Canada’s most wanted: women

The pitfalls of gender imbalance among peacekeepers

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Scandal buffs may recall that when a UN peacekeeping mission got under way in Cambodia in the early 1990s, the number of brothels suddenly spiked. The new patrons, it turned out, were male troops. Rather than condemn their actions, the head of the mission uncouthly replied: “Boys will be boys.”

That fiasco highlighted just one of the pitfalls of gender imbalance among peacekeepers. Experts began to realize that the presence of female officers can modify male behaviour in a positive way. For instance, when female peacekeepers are present, the number of brothels and even cases of HIV/AIDS declines, says Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, director of peace missions research at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Which helps explain why, nearly 20 years post-Cambodia, the tide has shifted: “People are trying to change the gender balance in UN peacekeeping missions,” says Lemay-Hébert.

Last month, the UN expounded on its initiative to boost the number of female police in peacekeeping operations from just over eight per cent to 20 per cent by 2014. “No society has 92 per cent men and eight per cent women,” said Ann-Marie Orler, UN police adviser, emphasizing that only 1,173 of the more than 13,000 police officers currently serving in peacekeeping missions are female. The campaign was first announced last August to mark the 10th anniversary of Resolution 1325, which recognized the importance of expanding the role of women in UN operations. Female peacekeepers will offer a “sympathetic ear” to victims of sexual violence, serve as role models to local women and girls, and “defuse tension,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in June, adding that “deploying more women reflects natural justice.”

To reach its target, the UN needs member states to commit to providing more female peacekeepers—especially women who speak French, the language in many countries with ongoing missions. This, of course, puts Canada in a favourable position, says Sophie Toupin, gender adviser for the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Ottawa, who helps train female officers for UN operations.

And it would be particularly appropriate given our peacekeeping tradition—except that, critics charge, Canada has lost sight of that role. Today, out of 101,867 UN peacekeeping police and military personnel, only 186 are Canadian. (Most are in Haiti and Sudan.) In other words, Canada ranks 53rd of 115 contributing countries—well below Pakistan (first), India (third), Rwanda (ninth), Ethiopia (12th) and every other G8 country except the United States (71st).

“It’s really embarrassing. And yet, Canadians generally think that we are peacekeepers,” says Carolyn McAskie, who headed the UN peacekeeping mission in Burundi, and is now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa. Many Western countries, including Canada, backed away from involvement in UN missions, she explains, after grave mistakes were made in places such as Rwanda. Also, McAskie continues, Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan has meant there aren’t enough troops to go around. She says there have been formidable changes to peacekeeping, and finds the gap between Canadians’ perception of our contributions and the reality to be worrisome. “I don’t think there’s a public debate in which Canadians are really informed of the nature of UN peacekeeping.”

There is hope, however, that this will soon change—and that female peacekeepers may become the new face of a Canadian tradition. Despite Canada’s relatively meagre number of peacekeepers, 13 per cent are female—one of the highest ratios of all contributing countries. Work is also under way among federal agencies and experts to establish an action plan on the role of Canadian women in UN missions. The document, which is currently in draft phase, may recommend that Canada commit to contributing a specific number of females, and could be adopted within a few months, say sources familiar with the plan.

For Toupin, who is considering becoming a humanitarian peacekeeper, the decision weighs heavily: “You would be there for six, nine, 12 months. In Darfur you live under a tent, you have restriction of movement,” she told Maclean’s from Khartoum, Sudan, where she is running educational programs for female officers. For would-be peacekeepers who have children, the separation from family—and the devastation to be witnessed—are also deterrents.

Toupin isn’t romantic about the work of a peacekeeper, but she is hopeful: “Sometimes the personal experience that you gain, and what you contribute, equals or surpasses the challenges you might face.”

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