Just one month ago the United Nations deployed its first all-women peacekeeping unit, a group of trained policewomen from India now serving in Liberia. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports this team is a sign of the continuing evolution of women in peacekeeping missions.
In 2000, the United Nations adopted a landmark resolution to address the impact of war on women and spur greater participation of women in peace keeping. The U.N. department of peacekeeping operations appointed Comfort Lamptey as a gender adviser to help increase the role of women peacekeepers and study gender issues within peacekeeping operations.
Lamptey says the resolution grew out of the advocacy of women in war-torn regions who wanted a greater voice. Their regional advocacy caught the attention of U.N. officials.
"During the 1990s, we saw a rise in levels of internal conflicts in different continents, in Africa, in Asia, Eastern Europe and all the former Soviet Union states," said Comfort Lamptey. "I think what was clear was that while many of them were not engaged in the processes leading up to the conflict, they were being adversely effected by the war through violence against women, through the fact that they have to be solely responsible for the upkeep for their communities when the men are out fighting, through the fact that many women are becoming widows and single heads of households. And yet when it comes to actually helping to find solutions to peace, in spite of the impact of the war on them and the responsibilities that they assume during war time, they are not being consulted."
The reaction to women peacekeepers has been mixed in some locations, but their supporters say the advantages are clear. In some traditional societies, it is more acceptable for women to work with women. Lamptey has no doubt that women peacekeepers are better able to deal with women who have been victims of violence.
"I think that in a lot of countries women who have been subject to gender-based violence feel more comfortable talking to a woman," she said. "In many countries where women have been raped by men in uniform, they are more comfortable talking to another woman than men in uniforms. Having women in the field who are well-trained may be able to respond to women who have been violated."
As a side benefit, U.N. officials hope that women can set an example for male counterparts and reduce the instances of sexual exploitation that occurred in some peacekeeping units in recent years.
"My personal view, it's not scientific, is that the presence of more women can actually help dilute a macho approach to peacekeeping," noted Comfort Lamptey. "This is my own personal belief that if you have a contingent of 50 peacekeepers that are all men, the dynamics will be different than if you suddenly have 15 women, and 35 men."
Lamptey notes that in many societies, women peacekeepers have provided an extra benefit: they have become role models.
"We had women from Timor Leste and Burundi attest to the fact that the fact that we had women peacekeepers helped them galvanize their own aspirations to either join the local police, which we were helping to build in the case of Timor, the few women who were there served as role models," she said. "Similarly, in Burundi we had the head of the U.N. mission who was a woman and the local Burundi women said they were very inspired that the head of the UN in the country was a woman and that strengthened their own aspirations."
Increasing the numbers of women serving in the military components of peacekeeping missions is an ongoing struggle. Lamptey says troop-contributing nations rarely meet the number of requests for women made by the U.N. peacekeeping department. India, Pakistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia are among the top troop contributing countries. Lamptey says women account for less than two percent of the military in peacekeeping operations. Women make up four percent of the police and almost 30 percent of the civilian staffs of missions.