from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

UN Peacekeeping: Where Are All the Women?

June 20, 2017

Female members of a Philippine peacekeeping force bound for Liberia stand at attention during a send-off ceremony at the military headquarters in Manila January 28, 2009. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Blog Post

More on:


United Nations


The following is a guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Next week Antonio Guterres will mark six months in what has been called “the most impossible job on earth,” the position of UN secretary-general. His tenure thus far has lived up to that billing: more than twenty million people are on the verge of famine, UN peacekeepers and investigators have been ambushed and killed in several missions, and the war in Syria grinds on, nearly half a million deaths later. Meanwhile, Guterres has sought with mixed success to build a relationship with Nikki Haley, President Donald J. Trump’s UN envoy, at a time of historic turbulence between the United Nations and its host and (for now) largest donor.

Upon arriving in Turtle Bay, Haley’s eyes turned quickly to reform of UN peacekeeping, its flagship and most costly enterprise. Although the president’s proposed budget recommends cutting more than one billion dollars from the U.S. peacekeeping bill, Haley claims she’s not interested in a “slash and burn” approach. She simply wants “better and smarter” missions. If so, one place that she and Guterres could find common cause is in increasing the number of women serving in UN peace operations.

Accumulating evidence demonstrates the unique role that women play in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. Not only can women perform the same roles as men, they can also deliver results that their male counterparts cannot. This is one conclusion from a recent Council on Foreign Relations discussion paper, How Women’s Participation in Conflict Prevention Advances U.S. Interests. To begin with, women peacekeepers help missions build stronger relationships with communities and gain more access to information than all-male contingents can deliver. They serve as role models, inspiring women in host countries to enter the security services themselves. Increasing the number of women in UN missions is also critical to ending a scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping forces that causes tremendous suffering for its victims and diminishes the credibility UN peace operations globally.  

Despite these advantages, women comprise a meager proportion peacekeeping forces—less than 4 percent of soldiers and 10 percent of police deployed to UN missions. And the pace of change is achingly slow: ten years ago the comparable figures were 2 and 6 percent respectively. Women make up a greater proportion of the UN’s deployed civilian staff, though at 22 percent, they are still underrepresented, particularly at senior levels. The United Nations has repeatedly failed to meet its own pledges to achieve gender parity.

The issue came to the fore in last year’s race to become the next secretary, when candidates pledged to increase representation of women throughout the world body. Although the outcome disappointed those who had hoped for the first female secretary-general, Gutteres himself won plaudits by quickly appointing three women to important positions, including Amina Mohammed of Nigeria as his deputy. Further, he pledged to appoint equal numbers of women and men to senior positions and committed to achieving gender parity in senior appointments by 2021. Work by the Center on International Cooperation suggests he is living up to his pledges. Guterres also issued a global call for nominations for candidates to lead peace operations, strongly encouraging member states to put forward women.

Of course, righting the gender imbalance will require more. To that end, Guterres appointed a gender parity task force, which is set to deliver its recommendations to the UN General Assembly this fall. And last week, the UN’s Department of Field Support (DFS) re-opened the Senior Women Talent Pipeline, an initiative to identify and recruit qualified senior-level women to apply for director-level positions in missions and to build a larger pool of female leaders within the United Nations. Although currently limited to women with fifteen or more years of experience, the next phase of the pipeline will expand to include midcareer women. When DFS first opened the pipeline in 2014, 3,000 women applied, 150 of whom were accepted.

Although these steps on the civilian side are important, the vast majority of peacekeepers are uniformed troops and police. And on this score, the UN’s performance remains unimpressive. The small numbers of female peacekeepers is not simply a function of the low proportion of women in national armed forces. At last year’s peacekeeping ministerial in London, member states pledged to do better. Canada, which hosts this year’s ministerial in November, has included gender as one of the meeting’s focus areas, consistent with the new feminist foreign aid policy the nation has just unveiled.

Experience shows that targeted programs by major UN member states can make a difference. Since 2005, the U.S. Global Peace Operations Initiative has trained more than 6,500 female peacekeepers from other countries, increasing the number of women that partner countries now deploy. To build momentum, the United Nations may want to create incentives for troop contributing countries, including offering a premium to those that provide female peacekeepers. To reach its full potential, however, any gender rebalancing must be accompanied by broader changes to the culture of UN peacekeeping (as detailed by Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley in Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping), so that the women brought into missions have true power to effect changes on the ground.

Nikki Haley is right to demand better performance from UN peacekeeping. Several large-scale missions are in crisis, threatening to undermine faith in the entire enterprise. These shortcomings will not be helped by drastic cuts in the number of blue helmets deployed globally. If Haley is truly interested in “better and smarter” peacekeeping, the place to begin is by increasing the number of women serving in all roles in those missions.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail