A five-year campaign to boost the number of UN female peacekeepers is progressing steadily in police units, but "seems to be stuck" at a minuscule percentage in military contingents, Lt-Col Alejandro Alvarez of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), told IRIN.
The UN Secretariat has repeatedly emphasized the proven benefits of having more female peacekeepers, especially in regions where sexual violence has been or still is a serious problem, but there are hiccups.
"The Secretary-General can set any number [of female peacekeepers], but ... It depends on the will of the countries that are contributing the troops. They say, 'We don't have enough female troops, so we cannot send them'; there is also always the case of countries having the women, and just not sending them, but that is an internal problem," Alvarez, a personnel officer, said.
The advantages of a strong presence of female peacekeeper in conflict and post-conflict zones include creating a safer space for girls and women who have suffered sexual violence, said Marianne Mollman, advocacy director of women's rights at Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog organization.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a campaign in August 2009 to lift the percentage of women peacekeepers to 20 percent in police units by 2014, and to 10 percent in military contingents.
Yet only 2.3 percent of the 88,661 military peacekeepers serving in 17 different missions are women, whereas in 2008 they made up 2.18 percent of military contingents, Alvarez said. Approximately 8.2 percent of the 13,221 UN police are women, a figure that jumped from 6.5 percent in April.
In 2000, Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council called on the Secretary-General to "progress on gender mainstreaming throughout peacekeeping missions and all other aspects related to women and girls."
Subsequent Security Council resolutions outlined more comprehensive methods for using peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict zones, including increasing the number of women peacekeepers.
|A lot of member states are beginning to understand that when it comes to peacekeeping missions, you really do need to have both women and men in the military and police equally represented|
The first all-female Formed Police Unit (FPU), deployed in Liberia in 2007, made a substantial difference to the women victimized in rampant sexual violence during the country's civil war, said Lea Angela Biason, a DPKO gender affairs associate.
The UN Mission in Liberia noted that after the deployment of Indian female peacekeepers, the percentage of women in the national police force rose from 13 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2009.
Women police were often placed in the front lines in riots, as they can reportedly help calm raucous crowds, Biason said, and the presence of women in uniform also appeared to encourage Liberian women to report instances of sexual violence.
The UN Secretariat plans to send an all-female FPU from Bangladesh to Haiti, where reports of sexual violence in the camps for internally displaced persons abound.
Nigeria deploys the second-greatest number of female peacekeepers - 349 women out of 4,951 troops - and has announced plans to send an all-female FPU to Liberia.
In Darfur, western Sudan, 136 female police officers from Ghana, Gambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have joined the UN Mission there since February, Biason said. Nearly 200 female police officers in Rwanda recently passed a test qualifying them for deployment.
Comfort Lamptey, a gender adviser to DPKO, told IRIN that gender scenarios in troop-contributing countries were reflected in the peacekeepers they sent. "If we look globally, you see more women in national police units than you do in the military - the countries then have more women to send for their [peacekeeping] police units."
Alvarez said countries that could send women sometimes refrained out of concern about the conditions they would be working under, and it was not always certain that they would be working alongside their male counterparts.
Women might constitute 20 percent of peacekeeping units by 2014, but Lamptey acknowledged that some officials thought it "completely unrealistic" to try replicating this on the military front.
"It's a work in progress," she said. "A lot of member states are beginning to understand that when it comes to peacekeeping missions, you really do need to have both women and men in the military and police equally represented; they are beginning to understand the merits of that."
* This article was amended on 20 May, deleting a reference to a troop contributing nation