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Challenges to Sustainably Increasing Women’s Participation and Gender Equality in Peacekeeping

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by Lisa Sharland

Peacekeeping has the potential to serve as a catalyst to advance implementation of the women, peace, and security agenda. This is captured in the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping (A4) initiative, launched in 2018. In the Declaration of Shared Commitments, more than 150 member states and regional organizations committed to support women’s “full, equal and meaningful” participation in peace processes, integrate a gender perspective “into all areas of analysis, planning, implementation and reporting,” increase the number of women participating in missions “at all levels and in key positions,” and support “tailored, context-specific” efforts to protect civilians with an emphasis on women and children.

Yet, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the systematization of the WPS agenda within the Security Council, there is ongoing concern that ambitions to further peace and gender equality through the participation of more women in peacekeeping missions continues to fall short. If troop- and police-contributing countries do not implement sustainable reforms domestically to increase the number of women in their military and police institutions—and ensure those women have equal opportunities to deploy to peacekeeping—then it is unlikely the goals to increase the number of women in peacekeeping will be realized over the next decade.

Efforts were already underway to improve the representation of women in peacekeeping missions well before the adoption of the first Security Council resolution 1325 on WPS twenty years ago. The then Department of Peacekeeping Operations had convened a workshop in Windhoek in early 2000, examining efforts to mainstream a gender perspective into peace support operations, building on other international instruments. Discussions resulted in the Namibia Plan of Action, which informed the adoption of resolution 1325.

Fast forward twenty years and similar discussions are still taking place as it relates to increasing the number of women participating in peacekeeping. The conversation has shifted somewhat to focus on the need for women’s full and meaningful engagement at all levels and positions in missions, and to identifying the institutional barriers to their participation (as reflected in the adoption of the recent Security Council resolution 2538). However, while the numbers have moved upward when it comes to the representation of women in the military and policing components over the last two decades, progress is still exceedingly slow, with women representing just over 4 percent of the military, and 10 percent of the police in peacekeeping missions.

Programs to accelerate the participation of women in uniformed components have frequently fallen short of the goals and milestones set. The Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy was developed by the UN Secretariat in response to resolution 2242 to accelerate the participation of women across the military, police, and corrections components in peacekeeping. In addition to setting targets for 2028 on the representation of women as military observers and staff officers (25 percent), military contingents (15 percent), individual police officers (30 percent) and formed police units (20 percent), the strategy sets out some specific policy reforms to ensure women’s participation in peacekeeping is better enabled and supported by contributing countries.

Nonetheless, despite high-level commitment towards the strategy and what it aims to achieve, institutional barriers, assumptions, and political will are likely to challenge its ongoing implementation, with three key challenges to sustainably increasing women’s participation and gender equality in peacekeeping in the coming years.

First, there is a need for more country-specific data on the barriers to the participation of uniformed women in peacekeeping. Preliminary research for a baseline study as part of the Elsie Initiative identified 14 barriers to women’s participation, categorized broadly as equal access to opportunities, family constraints, deployment criteria, the working environment, and career advancement opportunities. And the most recent Security Council resolution on women’s participation in peacekeeping (resolution 2538) encouraged member states to identify and address the barriers “in the recruitment, deployment, and promotion of uniformed women peacekeepers.”

But there is still a need for more country-specific data on these barriers. One useful starting point would be to have contributing countries provide gender disaggregated data on the number of personnel in their militaries and police, although that remains a challenge given many militaries do not report on their size at present (let alone the number of women in them).

Second, there are some political sensitivities about the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy in terms of the accountability it may require moving forward for troop and police contributors. Although the Security Council requested the Secretary-General Guterres develop a strategy to meet the targets it set in resolution 2242, some member states continue to express reservations regarding the strategy. And while resolution 2538 refers to the Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy, there was no reference made to the strategy in this year’s report of the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34). While the European Union, Norway, and CANZ (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), among others, sought to include a reference to the strategy in the 2020 C-34 report, no agreement was reached with other committee members on including a reference to it.

Part of the challenge is that many major troop and police contributors are already behind on some current targets, particularly as they relate to contingent troops. Only 5 of the 17 countries currently contributing more than 1,000 contingent troops to peacekeeping missions have met the signpost target of 6.5 percent for 2020. While Ethiopia as the top contributor is in the green, countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which have consistently ranked in the top 10 contributors, would need to deploy at least 200 more women to reach the current target this year. Even Indonesia, which spearheaded resolution 2538, would still need to deploy 54 more women to reach the current signposted target in June. In other words, countries are already behind, and this is of understandable concern for countries that want to keep contributing. If the strategy is applied consistently by the Secretariat—as it is intended—it will mean that countries that do not increase the number of women in their deployed ranks will have fewer opportunities to deploy.

The third challenge relates to some of the unintended consequences in terms of how women are deployed into missions and into what roles, if the focus is merely on increasing the numbers. With the case frequently being made that women can add value to missions by engaging with local communities, serving as role models, providing support to victims of sexual violence, and supporting overall operational effectiveness, there is concern that women are being “instrumentalized.” As Nina Wilen notes, there is a need to contextualize women’s contributions and place greater emphasis on the benefits that women and men—as more representative teams—bring to peacekeeping (something reflected better in resolution 2538).

Similarly, by focusing on the “added-value” of female peacekeepers, there are also concerns that they may be relegated to certain roles in missions, such as engaging civilians, victims of sexual violence, or working as military or police gender focal points or advisers, due only to the fact that they are one of the few women that may be deployed in a particular mission area. Aside from the fact that they may not have received training for these roles, other opportunities to serve in the mission may be denied to them, meaning that they are not being offered equal opportunities to apply their skills or advance their careers. It may be possible for some troop- and police-contributing countries to circumvent the intention of the uniformed gender parity strategy, by deploying more women but into largely administrative or medical roles.

There is a potential risk that incentivizing or penalizing contributors for deploying without the designated quota of women in units may result in short-term fixes to deploy women, without sustainable change in security institutions at home. Greater transparency from member states on the processes they apply to recruit and integrate women into peacekeeping contingents could be helpful to inform processes and share lessons among contributors. Similarly, more data and analysis on the roles that women are deployed to, in which missions, and at what point in time in the mandate cycle, will be increasingly important to inform outreach and engagement programs by the Secretariat to increase women’s meaningful participation in peacekeeping. Some of this research is underway as part of existing initiatives, but more data and research is required to more comprehensively understand these challenges.

Peacekeeping has undergone significant change in the last two decades in parallel with the development of the women, peace, and security agenda. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the WPS agenda in the Security Council and look to the next decade, the goals set to improve gender parity in the uniformed components of peacekeeping missions have the potential to not only increase women’s participation, but also strengthen the effectiveness of missions through more gender-equal representation. However, that will require troop- and police-contributing countries to implement reforms and increase the participation of women in their military and police institutions in a manner that promotes gender equality and equal opportunity. It will also require the Secretariat to make difficult decisions and hold countries accountable for the political commitments they have made when deciding which countries to deploy in the future.

  • Lisa Sharland is the head of the international program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.*

This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.

Originally Published in the Global Observatory