Confronting gender-based violence in the UN: The promises of a system that no longer works

Confronting gender-based violence in the UN: The promises of a system that no longer works

Written by Benedetta Castellaro

Photo by AFRICOM Public Affairs Office

The United Nations’ peacekeeping operations are often promoted as one of the most important instruments available to the international community for maintaining peace in societies at risk of conflict. Despite being celebrated by the UN itself as a beacon of hope towards global peace, behind the blue and white institutional façades lie terrible truths that are meticulously hidden. One of these is the persistent gender-based violence happening within missions in majority countries: for more than 30 years, the voices of local people have been denouncing numerous episodes of sexual exploitation of local women and children perpetuated by those who, theoretically, are charged with their defense and protection as a priority: international peacekeepers.

To begin with, it is important to understand that peacekeeping operations are designed as short-term measures, the objective of which should be to ensure the physical safety of people while waiting for deeper and more prolonged efforts organized by peacebuilding activities, which will instead address the root causes of the conflict and the possibilities for reconciliation and reconstruction. Nevertheless, and in order for the eventual peace agreement to be respected effectively and sustainably, peacekeeping operations should be as representative as possible of the societies in which they operate; to this end, it would be ideal for women and men to be incorporated equally into the mission team. However, this has never happened: almost 80 years after the creation of the UN, the male presence dominates not only peacekeeping operations but also most of the organisation’s functions

Voices of denunciation of gender-based violence perpetuated by male peacekeepers first started to be heard in 1992, in the context of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Thirty-one years ago, an open letter signed by both UNTAC members and the Cambodian community raised public alarm about sexual harassment, violence, prostitution, and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases within the mission

“We, as a group of women and men living and working in Cambodia, feel a sense of outrage at the unacceptable behavior of some UNTAC men”, they wrote. “Sexual harassment occurs regularly in public restaurants, hotels and bars, banks, markets and stores, to the point that many women feel strongly intimidated. […] The inappropriate behavior of some UNTAC staff men leaves women with a feeling of powerlessness. These men hold positions of authority on behalf of the international community and should set an example for others.” Among many details, the signatories also reported a concrete example: “A six-year-old Khmer-American girl was invited into the backyard of the house of some UNTAC civilian policemen who regularly invited a steady stream of prostitutes to the same house. […] The mother felt helpless because if she confronted these men she could have caused further problems.”

In response to the open letter, in October 1992 Special Representative Yasushi Akashi announced the creation of a Community Relations Office, headed by female peacekeeper Hiroko Miyamura. Miyamura’s office was tasked with receiving complaints from the Cambodian community about the behavior of UNTAC personnel, and liaising with the community to educate staff on issues of cultural sensitivity and gender awareness. However, it appears that the Cambodian example did not help, and 13 years later, in 2005, there were 373 complaints filed against UN personnel involved in peacekeeping missions: the most troubling cases involved sex with prostitutes and sex with minors. 

Also in 2005, a detailed report detailing sexual violence committed by peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia compelled the UN to take further action. In 2006, a Model Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was developed and published, aimed at improving troop discipline and behavior and encouraging accountability by the soldiers’ home countries. In 2007, however, more peacekeepers were reported for the systematic abuse and rape of 12-year-old children in Sudan

Although the idea of including more women in peacekeeping operations may seem like a possible and quick solution to the problem, unfortunately it will never be enough. In fact, studies show that women involved in military missions often tend to conform to the existing hyper-masculine environment rather than challenge or transform it. 

Combating gender-based violence in UN peacekeeping operations, therefore, requires a radical change. Women’s participation must be promoted at all levels of peacekeeping operations, from strategic decisions to basic tasks. Women’s voices must be heard and prioritised in the development of policies and procedures that can effectively address the prosecution of sex crimes and accountability at all levels of the mission. Only then, we can start to expect lasting change and sustainable peace coming from these operations.


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