Originally Published 2015-06-26 00:00:00 Published on Jun 26, 2015
It is important to examine how female peacekeepers themselves experience gender and other relations while on duty where the power differential in relation to locals is in their favour, but remains different in relation to their male colleagues.
Keeping peace in a war zone

"It is hard to get food sometimes — if you don't have a husband or someone to fight for you. I don't have anyone else to turn to. The UN soldiers help girls like me — they give us food and things if we go with them." — young girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2004.

The issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in post-conflict areas is an open secret within diplomatic circles. A study by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, which became public earlier this month, has highlighted the seriousness of the problem yet again. According to the report, "evidence from two peacekeeping mission countries demonstrates that transactional sex is quite common but under-reported in peacekeeping missions".

India prides itself for being the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. A total of 1,80,000 Indian troops have participated in 44 of the 69 operations mandated by the UN Security Council. It is, therefore, concerning that the report includes three cases where Indian peacekeepers faced "substantiated allegations" of sexual exploitation and abuse between 2010 and 2013. Notably thought the report mentions that "the largest troop contributing countries (like India) do not have the highest number of substantiated allegations against their personnel".

Presently, the UN has more than 1,25,000 troops, police and civilians deployed in 16 operations around the world. In the last decade, the organisation has taken note of the sexual abuse issue. it has developed a three-pronged strategy of prevention, enforcement and remedial action to address sexual exploitation and abuse by military, police and civilian personnel of peacekeeping missions. Through these efforts, a downward trend was observed since 2009. However, sexual exploitation and abuse allegations have continued in disturbing numbers. In 2013, they increased to 66 from 60 in 2012. Shockingly, allegations involving minors accounted for over one third of all allegations from 2008-2013.

UN Peacekeepers usually operate in post-conflict settings where the locals already suffer from collapsed economies, virtually non-existent justice systems and ineffective law enforcement. Significant power differentials exist between the peacekeepers and the locals. The exploitation of this power differential to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of a war-ravaged population goes against the very genesis of the United Nations. Incidents of rape and instances where sex is exchanged for food, money or medicine not only exacerbate the desperation of the locals but also weaken the credibility of the peacekeeping mission in advising post-conflict nation-builders on adherence to international human rights standards.

While the new report highlights remaining gaps in remedial assistance to victims as well as the need to further strengthen the enforcement of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation by forces, it has also reignited the discussion that deployment of more women in peacekeeping forces would help prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. Notably, India has an all-woman police contingent deployed in Liberia under auspices of the UN. But those is acknowledged that women should be systematically involved in Peacekeeping Operations, approaches to achieve this goal have been sporadic and isolated.

The assumption behind these calls for an increase in the number of women in PKOs is that it will lead to a "civilising effect" on their male counterparts as well as a decrease in the number of HIV/AIDS cases directly or indirectly linked to PKOs, and a decline in the number of brothels around peacekeeping bases. While evidence does suggest that the deployment of women peacekeepers in PKOs may foster a change in male behaviour, the argument that their mere presence will alter the masculinised post-war environment in which peacekeepers operate is not sustainable.

Also, arguments based on the perception of women's inherent capacity for peace and commitment to gender issues also rely on stereotypes. Female peacekeepers, like their male counterparts, are trained to deal with combative situations. Crucially, they have no specific training in the history and politics of the local culture and conflict. The possibility that most female peacekeepers may well take on UN assignments for financial and professional progress, much like their male colleagues from developing nations, must also be considered.

However, this is not to say that mainstreaming gender in Peacekeeping Operations is unnecessary or irrelevant. Last year, the UN appointed Major General Kristin Lund as the first female commander of the peacekeeping force. As stated by Major General Lund, being a woman gives one the access to "100 per cent of the population". Hence, the target for gender balanced UN PKOs is essential. Having said that, it is significant to examine how female peacekeepers themselves experience gender and other relations while on duty where the power differential in relation to locals is in their favour, but remains different in relation to their male colleagues.

(The writer is a researcher at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, June 26, 2015

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