When Women Wear Blue Helmets

Filipino UN peacekeepers stand in formation during a send-off ceremony at the Villamor Airbase in Manila on September 22, 2014. The 157 soldiers will be deployed as a United Nations peacekeeping force to Haiti. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Devon Haynie

A 14-year-old pulled into the grass and gang raped as she walked by a United Nations base. An 18-year-old asking troops for money, only to be dragged into the bush and sexually assaulted.

It's been a rough year for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, with more allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation seeming to trickle in every few months. Last week, outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret for conduct that had "tarnished" the reputation of the organization.

Earlier in the year, the U.N. reported 99 allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse against its staff in 2015, an increase from 80 in 2014.

There is no easy fix for eliminating sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, which has rattled local civilians in countries like Haiti, Bosnia and Liberia. But there's one possible approach that doesn't often get addressed. If more women were walking around with blue helmets, would sexual violence and abuse at the hands of peacekeepers decrease?

"It's a tricky question," says Aditi Gorur, director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. The honest answer, she says, is "that we just don't have enough information" to know.

There are several arguments for why adding more female peacekeepers could curb sexual assault and abuse, Gorur says. More women may have a positive effect on men's behavior, changing a culture of "toxic masculinity" that can lead to crimes. One 1995 study for the U.N. Advancement of Women, for example, found that reports of rape and prostitution fell significantly with just a small female presence.

Abused women may also feel more comfortable coming to other women with their stories. And when they do, female peacekeepers may be more likely to report it.

"It's always difficult for [local civilians] to talk to peacekeepers anyway," Gorur says. "There are language barriers. They are a little suspicious about what people with guns are doing. Especially if you have a woman who has experienced sexual abuse by a peacekeeper, you can imagine she might feel more comfortable speaking with women."

nother reason why more female peacekeepers could decrease sexual abuse and exploitation: They are less likely to commit crimes in the first place.

"As far as I know, all of the cases to date that have been reported have been perpetrated by male peacekeepers," says Sahana Dharmapuri, senior adviser for the Women, Peace and Security Initiative at One Earth Future Foundation, who wrote a 2013 report addressing the topic for the International Peace Institute. "Female peacekeepers don't seem to have that track record. So, the thinking is, if we had more female peacekeepers on the ground there would be less of these cases."

In 2000, the U.N. passed Security Council resolution 1325, which, among other things, called for more women to be involved in all aspects of peacekeeping. Women peacekeepers could better interact with and understand the needs of 50 percent of the local population, the thinking went, going a long way toward making missions more effective.

Some progress toward the goal has been made, including the deployment of a handful of all-female police units from countries like India, Bangladesh and Samoa. But as of August 2016, women made up only about 4 percent of peacekeeping missions worldwide, accounting for 3.4 percent of military troops and experts and 16 percent of individual police.

For women to have a significant impact on peacekeeping, more women need to be in leadership positions as well as on the ground, experts say. And in the mid and senior levels, the U.N. says, gender disparity is particularly stark. As of 2012, women made up only 29 percent of international and 17 percent of national staff in peacekeeping operations and special political missions.

But increasing the number of women in all kinds of peacekeeping roles is easier said than done, particularly since developing nations – the countries most likely to participate in peacekeeping missions – tend to be the least likely countries to have significant numbers of women in their militaries and police units, experts say.

"We will always struggle under this current arrangement where [countries] who have the most women in their armed forces are contributing the least troops," says Jim Della-Giacoma, deputy director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

Even if the U.N. were to meet its goals of incorporating more women into peacekeeping missions, experts doubt it would be a panacea.

At the core, they say, sexual violence and other crimes are a product of a lack of discipline within the force itself. If peacekeepers think they can act with impunity, they have no reason to change their behavior.

The U.N. currently lacks any legal authority to seek justice for perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation, leaving the responsibility to member states themselves.

"If poorly trained and poorly disciplined peacekeepers think they can get away with sexual exploitation and abuse, then it's never going to stop," Gorur says. "They need to know there will be consequences."

The article was originally published by U.S. News on September 28, 2016