Women and Peacekeeping Missions

Women and Peacekeeping Missions

By Uruguayan Army Colonel Roque García
May 03, 2018

How to increase female participation in peacekeeping missions.

United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions are complex environments in which to live. Usually, they are located in armed conflict areas where the international community sends uniformed men and women to stabilize the situation, and pave the way for political negotiations for a nonviolent path out of the conflict.

Uruguay has a proven track record on peacekeeping missions that predates the creation of the UN. In the 1930s, a team from the Uruguayan military deployed after the Chaco War [between Bolivia and Paraguay] to ensure a successful peacebuilding process. But peacekeeping missions truly took off after the Cold War ended, when it became easier to build consensus within the Security Council. Uruguayan troops deployed to Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Congo, and Haiti and carried out missions assigned to them with honor and dedication.

Today, Uruguay is the proud recipient of multiple distinctions for its professionalism under difficult circumstances. The success of this South American nation in such faraway lands is, without question, closely tied to the idiosyncrasies of our republic, our education based on Varela’s reforms [José Pedro Varela was president of Uruguay in the late 19th century], and our humane approach to terrible conflicts.

Women’s participation to peacekeeping operations proved useful and valuable, a fact numerous studies backed up. As such, the UN launched a campaign in 2017 asking member states whose troops participate in peacekeeping missions to increase the percentage of women deployed to 15-20 percent of their total. This represents a true challenge for Uruguay. The Uruguayan Armed Forces only deploy personnel on peacekeeping missions on a voluntary basis. To reach these levels of effective participations, the yearly number of female volunteers in conflict areas would have to increase significantly.

How to achieve this?

Uruguay attempted to tackle the problem of increasing female participation in peacekeeping missions. We believe this will only be possible if we take the proper approach based on three key pillars:

Deploying women based on their capabilities rather than to meet targets for representation.
Deploying women because they are truly needed in the operations and not because it’s politically correct.
Understanding that it’s a social issue and should be handled accordingly.

Women as representation versus women who contribute capabilities

Uruguay deployed a significant number of women in the peacekeeping contingents for the Sinai peacekeeping mission in the 1980s. The measure allowed Uruguay to meet the “female representation” requirement. However, this meant that female personnel were often relegated to secondary roles in the mission, since they were deployed to be present and represent their gender but not act.

Today, almost 40 years later, women in the Uruguayan Armed Forces fully undertake a wide range of difficult tasks on equal footing with men. And it should also be noted that experience in the most diverse theaters of operations confirms the unique ability of female service members to interact with local communities. To put a rather complex interaction into simple terms, let’s consider two examples:

In a remote corner of an African country experiencing conflict, government forces abuse a 14-year-old girl. Who would the young woman be more likely to talk to about the incident and give names to: a man or woman?
Elsewhere in the same country, UN forces are attacked at night, but during daytime, the situation seems completely normal. In other words, there are armed groups that operate chiefly at night. The elderly women probably have detailed insight into the village’s movements. Who is the best person to seek them out and gather information: a young male officer or a young woman who will interact with them and earn their trust?

These two examples show how women in uniform bring unique capabilities to peacekeeping operations. Obviously, female personnel need preparation to understand the customs, culture, and operational context in which they are to interact.

Their unique contribution is not merely limited to interacting with local communities. In other internal matters, mixed-gender teams ensure better operational performance.

Political correctness versus operational necessity

The mere quest for political correctness has at least two flaws when it comes to achieving real change in complex structures with long historical traditions, such as the armed forces. The first flaw is that what might be correct in a political setting may not be as such in another setting or must be approached differently. The second problem is that political correctness often fizzles out as wishful thinking without concrete results. Fanciful proclamations about the role of women that are not backed up by specific steps and measures will not change reality or will amount to nothing more than women holding positions just to meet gender quotas. If, on the other hand, the specific capabilities that make women assets to an organization are identified, the organization itself will press for their inclusion. For example, no one disputes the fact that a battalion must have a proper medical support team upon deployment. Medical capabilities are vital, and both the organization and its members not only support them, but require them. This paradigm shift is obviously linked to recognizing, identifying, and improving the unique capabilities that women bring to peacekeeping operations.

Women in peacekeeping operations: everyone’s concern

Women’s impact on the communities they interact with is enormous and countless. The simple fact that young men and women in vulnerable areas see female personnel in leadership positions sparks real and undeniable questions about the roles society imposes on gender. Ideologies that intrinsically underestimate women are exposed to the fact that there are other ways to organize society—and that those ways are particularly successful. The blue helmets come to build peace, and women among them play a key role.

But there is also an important social impact on communities that deploy military personnel on peacekeeping missions. How do Uruguayan men and women handle the most important stress factors, which are ever-present on peacekeeping missions, such as physical risks, separation from loved ones, and the day-to-day life of a group of people in a remote place? The answer to this question also puts into question the way men and women relate, and helps reconstruct that relationship.

It’s essential to reiterate the role society plays in this initiative, both in missions and in Uruguay. Only by understanding this social value can we turn an initiative into a public policy that receives society’s full support. If society doesn’t stand behind it, it simply will not succeed.