Q&A: Why women peacekeepers are needed now more than ever

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U.N. peacekeepers provide medical services to local communities as part of the U.N. Mission in the Central African Republic. Photo by: MINUSCA / Nepal HRPB-II

Ahead of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, Lieutenant Dr. Arya Khadka, a Nepali citizen, U.N. peacekeeper, and doctor currently serving in the Central African Republic, says there is a need for more women peacekeepers to make peacekeeping missions more successful.

The role of a U.N. peacekeeper is to help protect civilians, promote security, reduce violence, and assist local authorities to take on these activities in order to promote long-term stability and development.

From pilots to infantry soldiers, doctors to police officers, women are critical to effective peacekeeping, Khadka said. Research shows that women’s meaningful involvement in peace agreements can also contribute to lasting peace.

Yet, of the 98,000 peacekeepers currently deployed in 13 missions around the world, only 6% of the uniformed military, police, justice, and correction personnel are women.

“There are still societies and rural areas that are male dominated and where gender can still be an issue. But when we women peacekeepers get into the field, we can change that concept,” Khadka said.

While UN Peacekeeping is taking active steps to strengthen and increase the role of women in peacekeeping, it says it also needs greater political commitment from member states to increase the number of women military, police and justice, and corrections personnel that they contribute to UN Peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping is a cornerstone of the U.N.’s peace and security work, and women peacekeepers are a key to its success. Via YouTube.

Given the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Khadka said women are especially needed right now and have a greater role to play in maintaining peace and security.

In a recent conversation with Devex, she explained why women peacekeepers are critical and what their peacekeeping role is in helping to tackle COVID-19.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to have women peacekeepers?

When anybody sees a woman peacekeeper in a society, it's an example that they are not less than their male counterparts. For example, in rural areas it can be considered that men are usually doctors and women are nurses. That [assumption] has happened with me many times when people ask if I am a nurse. We can be examples, reflecting that what men can do, we women can do as well, and perhaps we can do it even better.

A few months ago, in Central African Republic, I was on duty in the field, and I happened to come across many children. A small girl — 8 or 9 years old — approached me and asked if I was a doctor. I said, “I am,” and she smiled and said that she wanted to be like me. We stand as an inspiration and motivate other women.

Currently only 6% of all uniformed military, police justice, and correction personnel in field missions are women. Why do you think there are so few women peacekeepers?

With time, women in peacekeeping missions have attracted more women to join, which has contributed to a small increase in the percentage. For example, my grandfather worked outside as a breadwinner, whereas my grandmother was limited to being a housewife. Over time, that concept has changed. In my parents’ generation, my father joined the Nepal Army and my mother was a teacher. Now, during my time, my fiancé is in the Nepal Army working as a peacekeeper and so am I.

We can be examples, reflecting that what men can do, we women can do as well and perhaps we can do it even better.”

— Lieutenant Dr. Arya Khadka, U.N. peacekeeper

The change in concept is gradual. We women are now doing things the men are doing.

What can be done to strengthen and increase the role of women in peacekeeping?

To increase participation in peacekeeping missions, there needs to be an increase in participation in troop- and police-contributing countries. That can be done by supporting them, encouraging them, and increasing outreach, both through traditional channels and through social media. Most people have Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and social movements are a way of highlighting women peacekeepers’ work and encouraging other women to participate.

When there is an increase in the number of women taking part in the contributing countries, then I am sure that ultimately there will be an increase in the amount of women involved with UN Peacekeeping.

Why might peacekeepers be needed in the COVID-19 response effort?

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the main thing is that we stop the spread by applying preventive measures. For that, what's needed is discipline.

Aside from the pandemic, some countries have other instabilities that need to be addressed. The main reason why peacekeepers are needed during this response is to prevent further aggravation or worsening of conflict situations and to protect civilians. COVID-19 can worsen a conflict situation. In order to protect civilians, peacekeepers need to go out into the field, continue their activities, and follow their mandates in order to maintain security. Meanwhile, they have to keep in mind the pandemic and diligently follow preventive measures so that they don't become vectors for the communities.

Source: UN Peacekeeping

What are peacekeeping missions doing to help host governments/authorities to address the pandemic?

First of all, we [help to] implement preventive measures set by the local authorities. I always tell my troops, “when you go out, yes, your first thing in your mind should be to protect and maintain peace and security, but also, keep in mind the COVID-19 situation. If you can protect yourself, then you can protect others from acquiring it.”

By following social distancing, wearing masks, and hand hygiene, we’re helping host governments control the spread and control the conflicts that might occur after the spread.

But maintaining peace and security is still of utmost importance. The missions still need to conduct those activities in order to maintain the security of host countries.

Are there lessons learned in previous peacekeeping missions that can be applied to COVID-19?

I have asked colleagues who have been on different missions about their experiences and they told me that preparedness is a big thing. We should be thinking about what is needed in order to combat these situations years before they occur. At each health care facility personal protective equipment and medicine must be available.

Another thing is mindset. What we have planned might not work exactly as expected, so there should be a plan B as well.

When I was born, my father was serving as a UN peacekeeper. He was on a mission and wasn't able to see me. After six months, when the mission was complete, he was able to see me. I'm sure that was difficult for him and there were emotions involved, but I think what kept him going was a sense of sacrifice, loyalty, and discipline. What is needed right now are those qualities.

May 29 is the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Follow @UNPeacekeeping on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and use the hashtags #womeninpeacekeeping and #PKday to share your own content or click here for campaign material. 

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