Uniformed women in peace operations: taboos and stigmas to challenge

Female unit of police officers sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake as UN Peacekeepers  Female unit of police officers sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake as UN Peacekeepers © SOC Films

This article is a brief presentation of the International Peace Institute’s report on women’s involvement in peace operations  

In June 2020, the International Peace Institute (IPI) published a new report on the role of uniformed women in peace operations. IPI is a non-profit, independent think tank based in New York whose mission is to promote peace, security and sustainable development through research and strategic analyses. IPI’s latest report was published in the framework of its “Women in Peace Operations” project, funded by the Government of Canada through the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations. This project is aimed at questioning the main assumptions and prejudices on women’s participation in the United Nations’ peace operations, focusing on the taboos and stigmas women have to face in such contexts and suggesting new strategies to increase their involvement in this field. 

The number of women serving as UN peacekeepers has significantly increased over the last decades: between 1957 and 1989, only 20 women were employed as United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, while in January 2020 the figure rose to 5,284 uniformed women, currently representing 6.4 percent of UN military and police personnel. The United Nations has been trying to increment women’s involvement in peacekeeping by setting numerical targets: the Office of Military Affairs, for instance, is aiming for 25 per cent of its military staff and 15 percent of its troop contingents to be formed by women by 2028. Despite such ambitious goals are undoubtedly positive, IPI’s report underlines that women’s participation in peacekeeping operations should not be measured only quantitatively, but also qualitatively: even though figures may rise, there are several taboos, stigmas and cultural prejudices that still represent an obstacle to women’s full participation in this field. For instance, as reported by IPI, women with children are usually perceived as “bad mothers” if deployed in a peacekeeping operation, while single women, on the other hand, are often seen as a threat by the wives of their male colleagues. Moreover, mission leaders often tend to consider their female subordinates as women first and, only secondarily, as military professionals, subordinating their professional qualities to their gender. Another frequent assumption is that women constitute a homogeneous group, sharing the same attitude and needs: they are usually thought to be softer, weaker and more empathic than their male counterparts and, as a consequence, they are often assigned to “safer” roles and excluded from militarized missions. 

The aforementioned assumptions mainly derive from a broader patriarchal and sexist mindset, which needs to be questioned in order to effectively improve women’s integration in the field of peacekeeping. As IPI’s report underlines, there can be no real change without a significant shift in the collective mentality, starting from the overall language of those common expressions, which, deeply rooted in the collective imaginary, contribute to maintaining such a sexist mindset. For instance, referring to “women and children” as a comprehensive category of weaker people in need of protection implies that these two categories share the same needs and point of view, leading to the underestimation of children’s issues and, at the same time, infantilizing women. 

Another finding emerging from IPI’s research is that sexual harassment, a systemic problem which also affects security institutions, is the second most-cited reason provided by women for not deploying. In this regard, as IPI’s report notes, the patriarchal mindset is deleterious for men too: the assumption that women need to be protected while men are strong defenders denies the idea that men can be victims of sexual violence as well. 

Considering that many of the obstacles faced by women in peacekeeping operations are the product of prejudice, sexist assumptions and common beliefs, challenging this frame of mind is crucial to ensure that women are truly integrated in this field. Following its detailed analysis of the phenomenon, IPI’s report suggests that policymakers should promote both quantitative and qualitative participation of women, adopt a broader approach which also includes men and address the social mindset that fuels women’s discrimination. 

Even though the UN has already made some progress deploying several strategies to further gender equality, it is still far from reaching many of its targets. Some of the strategies employed included, for instance, the creation of Female Police Units (FPUs) or of Female Engagement Teams (FETs). Moreover, the UN Women’s Elsie Initiative Fund provides a financial premium to troop-and-police-contributing countries (T/PCCs) for “gender-strong units”. Nevertheless, as the report underlines, the UN seems to lack a definitive, standardized policy on the matter and it still tends to act on an ad-hoc basis. Thus, nuanced and thorough research is strongly needed to support evidence with measurable data and gain a comprehensive understanding of the matter. 


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Author: Margherita Curti; Editor: Matteo Consiglio

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