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UN peacekeeping recognizes that women are key to lasting peace amid COVID-19

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When the United Nations paid tribute to its uniformed and civilian personnel on the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, it selected a theme to honor a proven but overlooked resource: women in peacekeeping. And for its annual UN military gender award, UN Secretary-General António Guterres singled out two peacekeepers for making peace operations more effective: the Indian Army’s Major Suman Gawani for helping the UN Mission in South Sudan better protect civilians from sexual violence, and the Brazilian Commander Monteiro de Castro Araujo for assisting the UN Mission in the Central African Republic improve its community outreach by quadrupling the number of patrols that consult local women every month. “As we confront today’s challenges, their work has never been more important or relevant,” Guterres reflected.

For decades, women were primarily absent from peacekeeping missions, but as their deployments increased, so did the evidence that their participation improved mission effectiveness and advanced stability. From accessing populations and venues that may be closed to men, increasing situational awareness of potential security risks, de-escalating tensions and building trust with communities, research and experience have demonstrated that women peacekeepers enhance peacekeeping performance.

The contributions of women peacekeepers are critical in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as peace operations promote the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, protect civilians where violence continues, and support ongoing peace processes and elections as they adjust to coronavirus-related constraints. On the frontlines, female peacekeepers in civilian, police, and military roles have demonstrated that they can fulfill the same responsibilities at the same level, and in the same demanding situations as their male counterparts. 

The Force Commander of the peace operation in Cyprus — Australia’s Major-General Cheryl Pearce — oversees the ceasefire line and encourages progress toward a peaceful solution, despite challenges posed by COVID-19. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Major Samia Rehman of Pakistan conducts operational planning, ensuring that troops continue to implement the mission’s mandate while adopting procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — with lockdown measures extending her deployment and the time away from her 2-year-old son. 

Across missions, women serve as police team leaders, logistics officers, and engineers; in outreach roles, they are raising awareness and countering misinformation on COVID-19; and in advisor roles, they are reinforcing women’s contributions to ongoing peace and political processes.

Nevertheless, women are routinely underrepresented in peacekeeping missions, accounting for 28 percent of all international staff and, on the uniform side, just 4.7 percent of military peacekeepers and 10.8 percent of police personnel in 2019 — far short of the UN targets of 15 percent and 20 percent, respectively, and little different their 1993 rate of 1 percent of uniformed peacekeepers. Some nations contend they lack a sufficient pool of qualified female uniform peacekeepers. Still, a Center for Global Development review identified countries that deploy women to peace operations at lower levels than they are represented in domestic security forces. Indeed, research by the International Peace Institute found that many nations currently have women qualified to serve but are overlooked for training and deployment opportunities.  

Global South countries and donor nations have launched new initiatives intended to accelerate progress in deploying more female peacekeepers. The Canadian government established the Elsie Initiative in 2017 and commissioned DCAF (the Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance) to develop a barrier assessment methodology, Measuring Opportunities for Women in Peace Operations, to determine the country-specific obstacles to deploying uniformed female peacekeepers.

After testing it in eight countries, from Norway to Uruguay to Zambia, DCAF will release the methodology later this year for public use. The Canadian government is partnering with the governments of Ghana and Zambia to model how the barrier assessment can inform a country-specific plan to increase women’s participation in peace operations — and to demonstrate progress when political commitment by police and troop-contributing countries is combined with a donor’s financial and technical support. 

The U.S. government should take note: it already trains militaries and police forces around the world. It should take the additional step of helping at least five police- and troop-contributing nations conduct barrier assessments and identify priorities to increase women’s participation in the security sector and their deployment as peacekeepers. The U.S. government should also require that female peacekeepers benefit from U.S.-led peacekeeper training programs by requiring that they represent at least 30 percent of participants worldwide.  

Police- and troop-contributing countries can also apply to a new UN fund — the Elsie Initiative Fund for Uniformed Women in Peace Operations — to support projects that tackle internal barriers to the deployment of female peacekeepers or for direct payment after they deploy a unit that qualifies as a “gender-strong unit”— namely, units that include “substantial representation of women overall and in positions of authority, has provided gender-equity training to all unit members, and has adequate equipment and other material to ensure parity of deployment conditions for women and men peacekeepers.” In the coming months, the fund will announce its first grants and invite new applications. More police- and troop-contributing countries should apply for assistance, and more donors should join Canada, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom in supporting the fund. 

And for those countries which lag, the UN has warned that if they do not meet the 16 percent deployment target for female staff officers and military experts, the UN will reallocate posts to countries able to deploy more qualified female officers. With this meaningful stick, deployments afford financial profit.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, as peace operations continue to support countries in their transition from conflict to lasting peace, police — and troop-contributing countries should take note of new opportunities to help them draw on the untapped contributions of female peacekeepers — and thereby make peace operations more effective. 

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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