead to decreased sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping missions.
Thus, the major justification for increasing the number of women in PKOs is that it will lead to kinder, gentler, less-abusive and more-efficient missions. That women may want careers in the military or police forces for the same practical reasons as men — for stable jobs, decent salaries, good benefits, opportunities to challenge themselves and to travel and see the world — is clearly not a case as convincing or emotionally appealing to the architects of UN resolution 1325, or to the countries that have thrown weight and money behind it. Women are expected to hold themselves to a higher moral standard and purpose than are men. While these expectations may be flattering, that does not make them less problematic or patronizing.
If we look at the empirical evidence about women’s effectiveness in peacekeeping missions, it becomes clear that many of the assumptions justifying women’s increased participation in PKOs are inflated. This should come as no surprise, since the number of uniformed women personnel in PKOs is still extremely small. In October 2017, women made up 3 percent of military peacekeepers and 9 percent of police personnel in global PKOs, far short of the target of 20 percent by 2014 set by the UN police in 2000. There are much-publicized accounts of women peacekeepers carrying out community service and outreach activities in host settings. Especially with the recent deployment of all-female peacekeeping units — Indian women in Liberia and Bangladeshi women in Haiti — there are greater opportunities for systematic research to understand what contributions female military and police personnel make, and whether they are any different from the contributions made by male peacekeepers. There has never been any doubt that civilian and military peacekeepers, regardless of gender, can make meaningful general contributions to host communities through, for example, health, safety and civic engagement initiatives. The record of building peace between countries in conflict is far less promising, and so is the assumption that what female peacekeepers contribute to these missions is different and better than what male peacekeepers contribute.
The evidence that a small number of women peacekeepers will have a “civilizing” effect on male peacekeepers, thereby reducing the prevalence of sex work, sexual abuse and exploitation in peacekeeping operations, is extremely thin. It has acquired the status of truism without much verification. Instead, Kathleen Jennings, a researcher at the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in Norway, notes that “it seems that women peacekeepers tend to adapt their own behaviour to that of the majority group, i.e., men. In order to be accepted by their male colleagues, they become ‘one of the boys’ — at least tolerating, if not actively participating in, crude banter and highly-sexualised behaviour. Alternatively, some women take the opposite approach by self-segregating, abstaining from group activities where they suspect the men will be seeking out women or misbehaving, but not actively doing anything to stop it.” Indeed, Jennings finds that women who join the military or the police to improve their own career prospects or to increase their earning potential, as they are wholly justified to do, may specifically prefer not to work on “women’s issues” in PKOs, for fear of excluding themselves from positions that are — or are perceived as — more prestigious.
The evidence that a small number of women peacekeepers will have a “civilizing” effect on male peacekeepers, thereby reducing the prevalence of sex work, sexual abuse and exploitation in peacekeeping operations, is extremely thin.
Women soldiers and officers are often the least convinced of their ability to enact change even in their own work environments. Since large numbers of women who have served in the Canadian military and the RCMP have experienced sexual harassment and abuse, we are justified in questioning Canada’s enthusiasm for increasing the participation of women in PKOs. Why are we so keen to increase women’s participation in global PKOs when we’ve failed to address the issues faced by female military and police officers in Canada? Why are institutions that are male-dominated and masculinist in orientation, ideology and functioning expected to behave differently when exported overseas: that is, in UN peacekeeping? And if compassion, empathy and sensitivity to local populations is important in PKOs, why can’t men be compassionate, empathetic and sensitive? Why are these seen as attributes that only women possess?
In pointing out the problems with these assumptions, I must be cautious not to provide ammunition to misogynists and anti-feminists, who would rather women were not present at all in militaries and police forces. Women make up 50 percent of the world’s population. They should be as entitled to jobs in PKOs as men are, without bearing the additional burdens of “civilizing” missions and improving their operational effectiveness. If asked why Canada is so keen to increase women’s participation in peacekeeping operations, Justin Trudeau should respond as he did when he was asked back in November 2015 why having a cabinet with an equal number of men and women was important to him: “Because it’s 2017.”
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Beyond the issue of women’s participation in PKOs, we must reflect on the fact that “militarized peacekeeping” is itself an oxymoron. We should question our sole reliance on militaries to secure peace, and we should interrogate peacekeeping as an endeavour with colonial underpinnings. An overwhelming majority of past and present UN peacekeeping missions are in the global South, and very few have been successful in building lasting peace between the countries in conflict. India and Pakistan are no closer to peace in 2017 than they were in January 1949 when the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan was established; neither are Israel and Palestine (the UN Truce Supervision Organization was established in May 1948).
Part of the Trudeau government’s enthusiasm for re-entering the global peacekeeping circuit stems from its desire to win one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council. The recent conference in Vancouver; shiny distractions like the “keynote” speech by the UN Refugee Agency’s Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie; and the announcement of the $15-million fund for increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping are part of a public relations campaign for Canada to re-earn the UN’s favour, after its fall from grace during the Stephen Harper years.
Canada’s push for a seat at the UN Security Council comes at a time when countries around the world are questioning the composition of the permanent membership of the UN Security Council — namely, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and demanding that the UN reform itself to more accurately represent a multipolar 21st-century world. Should Canada not be adding its voice to the call for reform, rather than simply aspiring to a temporary seat in an institution that is itself in need of deep institutional reform? Canada should reflect critically on its role and potential in the world today; this will serve us better in the long term than short-sighted commitments to increasing the number of women in militarized peacekeeping.
This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.
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