Towards a kinder, gentler peacekeeping

by Tazreena Sajjad

Published in the Daily Star on 25 February.

This piece discusses Bangladeshi women’s participation in the UN peace missions.

In 2009, Bangladesh committed 140 female police officers to be part of its UN peacekeeping contingent, making it the first Muslim country to make such a contribution. Certainly for Bangladeshis such a small but significant gesture speaks volumes and deepens a sense of pride. For the young women, it opens doors for participating in the prestigious circle of UN peacekeeping, working as leaders, and inspiring fellow country women as role models.

However, this is only one fragment of a much larger narrative. Women in peacekeeping operations and Bangladesh’s upcoming participation with a female contingent have to be appreciated within the context of recent developments in peacekeeping operations and the mainstreaming of women in peacebuilding processes.

The Blue Berets
Peacekeeping involves monitoring and observing peace processes in post-conflict areas and assisting in the implementation of peace agreements. Such operations mean that peacekeepers provide a range of services including monitoring cease-fires, electoral support, strengthening the rule of law, providing police training as well as activities in economic and social development. Today, there are between 975858 to 113,000 peacekeepers (numbers vary), including 82,868 troops; 12,781 police and 2,209 military observers in 15 UN operations in four continents. The largest troop contributors to the UN peacekeeping force are concentrated in a small set of member states including Pakistan (10,626), Bangladesh (9,220), India (8,617), Nigeria (5,792) and Nepal (3,856).

Even as UN peacekeeping operations in the world’s battle zones continue to expand, women soldiers, police and civilian support staff remain a small minority, despite recent efforts to encourage more female participation. There are only 1034 women military personnel in peacekeeping operations and out of the 8,482 UN police personnel, only 454 women serve as UN police personnel. The proportion of women deployed as civilians in peacekeeping operations is higher at 30%, but still not equally representative.

Enter the women
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has set the goal of reaching 10% female representation in UN peacekeeping operations.

There is a correlation between the number of women in peacekeeping operations and the socioeconomic policies and conditions of troop-contributing nations. Evidently, the extent to which these states commit women to peacekeeping operations serve as an indicator of women’s status in such countries. Missions involving the Nordic countries, the US, Canada, France or Australia tend to have a high percentage of female participation.

In entering the league of such nations, Bangladesh will be sending out a loud signal about the changing position of its women and their increasing empowerment.

Yet the numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Canada and the US have about 12% women in their national armies, yet contribute only 8% and 5%, respectively, to UN peacekeeping missions. In addition, the relatively steady rise in the number of women who have joined national militaries since the mid-1980s is deceptive, particularly since the numbers themselves do not reflect the restrictions within the military regarding where the women can and cannot serve.

The road to UN Resolution 1325
In 1995, a detailed report was published following the Platform for Action on the role of women in UN peacekeeping. The results of the review process regarding the implementation of the Beijing Declaration, the so-called Beijing +5 was Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace. While particular attention was devoted to women as victims of armed conflict, some mention was also made of the underrepresentation, at all levels, of women in decision-making positions related to peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconciliation, as well as the lack of gender awareness in these areas.

Further, in 1995, the 1994 targets of the New York meeting were given more impetus through the report by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on setting a target of 50% women in UN field missions.

In 1996, a meeting on Political decision-making and conflict resolution: The impact of gender difference, hosted by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO), supported the need for comprehensive research on the impact of a gender perspective on conflict resolution, as well as the need for more evidence about the extent to which the contributions of women and men differ.

Fast forwarding to the end of the nineties, the UN came up with the most comprehensive document to date on women and peace processes titled UN Resolution 1325, an initiative heavily supported by the Bangladesh ambassador to the UN, Mr Choudhury. Passed on October 31st 2000, its 18 provisions spell out the steps that the United Nations and individual states need to take to include women in peace processes.

Resolution 1325 concentrates on four thematic areas; gender based violence, access to decision-making, peacekeeping operations and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes thereby recognized their agency and making it central to all phases of peace processes. The very first paragraph of 1325 states clearly that “Member States should increase women’s participation in decision-making in the institutions and mechanisms of conflict resolution at the international, regional and national level.” 1325 provided the added impetus for the UN to step up their demands for female peacekeepers from contributing nations.

It’s still abuse, stupid
It’s too simplistic to maintain that concerns for women and the need for women in decision-making positions post-conflict societies alone have created a sense of urgency within the UN to demand more female peacekeepers. UN DPKO has had its own litany of problems to want more women in the peacekeeping forces. From Cambodia, to Bosnia, Kosovo, to more recently in the Congo, Ivory Coast and others, there has been a rising number of reported incidents of human trafficking, rape, sexual abuse food for sex exchanges by UN peacekeepers, accompanied by a growing public demand for accountability.

This in turn has highlighted a gap in the jurisdiction of the United Nations to ensure that peacekeepers conduct themselves in accordance with UN rules and respect for human rights. The degree of punishment for such crimes however is within the purview of the member state concerned, not with the United Nations since it depends on the sovereign authority of the member states consistent with the country’s own military codes of justice and national laws.

The main responsibility to prosecute and punish lies with the host country. For example, among Bangladeshi peacekeepers who were repatriated on charges of sexual abuse, one had been dismissed from service, two had been lowered in rank, and two other officers had been severely reprimanded.

Peace has a woman’s face
One of the key rationales for having women in peace-keeping operations therefore is to contend and eliminate the possibilities of sexual violence by peacekeepers by changing something structural within the institutions. Second, the UN also believes that increasing numbers of women would encourage a higher reporting of sexual abuse and domestic violence by vulnerable populations.

Underlying women’s increased participating in peacebuilding efforts is of course the gendered assumptions of women and men’s roles in war and peace, something the UN recognizes and capitalizes on. According to Lt Col Carmen Estrella (who is?), “Women bring a softer face to U.N. peacekeeping missions, one that is not about war fighting but about peacekeeping.”

Women in peacekeeping operations can also be critical in working with local populations—creating safe spaces for female participation, introducing the idea of women in public service, including in the armed forces and the police, encouraging leadership and organizational skills in the formal sector and assisting in laying the groundwork for changing socialized norms of male-female responsibilities and ownership.

In countries where women particularly have suffered extensive levels of sexual violence during the period of conflict, the presence of female peacekeepers can also generate a sense of security and confidence for the local women. A good example is India’s 125-member contingent in Liberia, the first all-female UN force, which spent six months training Liberian police in 2007. A country where over 75% of the women and girls were raped and/or sexually abused, the women peacekeepers, though small in number played a critical role in introducing a different role for women in society. Bangladeshi women in their first mission will get their opportunity to do the same.

The road ahead
With women in peacekeeping missions, Bangladesh will soon join the ranks of a few other countries that have already begun to reshape the face of UN peacekeeping operations— including the Nordic countries, Australia, Canada, US, Tanzania, Nigeria and India. As the first Muslim country amongst them, it also will occupy a special position both amongst current contributing countries, but more importantly, in the countries in which they will be deployed. It is not a responsibility to take lightly.

Yet, for these women, there will be multilayered challenges—the challenge to uphold the country’s reputation, to function professionally with some of the world’s best, to work in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations and to exert leadership qualities under situations of crisis, to serve as role models and at times to deal with resistance to women in arms in the more traditional societies, particularly when the women in arms are Muslim.

But perhaps most importantly, such exposure will be an incredible opportunity for our women — to grow, to learn and to mould themselves into role models not only for the local people they serve in their areas of deployment, but for the women in their own countries.

May be that is looking too far ahead into the future. For now, we can applaud the government’s decision and appreciate how far Bangladesh has come, and recognize how far we have to go.


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