Doubling the number of women in peacekeeping - Mission Impossible* 7?

by Thammy Evans · January 18th, 2018.

I walked into a store on Piccadilly in London not so long ago to buy a pair of cords [1]. When the young lady behind the till found out that I had served in the military, she said: ‘I wanted to sign up to the army in my country, but when I heard about the rampant sexual harassment in the army, I decided it wasn’t for me.’ She is from a country in what is considered Old Europe.


Her story is indicative of the reforms and changes that need to happen in all our countries if we are seriously considering meeting the UN demand to double the number of women in peacekeeping by 2020. Such an aspiration requires the concerted efforts of all nations to increase the number of women available to deploy on peacekeeping. More than incentives to attract existing female soldiers into peacekeeping deployments, crucially, this means increasing the recruitment of women into the military in the first place. If the anecdote above is anything to go by, fundamental change still needs to take place regarding the attractiveness of the military as a fair employer and a non-discriminatory environment to work in. Necessarily, this implies understanding the needs of women and men that can help to contribute to a conducive working environment between fellow soldiers.


I remember all too often on operations thinking of the irony that ‘the enemy’ was meant to be on the outside of ‘the wire’, when most of the frustration of being on operations for many soldiers was feeling that ‘the enemy’ was unsavoury aspects of the military environment, views, and structural biases inside ‘the wire’. (And not just with regards to issues affecting women.)


At least twice a year, I hear the riposte that there is no room for more women in the army, because at the end of the day, soldiers have to lift heavy packs—to which women are not suited, so the argument goes—and they have to fight. (There are so many examples of women, especially in rebel militias who have fought bravely down to the tooth and nail varnish, that I hardly need to repeat examples here.) If all else fails, those who sign up to fight and carry heavy packs are of course welcome to do so. However, hand to hand combat through honed physical prowess is not the only thing that armies are required to do today.


When faced by the still recurring view from infantrymen (they are invariably infantrymen) that women are unsuited to the military’s primary role of fighting, a colleague of mine asked an assembled crowd of visitors from the army how many of them were in the infantry. Only one person put their hand up out of the 17 military visitors (all men). That person who put their hand up was the infantryman who asked the question. The remaining 17 illustrated the wide variety of roles within the military, and especially for the ways in which ‘wars’ are fought today, relying more on intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR). Command support, combat support, and combat service support make up large proportions of the ‘tooth (combat arms) to tail (non-combat arms)’ ratio of the army. Cyber warfare is not usually filled with the stereotypical ‘fighter’ with a heavy pack (my deep apologies to any stereotyping here of my cyber friends).


Stabilisation roles—the infamous ‘war among the people’—requires contact with local populations for which the role of female soldiers is now well acknowledged. Tactically speaking, combatting conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) equally requires an army that understands these issues, can earn the trust of a society affected by it, and crucially, does not perpetuate CRSV itself. It also requires men and women who can conduct the sort of gendered analysis at an operational level to better inform command decisions. Strategically, it requires the sort of leaders who can make informed decisions affecting such matters based on conviction and deep personal experience. Such an army can benefit enormously from reflecting the representation of women in society within its very own ranks.


So, aside from all putting down our weapons and talking nicely to each other (Plan A), or improving our understanding of how to tackle the drivers that lead to violent conflict (Plan B), how do we increase the number of women in our militaries (Plan C)? A lot is being done in the global north to tackle sexual harassment within our ranks, not only against women, but also against men. The figures are shockingly high for so called ‘civilised’ nations. More can be done to tackle inherent biases [2]. It is the global south, however, that supplies by far the largest number of peacekeeping troops, with 50% coming from Africa, and a mere 8% from Europe and North America [3]. Only 4% of the UN’s almost 79,000 [4] peacekeeping troops are women, which means deploying another 3,500 women at any one time. With a deployment cycle of one in six (six months on operations, 30 months on training, recuperation and other duties), this would require another 21,000 women. And with the attrition [5] between recruitment, selection, training, and deployability, this probably means at least a doubling of those numbers to recruit an extra 40,000 women. Combatting bias and culture, in addition to the already high turn-over in the military system, puts a different spin on what constitutes the front line order of battle.


I often wonder whether, if the world’s armies were made of 50% women and 50% men, would we be able to fight each other? Would it be a shame if we could not?


In defence colleges around the world, we study the famous military strategies of Sun Zi. “是故百戰百勝,非善之善者也;不戰而屈人之兵,善之善者也 — the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” is perhaps Sun Zi’s most oft repeated maxim. Some armies around the world have yet to master the Master’s words. Others are doing better.


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 *Mission Impossible is a franchise Hollywood movie, of which all five movies so far, and likely the sixth will fail the Bechdel test, which is for a movie to have at least two named women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. See Bitch Flicks: The Women of the Mission Impossible Franchise. Mission Impossible 6 is due out in July 2018. 

[1] Corduroy, or cord, is a type of ribbed fabric made of cotton or wool (duroy). Its hardwearing yet stylish nature makes it popular for trousers among military officers.

[2] The Royal Society: Understanding Unconscious Bias

[3] Wikipedia: List of Countries by number of UN Peacekeepers

[4] United Nations Peacekeeping

[5] Data available on US recruitment attrition rates for instance, show a loss of 40% between contract and completion of first duty. See 'To become "force of future," Army must fix personnel churn'

Top Photo: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

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