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Jean-Marie Guéhenno is president and CEO of International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization.

International commitment to greater female representation in peacekeeping has lost considerable impetus. Though rhetorically committed, United Nations leaders, both civilian and uniformed, have often regarded gender issues as non-essential and dispensable. But in the absence of genuine attention to women's political participation and gender dynamics in conflict-affected societies, UN peacekeeping risks failing to fulfill its mandate.

On Nov. 14 and 15, Canada will host the annual UN peacekeeping summit. With more than 500 delegates from 70 countries and international organizations gathering in Vancouver, this high-profile event can serve as a much-needed catalyst to reinvigorate international commitment to gender equality in peacekeeping. Without global leadership, decades-long efforts to strengthen gender-sensitive responses risk falling into inertia.

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Evidence suggests that female peacekeepers can serve as role models for local women, improve relations with the host community, and facilitate information-gathering in societies where locals are dissuaded from interacting with outsiders of the opposite sex. Increasing women's presence is also key to reducing the incidence of rape and use of prostitution by peacekeeping forces. In cases of sexual abuse, victims indicate that it is easier to report sexual crimes to peacekeepers of the same sex.

Efforts to increase the number of female peacekeepers, however, have long been disappointing. In recent years, women's participation, which comprises less than five per cent of peacekeeping forces globally, has remained low and shows no signs of increasing. There are currently only two women out of 15 heads of peacekeeping operations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pledged to reach gender parity across all UN agencies by 2030, but the organization has little influence on who gets recruited and deployed by troop-contributing countries. Some member states have adopted policies to increase the number of women in their security forces – Canada is a case in point, with its goal to increase the number of female peacekeepers every year – but most troop-contributing states have poor credentials in female representation in their forces. Contributing nations should be encouraged to provide more female peacekeepers.

Of course, addressing gender-specific needs and interests in peacekeeping requires more than simply increasing the number of women. It calls for thorough analysis of gender dynamics and realities in societies where peacekeepers operate. This can only be achieved if UN peacekeeping leaders make a conscious effort toward integrating gender dynamics in their work and reflecting them as they devise new policies and interventions. Increasing the number of gender advisers directly supporting heads of peacekeeping missions, and ensuring that they are not sidelined, would be concrete steps in that direction.

Research on gender by International Crisis Group has shown that, in times of conflict, the experiences of men and women vary considerably. As conflict disrupts traditional livelihoods, men predominantly join the ranks of soldiers on the front line, while the economic burden on women increases, along with the number of female-headed households. Likewise, crises are likely to exacerbate existing discrimination against women and girls and distort traditional social norms. Devising sustainable solutions for peace is impossible without taking into consideration these issues. Liberia, where women played an important role in the negotiations leading to peace, is a case in point.

There is also a need for greater awareness of the gender-specific impacts of conflict, in order to devise appropriate interventions. In recent decades, forms of violence have emerged that take the gender identity of the victim as their primary target. This is especially true in situations where sexual violence is turned into a weapon of war. But more broadly, at times where law and order have broken down, women and girls of all ages may be left with few options to survive, sometimes compelling them to break societal norms. This fuels a vicious circle of violence, exclusion and stigmatization.

It is particularly regrettable that reports keep emerging of sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops while the UN has limited means of holding those responsible to account. The revelations of widespread sexual abuse in recent news illustrate that violence against women and girls, including in the home, exists within many societies – rich and poor. But as conflict exacerbates underlying tensions that encourage predatory behaviours and further compound women's insecurity, it is the responsibility of national leaders, as well as peacekeeping heads, to support robust systems to prevent such violence and protect groups at risk. A strong personal commitment of the leadership is a critical component of an effective response to sexual abuse.

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In June, the UN General Assembly voted to cut $600-million (U.S.) from the organization's annual $8-billion peacekeeping budget, resulting in the removal or downgrading of several field-level positions responsible for integrating the gender perspective in the work of peacekeeping missions. One of the impacts of budgetary pressure on peacekeeping has been the reluctance to ensure that vacant gender adviser positions within missions are filled. Without resources or dedicated personnel, there is a strong possibility that gender expertise will remain excluded from decision-making and program development processes.

As Vancouver prepares to host this year's United Nations peacekeeping summit, member states should follow Canada's lead as an internationally recognized advocate for women's rights and gender equality. They should make concrete commitments to expand female recruitment in their security services and concurrently increase the deployment of female peacekeepers.

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