Is the United Nations Seriously
Considering Military Women
... as Peacekeepers?
South Korea
South Korea

There are 185 member nations in the UN and several of them have women as integral members of their defense forces. Many have opened all fields to women, unlike the U.S. military who is still humming macho man tunes. The fact that the world's military is more and more assigned to peacekeeping as opposed to warmaking the need for women as peacekeepers should be quite evident.

The following excellent article by Dr Gerard DeGroot, of St Andrews University in Scotland, explores this issue in depth:

A recent British Army recruitment advertisement shows a woman cowering in the corner of bombed building. As the film runs, a caption reads: "She's just been raped by soldiers. The same soldiers murdered her husband. The last thing she wants to see is another soldier. Unless that soldier is a woman."

The advertisement plays upon two recent developments in the military, namely the steady integration of women and the growth of its peacekeeping role. The military, always disdainful of female qualities, suddenly seems to value women because they are women.

Dag Hammarskj, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and second Secretary General of the United Nations, once said that 'peacekeeping is too important to be undertaken by soldiers'. But, he added, 'soldiers are the only ones who can do it'. Because peacekeeping can be violent, combat training is essential. But the peacekeeper must also be conciliatory, patient and peaceful. Few male military personnel combine the qualities of soldier and social worker essential to the job. As a result, UN operations have been marred by aggressive behaviour that exacerbates tensions. The UN is deeply worried about this problem. The solution might be simple: women soldiers.

The contradictions between peacekeeping and conventional soldiering are profound. In most militaries, training accentuates essentially male characteristics. The recruit is encouraged to develop strength and aggression, while ridding himself of stereotypical female attributes like sensitivity and compassion. The well-trained solider is hungry for battle because it is in battle that he asserts his dominance. Yet the peacekeeper is supposed to keep aggression in check and to pursue the path of conciliation. In peacekeeping, violence signifies failure.

Men are inherently more violent than women. Military training has traditionally attempted to develop and channel this male capacity for violence. But controlling it has proved enormously difficult. Soldiers win wars, but they also occasionally commit atrocities when violent tendencies rage out of control. Trained to be heroic, they are often driven to reckless acts. As a result, costly mistakes are made. In Vietnam, for instance, nearly 10,000 Americans died as a result of accidents and friendly fire. Needless deaths occurred when aggression turned blind.

Soldiers are also prone to sexual violence against civilians with whom they come into contact. No army is immune to this problem, as British experience in Cyprus demonstrates. The incidence of rape among US military personnel stationed in Japan is three times higher than would be expected among a similarly sized community at home. This sort of sexual violence has marred UN peacekeeping operations. In more than one case, the incidence of rape and child abuse was so high that official reports proved too sensitive to release. Equally worrying is the rise of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. The number of prostitutes in Phnom Penh increased from 6,000 to 20,000 while the UN was present. One participant country reported that 25 per cent of its soldiers were HIV-positive on their return home.

Needless to say, the participation of UN personnel in the sex trade jeopardises its operations. The extent of the UN's concern was evident last week when experts from around the world were brought to Uppsala University in Sweden for a high level workshop entitled 'Mainstreaming Gender in Multilateral Peacekeeping Operations'. The presence at the workshop of Dr Leonard Kapungu, head Lesson Learned Unit of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), is an indication of just how seriously the UN takes the problem. The DPKO wants to find out whether a greater proportion of women on the ground might make a difference to the success of its operations.

The evidence suggests that women might indeed make a difference. In recent operations, just 1.7 per cent of military peacekeepers deployed by the UN were female. Yet in almost any conflict 80 per cent of the refugees are women and children. In addition to the problems of rape and prostitution mentioned above, the preponderance of males causes practical difficulties. In many cultures, women are virtually prohibited by social convention from talking directly to male strangers. Yet communication is essential to effective peacekeeping. In Somalia, male soldiers caused considerable ill-feeling when they had to frisk local women for weapons whenever they entered refugee camps.

The most notable UN successes of late - in Guatemala, Namibia and South Africa -had a greater than normal female presence. Women, it seems, are not only better able to control violent tendencies, but are also perceived as less of a threat by the local population and therefore less likely to provoke violence. When two males confront each other, the situation often develops into a contest to assert dominance. When a female soldier confronts a male civilian, this quick escalation to violence is less likely. Captain Ingrid Gjerde of the Norwegian Army, who commanded a rifle company in Bosnia, also found that when the men in her unit reacted provocatively to a stressful situation it was often because of their impatience for action. The women, in contrast, were better able to deal with the boredom that characterises most peacekeeping operations.


Evidence also suggests that women peacekeepers are more willing than their male counterparts to seek understanding and reconciliation during disagreements, thus proving themselves more effective negotiators. In Somalia, a marked difference in behaviour was apparent between combat and support units of the US Army. While support groups exhibited a strong inclination to understand the problems facing the host society, combat groups quickly developed a hostile attitude, particularly when the political situation deteriorated. A desire to apply force, even for mild offences, and to assert dominance was evident. It is perhaps no surprise that the combat groups contained no women.

The support groups were still predominantly male. This raises an interesting point, namely that female participation does not have to be large to have a positive effect. In other words, male soldiers are less inclined to assert their dominance if female soldiers are present. Women seem to calm stressful situations. Men and women bring particular skills to the peacekeeping context, and each learns from the other. In addition, the incidence of rape and prostitution fall significantly with just a token female presence. Stated simply, men behave.

The UN operation in South Africa revealed an added benefit of female participation. Local women seem to have been inspired by the presence of female UN peacekeepers as role models and, as a result, were empowered to play a larger part in the politics of their community. This had a profound effect, with more 'feminine' qualities like conciliation and non-violence characterizing the political process. One can imagine an application of this dynamic closer to home: the greater involvement of women in Northern Ireland politics (at every level) might prove beneficial.

Last Friday, the Secretary General gave his full support to the gender mainstreaming study. A preliminary report, with concrete recommendations for action, is expected within six months. There is no doubt that UN officials are serious about this investigation. But it is possible that good intentions will be smothered by bureaucratic inertia or by the refusal of member states to supply a sufficient number of appropriately trained women. The countries that have highly trained female soldiers are mainly those of Europe and North America, yet the UN cannot afford to allow its operations to be dominated by Western powers.

United Kingdom
United Kingdom

The idea of female peacekeepers relies on gender stereotypes of violent men and peaceful women. Many feminists have long been uncomfortable with this essentialist argument. Indeed, the recent integration of women into combat in many Western militaries has been based on the assumption that stereotypes have no validity, in other words that women can be turned into ruthless killers. Thus, Demi Moore, in GI Jane, infiltrated the male bastion of the US Navy Seals by demonstrating that she could be just as mean and aggressive as her male comrades. The UN, on the other hand, would prefer that its female warriors remain womanly.

Posted with permission and thanks to the author. Dr Gerard J. DeGroot is the Chairman of the Department of Modern History at the University of St Andrews. He teaches 20th-century British History and the history of 20th-century wars. Dr. DeGroot has published biographies of Douglas Haig and Archibald Sinclair, a textbook on British society in the Great War, and an edited collection of articles on student protest. He is currently researching the role of women in war and is writing a book on the United States and the Vietnam War, which will be published in 1999. He has been published widely in academic journals, newspapers and magazines. His home page can be found at: Dr. DeGroot

Please note: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is displayed without profit or payment for those who have expressed an interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. Photographs presented by this web captain to enhance the article are copyrighted by their respective countries. - i.e. United Kingdom is Crown Copyright. Nothing on this site is for sale nor is it a commercial venture of any kind - it is a one person page for, and about military women - by one retired military woman.

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