Considering that the UN, in its official website, defines women peacekeepers as a “Key to Peace”, because, as the UN itself and many scholars affirm, they have the potential to bring to greater legitimization of the forces, more effective protection of the local population, but also to a higher likelihood that fewer incidents of sexual-exploitation and abuse and gender-related crimes will be committed in the first place, while more will be reported in case they actually happen, a question arises: which role do women have in the global governance of conflict and peace?

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which institutionalized the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda at the international level, adopted in 2000, is the first document to explicitly recognize the importance of a gender perspective in peace operations and military affairs and it states clearly that the Security Council:

Further urges the Secretary-General to seek to expand the role and contribution of women in United Nations field-based operations, and especially among military observers, civilian police, human rights and humanitarian personnel; […] Expresses its willingness to incorporate a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations, and urges the Secretary-General to ensure that, where appropriate, field operations include a gender component

Thus, according to UN Women, UNSCR 1325 shows “a high-level theory of change” in relation to understanding the importance of women’s participation in peace and security. Indeed, even if usually feminist perspectives and traditional military values are considered to be incompatible with each other, in the sense that the implementation of a gender perspective or the inclusion of women in combat units stands against military effectiveness, to actually understand the prospective impact of the overall WPS agenda, it is necessary to look openly at the current world scenario.

In fact, in the contemporary context, rather than traditional inter-state warfare, the most common military tasks have become complex stability and peace-support operations and so even military organizations play, or better are required to play, a fundamental role in the protection of civilians, comprehending tasks in the humanitarian and diplomatic field, the establishment of order, and the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence. In this setting women not only enhance the impact of the armed forces in terms of its material factor, but also bring a new and different comprehension of the importance of non-traditional security issues. A gender perspective in the conflicts has the potential to lead to an amplification of the range of violence that must be addressed and can shape different tactics in warfare itself. Moreover, women can supply specific competencies and views and can for example gain access not solely to local women, assuring this way the establishment of a relationship with the community and even the protection itself of the troops on the ground, but also to whole populations and areas that all-male units would not have access to. Further, female liaison officers could facilitate contacts with humanitarian organizations.

On the other hand, though, as the Swedish scholar Robert Egnell, Vice-Chancellor of the Swedish Defence University and professor of military sociology and leadership, points out, it is fundamental to first change the mentality of commanders and planners, for women’s specific contribution, in terms of women’s perspectives, information, and analyses, not to be ignored or undervalued. Indeed, the implementation of a gender perspective in the military organizations is seen as inherently problematic by many feminist scholars and activists who warn against the risk of instrumental interpretations of the whole WPS agenda in terms of enhancing military effectiveness, thus reinforcing the patriarchal war system, rather than reforming it. Additionally, Egnell warns that when women are recruited as “peacemakers,” or because of supposedly feminine qualities such as being compassionate, diplomatic, or displaying communicative skills, they tend to be framed within “character roles” and consequently will not be in a position to impact the whole organization and participate in it on the same ground as men. In fact, within peacekeeping operations women are usually employed in roles such as nurses, doctors or administrators or in traditionally gendered units such as women and children’s protection, while their presence in leadership roles is minimal. Thus, they are associated to and judged in relation to “women’s work” rather than providing security and protection, as other scholars, such as Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley who deeply researched peacekeeping and gender, argue.

At the same time, this instrumentalization in resorting to women while confining them to strictly stereotypical roles can be directly connected to the very language of UNSR 1325, where women, according to Laura J. Shepherd, who extensively looked at the narrative emerging from the WPS agenda, are still continuously portrayed as “eternal victims of violence”. In fact, Shepherd and her colleague Paul Kirby, working at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security of the London School of Economics, have highlighted that as long as the focus is only on meeting specific participation targets without looking at the gendered power dynamics which are enacted, essentialist conceptions of women as inherently pacific, as messengers and builders of peace, will not be challenged. It is, thus, fundamental to look not just at the numerical presence of women in a mission but specifically at their position and, even more importantly, at the gender relations at play, at the existence of a gender perspective within the very mission and at the wider interaction of all these components with the broader peace and security processes where they are located (being aware that gender does not equal women).

Thence, in order for women to effectively and actively impact on the global governance of peace and conflict, it is undeniable that a paradigm shift is required or, even if we will be able to see a wider and increasing participation of women in this domain, their presence will remain absolutely secondary and tokenist. Indeed, considering that governance “is far from value-neutral”, as Professor Anna Triandafyllidou reminds us, but it is actually embedded in conceptions so deeply rooted to become invisible, without taking an actual gendered point of view, the final answer to the question: which role do women have in the global governance of conflict and peace?, will remain an uncomfortable silence.


(UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)