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Women in Blue Helmets: A Source of Strength and a Force for Good

This article originally appeared in UN Dispatch as a special guest post.

By Kristin Cordell 

While working as a gender-based violence consultant for my first UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was surrounded by victims of violence. I thought constantly about their plight and what was missing in the response by the international community. “Here, more than anywhere,” I thought at the time, “women peacekeepers could do so much to protect and respond to the needs of their fellow women.”

Later, while working for the UN Mission in Liberia, I saw what that impact could be. While evaluating the mission’s attention to gender across units, I found that having more women police, military, and civilian peacekeepers yielded significant results – especially when it comes to the physical safety and security of the most vulnerable. For one thing, more women in the field means more outlets for community-based intelligence gathering (through better interactions with women in the community). Having more women peacekeepers also encourages local women to join their own local security forces, which makes those institutions less corrupt and more transparent. And with women on the beat, we see lower rates of sexual and gender-based violence, abuse, and exploitation, as well as firmer redress for victims of abuse – including judicial systems that deny impunity for perpetrators. As one Liberian told me, regarding the UN policewomen in her country, “Their presence is our security.”

The UN has recognized the need to get more women engaged in peacekeeping, and it’s even launched global campaigns to recruit more women personnel. But despite these laudable efforts, the UN is totally reliant on its member-states (who contribute troops and police voluntarily) to send more qualified women personnel. And so far, the numbers are not there.

It is Refugees International’s recommendation, first and foremost, that the U.S. government both increase the number of women it sends as peacekeepers and help other nations do the same. Some other positive steps would be identifying quality talent, building rosters of vetted women personnel, introducing peacekeeper training curricula that move beyond the basics on post-conflict gender violence, and promoting accountability mechanisms for sexual exploitation and abuse. The U.S. should also complete its UN-mandated National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which would lay the foundation for a coordinated approach to this issue across the government.

The report U.S. Engagement in International Peacekeeping: from Aspiration to Implementation, launched today by the Partnership for Effective Peacekeeping, details these recommendations. But the report also stresses that sending qualified women peacekeepers must be done in support of a much broader policy goal: putting more American soldiers and police in blue helmets across the world. Such a move would show the U.S. is delivering on President Obama’s 2009 Presidential Peacekeeping Initiative, and acting on his vision of the UN as a force for good in the world.

As I said, seeing the impact of women peacekeepers first-hand inspired my work in this area – but inspiration came from another source, too: my mother. She served in the U.S. military for 24 years, and I know personally the depth and range of the talent that exists there. From women working on Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan, to women staffing USAID Disaster Response Teams in the Horn of Africa, our cadre of women civilian and military personnel is stronger than ever. Our commitment to the UN’s inclusion of women peacekeepers should be equally strong.