Combating sexual and gender-based violence: a key role for US women peacekeepers

Kristen Cordell
2 March 2009

"Send me your female troops, your police, your civilian personnel and your senior diplomats and I will ensure that they are all considered; that qualified candidates are rostered; and that the maximum number are deployed to the field as quickly as humanly possible"

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in a Unifem press release, April 2008.

The widespread and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has hindered the country's ability to stabilize.  While the overall effectiveness of its civilian protection abilities is regularly scrutinized, it is clear that the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC) is now prioritizing a coordinated response to sexual violence as part of a renewed mandate making protection from and prevention of sexual violence a priority.  The mission is taking incremental steps to ensure security and provide protection to women, through the establishment of coordinated and vetted police and peacekeeping units focused specifically on the issue of sexual violence and the creation of hybrid civil/military units for improved monitoring and reporting. These two tasks are novel and unique for the UN, and call for personnel with advanced knowledge on the sensitive issue of sexual violence. It is a need which the US should consider, as it is particularly suited for the skills, abilities and experiences of US women military personnel, who have experience with addressing sexual violence in insecure environments.Kristen Cordell is a former Analyst for the RAND Corporation in Washington DC, where she specialized in Gender and Nation Building.  She currently works as a consultant on Sexual Violence and Security Sector Reform for MONUC in Kinshasa. 

Peacekeepers are needed both to assist those already victimized by sexual violence and to promote an atmosphere of protection against further incidents of violence.  US policewomen and US military are particularly suited  for this type of peacekeeping. Rules and regulations preventing women from participating in direct combat in the US Military have ensured that their expertise lies in the provision of key support roles (including those fundamental to operating the military's vast medical, legal and security infrastructure) that are extremely useful in any post conflict environment - where the goal of peacekeeping is the provision of human security. But there are other reasons, closer to home. Female military personnel also have expertise (both lived and trained) with sexual violence, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. In 2008, the Pentagon found that one third of women in the various branches of the United States military reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment.  US service women are all too familiar with many of the steps necessary for prevention and protection against sexual violence, including: developing a code of conduct in response to sexual violence, proper response and follow up for victims, and capacity building for future reform.  They may also be poised to assist with mending the image of UN peacekeepers in the DRC - where sexual exploitation from within the ranks is as pressing an issue as from the rebel forces.

Under its renewed mandate, in January 2009 MONUC requested 3000 new troops (to add to the current 1,700 peacekeepers) from its member states, including a request to the US Mission to the United Nations. The request, presented to Ambassador Rice, will require coordination and support from the Department of Defense and eventual approval of the Department of State, under newly anointed Secretary Clinton. While the language of the UN's request is purposefully vague (without for instance quota for female personnel or specialists) USUN should draw attention to the pressing need for women military personnel by including background documents on the nature of sexual violence in the DRC, linking this information to proposed staffing as the policy makes its way through the approval process.  The US civil society response to this issue has been organized and effective (organized through groups such as VDAY, United Women for All Nations (UWAN), and the NGO Working Group on Women Peace and Security) and the military response should be no less.

Due to the great resource demands of two simultaneous international conflicts and long-standing national perceptions of the United Nation's command structure, the United States contributes very few military personnel to UN Peacekeeping Missions. As of November 2008 120 countries contribute a total of 90 thousand military personnel to UN Peacekeeping missions around the world. The US gave just 212 personnel, 190 of whom are police, 6 of whom are in the DRC. In the absence of personnel, the US tends to give cash and infrastructure support.  For instance in 2005 the United States was the biggest financial con­tributor to MONUC, providing about one-third of its $746 million operating budget. While this is helpful to the continual functionality of the missions, it illustrates little consideration either of the specific needs of peacekeeping missions or the specialized skills of U.S. military personnel. In the case of countries with extremely high rates of sexual and gender based violence, a void for quality personnel should be filled by US women military personnel who have the necessary expertise for establishing rule of law, securing the peace and providing protection and prevention strategies.

At the UNIFEM Kigali Conference on Women Peace and Security, keynote speaker Gerard DeGroot stated, "women can improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations for the simple reason that they are not men."[1] This comment, while oversimplistic, alludes to the two levels at which women peacekeepers make an impact: they have an advantage in their stated task, securing the peace, and in the perception of that task by the community. We see an excellent example of this in the deployment of an all women Indian Policing Unit to Liberia (UNMIL) in 2007. While tasks assigned to the unit were fairly basic (monitoring and patrol assignments) the perception of the women's presence carried significant weight. While best practices from such endeavors are still being collected, the anecdotal evidence suggests success and has encouraged the peacekeeping community to consider replicating the group. UNMIL'S Head of the UN Mission Ms. Ellen Margrethe Løj, commended the unit's contribution to the collective healing of the war torn community and drew attention to the fact "that women need not be victims, but healers and protectors in the new Liberia." American military women also have both the strong professional background and the collective demeanor to advance the real and perceived output of their work.

The experience of US military women has been one of gradual and incremental equality. This illustrates a fundamentally powerful story line for others to replicate. In the DRC's security stabilization plan, recruitment and retention of women military personnel is a top priority. While the story of the American military woman has not been without difficulties - after all converting a once all-male institution into one poised to promote gender equality has not been an easy task (nor is the struggle over yet) - the resilience, interdependency and stoic nature of the fight of the typical female Navy corpsman or Marine sergeant provides an excellent example to others.

Under the current resource and personnel constraints it is not at this time likely that we will see widespread reform of the US policy in providing troops to peacekeeping missions. However, a careful needs assessment reveals a huge demand for a resource that we have in great supply- illustrating a unique opportunity to build good will and advance our international standing. The experiences of US military women in this environment would illustrate (much more than development dollars) that the US is dedicated to women's rights in a universal context. Their organization and response to the situation could prove paramount for some of the world's most disenfranchised women and communities.


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