Friday, March 6, 2015

Keeping the Peace: the Case Study of an All-Female Peacekeeping Unit

This week’s WAPPP seminar, “All-Female Contingents on the Front Lines of Peace and Conflict,” covered the case study of the all-female peacekeeping unit in the southern Philippines charged with ensuring that the 2014 ceasefire agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is upheld. Margaret Jenkins, Research Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for Women, Peace & Security and a current WAPPP Fellow, presented her research on the subject, as the first half of a two-year research project on the effectiveness and experience of all-female contingents working in conflict zones.

Despite the goal of having women make up 20% of UN peacekeepers by 2015, under 5% of current peacekeepers are female. Jenkins considers this unit in the Philippines to be an innovative insight into why progress is so slow, calling it an “in your face” example of gender mainstreaming in this field. She argued that the case is so important because it a) amplifies the debate over mainstreaming via an all-female unit and b) lends itself to comparative research with all-male units.

After decades of fighting between the Moro insurgency and the Government, which left 100,000 people dead and thousands more displaced, a political agreement was signed - although not ratified - between the two parties last year. Following this agreement, Mary Ann Arnado, Secretary General of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, suggested the creation of an all-female peacekeeping contingent in addition to the other, largely conservative, Muslim and all-male units in the area.

As might be expected, there has been pushback in response to the all-female contingent. The women in the unit have noted that they feel like they haven’t been taken that seriously, while some are concerned that their duties as peacekeepers violate their religious obligations to live within strict gender norms. Some outsiders have expressed concern that the unit’s purpose is based on foreign or Western ideas, as well as questioned whether the unit is tough enough or if its members have the necessary skills and awareness for the task at hand. The unit has responded strongly to such concerns, citing international law to defend their legitimacy and building relationships within the communities served.

Though some might assume that fighting gender-based violence (GBV) would be a priority for an all-female unit considering that women are overwhelmingly the victims of gender-motivated crimes, the unit has a particular jurisdiction that does not focus on GBV. They are tasked primarily with monitoring the ceasefire, just like other civilian protection groups in the region. However, Jenkins recounted incidents involving rape in which the local communities and tribes called on the local knowledge of the all-female contingent for help.

Jenkins examined the cohesion and diversity of the unit and found that diversity is central to the contingent. The women serve in a very diverse region with a long history of sectarian violence, to the point where many of the women in the unit had never interacted with a woman of another religion prior to serving together in this mission. The unit itself is comprised of indigenous women, Christian women and Muslim women all from same area, with ages ranging from 22 to mid-60s. A major policy lesson Jenkins took from this case is how the effectiveness of the unit lies in the women’s local knowledge and this dedication to diversity. 

Much of the justification behind creating and maintaining an all-female contingent is based on essentialist arguments - i.e. that women bring something unique to the table, such as their inherent peacefulness, experience as caregivers, etc. - which many in the field find problematic. Jenkins emphasized the need to analyze the effectiveness of such units, the same as how any other peacekeeping unit would be evaluated. She hopes that her future research will focus on a similar all-female peacekeeping unit in Sudan, which has recently been recognized internationally, as well as all-female UN contingents.

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