The motivation to increase the number of women in peacekeeping is based on the assumption that female peacekeepers can enhance the access of local women to services, improve community relations, reduce the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence, and break down traditional views that discriminate against and marginalize women.1N. Puechguirbal, “Gender Training for Peacekeepers: Lessons from the DRC,” International Peacekeeping, vol. 10, no. 4 (2003): 113–28. However, there is little substantive evidence to support these essentialist claims, which has led to a call for more evidence-based research to enhance gender mainstreaming initiatives.2K. M. Jennings, Women’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations: Agents of Change or Stranded Symbols? (Norway: NOREF, 2011). Accordingly, this research set out to establish the extent to which female peacekeepers comply with such claims through interviews conducted with South African peacekeepers returning from deployments to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan/Darfur.3L. Heinecken, “The Contested Value of Women Peacekeepers: Between Rhetoric and Reality,” report submitted to African Peacebuilding Network, Nairobi, Kenya, August 2013.

Contested Value of Female Peacekeepers

The first point to consider is that most peacekeepers are drawn from the infantry and perform infantry-like tasks.4L. Sion, “Can Women Make a Difference? Female Peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol. 47, no. 4 (2009): 476–93. In many troop-contributing countries (TCCs), women are not permitted to serve in the infantry, which has meant their numbers and impact in peacekeeping have remained low. Wherever they are permitted, their environment is physically and mentally demanding, which means that women come under enormous performance pressure to meet the physical standards. In addition they have to assimilate masculine norms and values to be accepted as equals to their male counterparts. As such, they face a litany of challenges related to issues of masculinity and femininity, which is exacerbated when deployed in hostile peacekeeping environments.

Based on the findings of this study, it became clear that the peacekeeping environment is physically demanding for women—especially on foot patrols—where women tend to slow down their sections or platoons or cannot perform certain tasks. They also place an additional logistical burden on commanders in an environment where resources to meet requirements for personal hygiene and privacy are already scarce. From a biological perspective, men became resentful where women were excused from patrols due to things such as period pains, as this caused sections or platoons to go out under strength. Psychologically, the operational environment was seen as more taxing for women, given the extreme brutality that may be inflicted on them. In addition, their presence is seen to pose a security risk to men. Some of the peacekeepers interviewed felt that having women in their sections and platoons made them vulnerable and targets for attack.

In terms of the unique contribution to peacekeeping missions, most male peacekeepers interviewed agreed that women were better than men at interacting with the local community. However, this was context specific. Far more important was the ability to communicate with locals and being aware of cultural considerations, with which female peacekeepers sometimes had difficulty. In some cases a lack of understanding of the cultural context led to hostility. In Sudan, for example, local women were hostile towards the female peacekeepers for failing to respect their culture by wearing trousers.

Similarly, respondents disputed claims that female peacekeepers could break down traditional values against women, given their small numbers and the fact that their identity as women was often concealed behind their helmets. In terms of improving the security of local women and children, female peacekeepers felt the locals placed more trust in male soldiers because “they [did] not know how to judge female soldiers.” Also questioned was their supposedly greater ability to ensure access to assistance for women who had been victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The female peacekeepers interviewed in this study indicated they were not trained to assist in this role and in fact knew very little about the gender dynamics in the communities.

Enhance capacity

This research showed that female peacekeepers are not making the contribution they might in peace operations, primarily because they serve in the same capacities as men and are not trained, deployed, or used in capacities where they can make a difference “as women.” The current force structure does not allow women to be deployed separately for specific tasks; rather, they are deployed as part of formed units in infantry-type roles, which place high demands on them that tend to reinforce gender stereotypes.

The deployment of women in small numbers raises the question of whether they can make a difference as peacekeepers. Where they continue to serve in inappropriate occupations and numerically skewed work groups, they experience all the negative consequences of tokenism: performance pressure, social isolation, and role encapsulation.5J. Yoder, “Rethinking Tokenism: Looking Beyond Numbers,” Gender and Society, 1991, 5 (2): 178-92. Without a new approach to facilitate and enhance the capacity of women peacekeepers, their value will remain contested—and resented—by male peacekeepers.

What is clear is that female peacekeepers suffer under a hypermasculine military culture because they are “othered” on many levels that affect their performance. The literature suggests that where women do seem to have made a difference, they were deployed in all-female units and served in predominantly constabulary roles.6M. Bastick, Integrating Gender in Post-conflict Security Sector Reform, Geneva: Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), 2008. Some criticize these units because they are gender segregated, but, ironically, they are the ones most often praised for their success.7O. Simić, “Moving Beyond the Numbers: Integrating Women into Peacekeeping Operations,” NOREF policy brief, March 2013.

This raises the question of whether the creation of an elite “special forces” women’s Peace Corps would ensure the availability of a pool of capable female peacekeepers to ensure the right gender mix for the right tasks, ranging from peacebuilding to peace enforcement. In addition to being capable infantry soldiers, the women in such a special corps should be specifically trained, equipped, and deployed to engage with women at the local community level and understand the local gender dynamics. This is most needed at the tactical level, where the effects of war on local women are felt most directly. This kind of approach could not only enhance the capacity of female peacekeepers, but could also empower local women in countries affected by armed conflict by providing an important link in addressing their specific needs and assisting them in their attempts to bring about a sustainable peace.


The findings of this study are drawn from the research project entitled, “The Contested Value of Female Peacekeepers: Between Rhetoric and Reality,” submitted to the African Peacebuilding Network in August 2013. A sincere word of appreciation is extended to the African Leadership Institute and the Social Sciences Research Council for the partial funding they provided for this project.

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