April 26, 2011 | Sarah Marie Ryan
Women bear the brunt of the burden in wartime. Female civilians are attacked and left to seek the survival of their families in the midst of conflicts while they are simultaneously neglected and marginalized in negotiations and peace talks. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, women face the ever present threat of rape as a tool of war by all sides of the conflict. Despite the nearly eleven year presence of what is now called MONUSCO – the UN mandated peacekeeping mission in the DRC – sexual and gender-based violence still pervades much of the country, further contributing to the massive instability and insecurity. For the most part, the international community’s response to conflict has involved sending more peacekeepers to protect civilians, increasing multilateral negotiations with rebel groups and the government of the DRC, and assisting with nation-building and humanitarian programs. However, the international actors involved in the DRC have not yet put enough effort into one key aspect of peacekeeping that has proven to be effective and successful in other conflict areas: deployment of female peacekeepers.
Today, female peacekeepers account for approximately 3.33% of the total number of armed UN personnel: 3,332 out of 100,000. While this number is a threefold increase from the 1993 statistic of 1%, it is nowhere near the UN’s goal of 20% by 2014 put forward by UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Currently, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is employing three all-female units of peacekeepers stationed in three countries: an Indian and Nigerian units in Liberia, a Bangladeshi unit in Haiti and a Samoan unit in East Timor. Both the tangible and intangible benefits of these all-female units are astounding, ranging from empowering women in host communities to interacting with and interviewing female victims of violence to providing a greater sense of security to the community – especially women – and improving access to support for women. Because of cultural taboos and stigmas, female victims of sexual and gender-based violence often do not seek help or report crimes of sexual violence. Female peacekeepers can and do mitigate these problems.
The female UN police units from India and Nigeria have been deployed to post-conflict Liberia since 2007 to patrol the streets of Monrovia and secure the headquarters of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Since their deployment, Monrovia has witnessed both decreased crime rates as well as increased local cooperation. According to DPKO, "Female peacekeepers act as role models in the local environment, inspiring women and girls in often male-dominated societies to push for their own rights and for participation in peace processes."
So how can we apply this model to the DRC? Unlike Liberia, the DRC is not yet post-conflict but is rather currently in the midst of a drawn out and brutal conflict in the east. However, the theory behind the deployment of female police forces and peacekeepers remains the same: women working for and with women. In a conflict where men are the primary perpetrators of atrocities – physical, mental and sexual – deploying male peacekeepers is not always the most effective response. Rather, as shown in Liberia, putting women on the front lines fosters a sense of stability, security and trust between the peacekeepers and the victims. Thus, as the war in the DRC rages on indefinitely, the immediate and future needs of its women can and should be taken into account by the international community, even if that means following the more unconventional and progressive route of deploying female peacekeepers. Here in the U.S., the Obama Administration is currently developing a “National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security” to integrate and implement the protection components of UN Resolution 1325.As the process moves forward, the Administration must acknowledge the important role of female peacekeepers and vigorously integrate women into the peace building process as not only passive recipients of support but as active implementers.