Editor’s Note: This year, the United Nations celebrates the 70th anniversary of its peacekeeping missions around the world. Over the years, about 1 million men and women have served in more than 70 peacekeeping operations since the first deployment of peacekeepers to the Middle East in May 1948. In the early days, troops and police came from a relatively small number of countries and they were almost exclusively men.
Now, more than 100,000 military, police and civilian personnel from 125 countries serve in 14 peacekeeping operations. Sebastian Rich visited one of those missions — the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL — to learn about women in the military and their particular challenges. He recounts it below:
U.N. peacekeepers have long been the only chance for some semblance of peace for the world’s most vulnerable people. Sadly, for some “blue hats” — named for their sky blue helmets — these missions are now all too frequently harsh and increasingly very dangerous.
Since 1948, more than 3,500 have lost their lives serving in U.N. peacekeeping operations, according to the U.N. In the last five years, there have been 195 deaths in violent attacks, more than during any other period in the United Nations history.
Women peacekeepers from the world’s armies today play an increasingly prominent role and are crucial in improving the performance of its operations. They serve as police officers, troops, pilots, doctors, nurses, military observers and in civilian posts, including high-level senior command positions.
Studies have shown that female soldiers are more likely than male soldiers to report acute depressive symptoms. Women soldiers are also 10 times more likely than their male counterparts to have reported serious sexual harassment.
A high-ranking British Army female officer I spoke with said the constant struggle for women to prove themselves can be exhausting. There is pressure to be seen as a serious soldier, not a sexual object, she added.
As a father, I have a vested interest in women in the military. My own youngest daughter joined the British Army just over a year and a half ago. Luckily she has nothing but praise and loyalty to the regiment and the Army and is living the life she wants. She is a tough cookie but very much in a man’s world. I worry sometimes, of course I do, a father can’t help it, but I’m so very proud.
Currently, women make up only 10 percent of the United Kingdom’s armed forces. That’s despite a wide range of clever approaches including, supposedly more female oriented, softer and nurturing recruitment TV adverts to attract more women.
I found during interviews with women soldiers, not just in the U.N. but in the military as a whole, that they were more willing to discuss their emotions, situations and life in general than men. A dialogue that they believe unequivocally helps in their leadership of men and women.
But on the flip side, those same female officers in positions of command say that this sensitivity cannot be displayed outside the barracks, in front of male soldiers. This would be seen as a weakness, a chink in the armor if you will, and cast doubt on their leadership qualities.