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Analysis II
Last Updated: 04/23/2008
Gender and Peacekeeping: a few challenges
Nadine Puechguirbal

Drawing on her extensive experience with UN peacekeeping operations, including serving as Senior Gender Advisor for MINUSTAH, Nadine Puechguirbal discusses some of the ongoing challenges to gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping missions, and ultimately, the creation of a more just society.

During the Cold War area, traditional military peacekeeping operations were deployed to observe a ceasefire or monitor the separation of forces between two states. In today’s intra-state conflicts, multidisciplinary peacekeeping missions are mandated to implement a comprehensive peace agreement and encompass activities such as electoral observation, human rights monitoring, gender mainstreaming, child protection, civil affairs, etc.  The change of scope in peacekeeping operations has increased the likelihood that the mission will have a great impact on the lives of the women and men of the host country.

In October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security” that “Expresses its willingness to incorporate a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations, and urges the Secretary-General to ensure that, where appropriate, field operations include a gender component[1].

What does it mean?

Peacekeepers are deployed in a post-conflict environment where there is no law and order, where the local men and women live in precarious economic and political conditions, where women and girls are at risk of sexual violence. Because conflict is a profoundly gendered experience, it is of high importance that peacekeepers understand the impact of war on women, men, boys and girls so that they do not further marginalize groups of the society that have already been made vulnerable by the war. Without doing a proper assessment through the collection of sex-disaggregated data, it is very difficult for the mission to clearly identify the different needs of women, men, boys and girls and to target its assistance programs accordingly.

Since women and girls are very often the most affected because of pre-existing gender inequalities that have been reinforced by recent violent social upheaval, like in Haiti, special attention should be placed on the creation of an environment conducive to the promotion of their rights. The so-called “gender-blind” approach, irrespective of the different needs of women, men, boy and girls does not create conditions of gender equality, on the contrary, it consolidates the position of male actors who traditionally hold the official and visible power.

The Gender Component of a peacekeeping mission endeavors to implement a two-fold mandate: first of all, the Senior Gender Advisor works with the entire mission’s components to ensure that they have a plan to integrate a gender perspective into their respective policies, programs and activities (gender mainstreaming). Secondly, she works on capacity building with groups of the civil society to help them to become more autonomous, thus involving local men and women in the transformation of their society so that they keep the ownership of the process. For example, MINUSTAH[2]’s Gender Unit is currently implementing three main projects, namely, promoting the participation of women in the electoral and political processes as candidates and voters; working on a strategy to enable women and girls to leave the endless cycle of armed violence in the slums; contributing to a national strategy on eradicating violence against women with the participation of both men and women as actors of change (a pilot project in the South of the country is currently supporting a group of men who decided to become peer educators within their own community to advocate for a society that respects women).

Challenges to Gender Mainstreaming

In spite of Resolution 1325 and policies developed by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, we can identify key structural obstacles to the integration of a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations linked to the patriarchal culture of the United Nations.

a) We first have to pay attention to language in UN resolutions, mandates and other key documents. Language is key to understanding how peacekeepers define local women and men and how they perpetuate stereotypical attitudes about their respective positions in society. Very often, women are depicted as victims, in need of protection, and labeled “vulnerable” together with the children, elderly and handicapped. It is interesting to underline here the use of sex as a sociological variable at the same level as other variables such as age, ethnicity or race. This narrow-sighted definition removes the agency of women who are not seen as major actors in the post-conflict society but as hopeless victims. As Sarah Poehlman and Felicity Hill write, after analyzing UN documents, “women are seen as victims that need to be protected and helped, instead of participants in their own protection or in the struggles for peace, self-determination, national liberation, and independence”[3].

b) The relation between the protector and the protected is also a factor that prevents women from taking a more pro-active stance in post-conflict reconstruction. As Cynthia Enloe writes: “For the protectors to wield this public superiority, there must be a certain constructed ‘protected’. The protected is the person who is not at ease in the public sphere. The protected’s natural habitat is the domestic sphere – that is, the sphere of life where caring matters more than strategizing”. Since women are mainly defined as mothers confined in the private arena with their children, and as vulnerable victims, they are excluded from participating in the political reconstruction of their country.

c) I also think that peacekeepers have a different perception about security than local women do, and this has serious consequences in the field. Today, Haiti enjoys a relatively stable security situation that allows the development of a myriad of projects to assist the Haitian men and women in repairing the social fabric of their society. However, challenges remain. Security for peacekeepers very often means the cessation of hostilities, of fighting between armed gangs or groups, whereas for the local women it means being able to carry out their daily activities in the neighborhood without fearing of being sexually assaulted. As Ann Tickner writes: “Women have defined security as the absence of violence whether it be military, economic, or sexual”[4]. Peace is not just the absence of war.

d) In Haiti, violence created by armed gangs composed mainly of men has receded, but domestic violence still prevails because of gender roles entrenched in the culture and traditions. The sign of men walking freely in the streets of the slums in the capital Port-au-Prince after the main gangs have been overpowered, does not mean that it is also safe for women. Because the police and justice systems are dysfunctional, male perpetrators of violence against women still enjoy impunity. Peacekeepers work on the assumption that once they have neutralized male armed gangs members, security will prevail for all, including women. As Cynthia Enloe explains: “The [second] assumption is that women’s experiences of insecurity are no different than men’s”[5], although women and men do experience security/insecurity differently because of their respective roles and positions in society.

e) Finally, all the above explains why peacekeepers never consult women about the issues at stake in their post-conflict society. As Cynthia Enloe writes: “When international aid workers, peacekeeping officials, and government and private foundation donors assumed that reaching out to “local leaders” meant working with the men who had influential position in the post-conflict societies […], then the patriarchal hurdles that local women activists confronted in trying to have a voice in peacemaking and national reconstruction loomed even higher”[6]. When the mission’s Political Affairs Officer organizes a meeting with the local political parties, he invites prominent men to discuss serious issues relating to the post-conflict order. According to him, if women don’t show up at his meetings, it could mean two things: on the one hand, that there are no women in politics or, on the other hand, that they are not interested in attending. There is no understanding of the local patriarchal dynamics at stake, the fact that women can’t talk freely in front of men, especially if they are the leaders of the party, and that if meetings takes place at 5:00pm, women had to go home to start their second shift, i.e. taking care of domestic chores. Too often, missions reinforce the existing male domination and formal power in the host country, irrespective of the shift in gender roles that occurred during the war.

Let us finish with a question for further debate: “How do post-war societies manage, after the peace accord is signed, to re-establish masculinized privilege in their political cultures?”[7] Obviously, in light of the above, we can find the answer in just looking at the hyper-masculine culture at stake within peacekeeping operations and its impact on the local women, men, girls and boys.

[1] S/RES/1325 (2000)

[2] United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)

[3] S. Poehlman and F. Hill, “Women and Peace in the United Nations”, New Routes, A Journal of Peace Research and Action, Life & Peace Institute, Vol. 6, number 3, 2001, p.2.

[4] A. Tickner, Gender in International Relations, Feminist Perspectives on achieving Global Security, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 66.

[5] N. Puechguirbal & C. Enloe, “Failing to Secure the Peace: Practical Gendered Lessons from Haiti & Iraq”, The Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, October 16, 2004, p.7.

[6] C. Enloe, Globalization & Militarism, Feminists make the link, Rowman & Littled Field Publishers, New York, Toronto, 2007, p. 131.

[7] C. Enloe, The Curious Feminist, Searching for women in a new age of empire, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2004, p. 240.

Nadine Puechguirbal is a Senior Fellow/Visiting Professor at the UN University for Peace & the Senior Gender Advisor for MINUSTAH. She can be reached at