Women in Peacekeeping: Signs of Change at the United Nations?

Dustin Johnson | 4 September 2020


On August 28th, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2538 on women and peacekeeping under the leadership of Indonesia, the latest in a serious of resolutions focused on the inclusion of more women in UN peacekeeping missions. Increasing the participation of women in peacekeeping, particularly in the military and police components, has become a major aim of the UN and many member states over the past two decades. This has been driven by the women, peace and security agenda ushered in by Resolution 1325 in 2000 and pressure from civil society, activists, governments, and academics. Efforts such as the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy of the UN and the Elsie Initiative established by the Canadian government currently aim to rapidly increase the number of women in peacekeeping and dismantle barriers to their participation.


However, much of the justification for the participation of women in peacekeeping has been premised on the operational effectiveness argument. This often relies on problematic stereotypes and essentializations of women being more empathetic, approachable, and peaceful than men. This view uniquely situates women in relation to local women and children, and sees women as responsible for dealing with issues such as sexual violence. It is then argued that these qualities are needed to improve the effectiveness of the mission, and women are better placed to contribute such “soft” skills. Seen through this lens, women bring “added value” to the mission, justifying their inclusion, something that is not asked of men. However, most of the abuses committed by peacekeepers, which harm the people they are supposed to protect and damage the legitimacy of the mission, are committed by men. This mindset about women peacekeepers then also places the burden of preventing men’s misconduct on women, implying or stating that their presence and actions will keep men from committing harm, rather than focusing on men’s responsibility for their actions.


Such a problematic basis for women’s participation in peacekeeping, which tends to mention their right to engage in the same important work as men as an afterthought, has been thoroughly deconstructed and criticized by a wide range of (primarily feminist) scholarship. This work has noted that the official rhetoric tends to ignore the social construction of gender, pigeonholing women into certain roles on the basis of their gender (often in combination with their race or nationality) rather than their skills as professionals. It also neglects that men also have a gender identity and have the capacity to be empathetic and cooperative, while perpetuating a binary view of gender. Empirical research has demonstrated the complexity and nuances of gender in peacekeeping contexts, and the pitfalls of neglecting the important constitutive roles of masculinity and militarism in defining and organizing peacekeeping. However, these critiques have so far not had a significant impact on UN rhetoric or policy.


The use of such stereotypes in official discourse may be beginning to change, though. Reporting on the process of the new Security Council Resolution’s drafting, the blog What’s In Blue noted that some of the language in the original draft of the resolution contained stereotypical language about women in peacekeeping, referring to “female peacekeeper’s indispensable role” in community relations and protection, especially for women and children, and discussing sexual exploitation and abuse. Under pressure from the Dominican Republic and several European states (presumably Belgium, Estonia, and/or Germany, as they are current members), some of this language was changed. While the new language still focuses on operational effectiveness, it no longer discusses sexual exploitation and abuse as a problem intrinsically connected to women peacekeepers, and relates increasing the effectiveness of community engagement and protection and improving the credibility of the mission to the balance of women and men, not directly to the presence of women. The final draft also removed language advanced by Russia that noted the importance for women, but not men, to be qualified in order to be appointed to leadership roles in missions.


While a small step in rhetoric, there appears to be growing recognition at high levels that the standard arguments about women in peacekeeping need to be altered to reflect a more nuanced understanding of gender and to not reinforce gendered stereotypes that do little to challenge the masculine culture of the military and peacekeeping. Alongside this new resolution, the somewhat more critical stance taken by the Elsie Initiative, and some of the current research projects funded by it, as well as other bodies, on gender in peacekeeping provide welcome signs of change at the UN and among member states. It is too early to say if this signals a broader change in approach, but it is a step in the right direction.

Keywords: #UnitedNations #Peacekeeping #SecurityCouncil #Gender #WomeninPeacekeeping

Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies, and Senior Research Officer at the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security at Dalhousie University in Canada. His PhD research focuses on gender and the practices of child protection in UN peacekeeping, which is part of a project based at the Dallaire Institute funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @WarAndCoffee. The views expressed in this post are his own.


Many thanks to Gretchen Baldwin and Catherine Baillie Abidi for their comments on a draft of this post.

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