WASL partner Visaka Dharmadasa, founder of the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) was featured in an article reporting on Sri Lanka’s efforts to include more women in its military. ICAN, in partnership with the Permanent mission of Sri Lanka to the UN, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN and AWAW, hosted a panel on “Increasing Women in UN Peacekeeping” in October 2017, and Visaka played a key role in highlighting the need to hold a follow up seminar in Colombo discussing setting a quota of women in the Sri Lankan military and in peacekeeping missions. “Even 18 years after passing the UN Security Council Resolution, which encourages women at decision making at all levels in peace and governance, including peacekeeping, women in peacekeeping are very low globally. Since 2009, I had been telling the Sri Lankan defence establishments to increase the number of women in peacekeeping,” she said.
By Shanika Sriyananda
Can women in military help to prevent and reduce sexual and gender-based violence against women and children in a war? In many conflict situations this has proved successful according to several researches and the UN. They have proved that they are ‘smarter and better’ and also can make a significant difference in a conflict situation.
The contribution of female soldiers deployed in conflicts has resulted in adopting the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2122 in 2013 to strengthen women’s role in all stages of conflict; conflict prevention, resolution and recovery.
The resolution encourages military and police in contributing countries to increase the percentage of women in military and police deployments to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and further encourages providing them with adequate training, enabling them to carry out their responsibilities successfully.
The chief facilitator of the recently held international seminar on ‘Increasing women in United Nations Peacekeeping’ Maj. Gen. (Retd) Udaya Perera highlighted the need of a national policy in the Sri Lankan military to have a quota of 25% for women to train more women as peacekeepers to bring more foreign exchange to the country than sending women as domestic aides.
“This should be like the 25% quota given to female politicians in elections. When there is a national policy which is mandatory to have 25% quota for females in military, we can meet the UN target set for female peacekeepers,” he said.
He said that if Sri Lanka could increase the number of female contingents to the UN peacekeeping missions, in which each peacekeeper is paid $ 1,000 and other financial benefits, will help to improve the living conditions of their families and it would help to improve the economy nationally, regionally and at last globally.
“Compared to the number of female peacekeepers in India and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka has a very low number and there is a big gap between men and women peacekeepers in Sri Lanka,” he noted.
Maj. Gen. Perera, who was the ex-Director Operations of the Sri Lanka Army and the ex-Security Forces Commander in Kilinochchi and Jaffna, said female soldiers, who belong to seven battalions numbering 858 in each battalion, were actively involved in the 30-years long war in the country.
Maj. Gen. Perera highlighting the phenomena of females who joined the management level jobs said that most of them gave up their jobs later due to their other commitments and the situation was no different in the Sri Lankan military as well.
“There is a gender gap in all ranks. Most of those who join as officers quit the military when they reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel,” he said adding there is a requirement to increase the number of women in peacekeeping to resolve certain issues due to men only missions.
The seminar was organised by the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff (OCDS) and the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) and funded by the Canadian High Commission. Female military officers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, India, Canada and Sri Lanka participated in the three-day seminar held in Colombo.
Sri Lanka is a member of the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping operations and a committed partner in peacekeeping.Giving a brief account on Sri Lanka’s contribution in UN peacekeeping, Chief of Staff of the OCDS Maj. Gen. Nirmal Dharmaratne said Sri Lanka’s active contribution to the UN peacekeeping operations dates back to 1960 when a 16-men contingent was deployed in Congo and later a battalion level peacekeeping contingent was deployed in Haiti in 2004.
“Since then to date Sri Lanka has provided 183 Military Observers and 188 Staff officers to 10 different Force Headquarters and 20,321 peacekeepers in contingents mainly to Haiti, and to Lebanon, South Sudan, Chad and Mali. Sri Lanka also has a level two hospital in South Sudan and a fleet of helicopters in Central Africa and Sudan,” he said.
Sri Lanka established its own ‘Institute of Peace Support Operations Training’ in 2004 and presently has the capacity to train up to a battalion prior to its deployment.
According to Maj. Gen. Dharmaratne Sri Lankan military had trained and prepared an all-female Force Protection Company of 184 and a Female Provost Company of 132 who would be deployed under the UN flag in peacekeeping in the near future.
During the UN conference held in Vancouver in November last year Sri Lanka pledged to increase female participation in peacekeeping missions.
He explained that the objective of organising the seminar and facilitating intellectuals and experts in countries in the South Asian region to share their knowledge and learn from each other is another important venture. In October 2017, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN, in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, the Association of War Affected Women, which is a civil society organisation in Sri Lanka and the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), which is based in Washington DC held a panel discussion under the theme, ‘Increasing Women in UN Peacekeeping’ at the UN headquarters in New York.
The seminar in Colombo was a follow up event from the New York meeting, where Visaka Dharmadasa, the Founder and the chairperson of the AWAW who attended the New York seminar played a key role in convincing the need to have a follow up seminar in the region.
Dharmadasa who had developed the concept paper for the seminar and helped to get Canadian funds also secured necessary funding through the Canadian government.
“Even 18 years after passing the UN Security Council Resolution, which encourages women at decision making at all levels in peace and governance, including peacekeeping, women in peacekeeping are very low globally. Since 2009, I had been telling the Sri Lankan defence establishments to increase the number of women in peacekeeping,” she said.
The Director, Department of National Budget, Ministry of Finance and Mass Media Jeevanthie Senanayake speaking about ‘Women in Peacekeeping: Rethinking Challenges and Opportunities’ said the call for more females for peacekeeping had been based largely on the presumption that women, with their unique style of working that was predominantly consultative, open and inclusive could help to build a closer connection with the community that they were serving and also to contribute to build the capacity of local women.
“A closer look at this reveals that women are used in this context as agents or instruments to improve community relations, inspire local women in conflict affected societies and enhance their access to services. However, ensuring a truly inclusive contribution from female peacekeepers that has been adequately resourced continues to remain a challenge,” she noted.
The United Nations operates 15 peacekeeping missions around the world with eight of those stationed in Africa. By January 2018, a total of 92,511 peacekeepers had been deployed in these, including 4,254 female peacekeepers.
The need for including more females in peacekeeping, and in general, related to matters of peace and security was formally acknowledged in the year 2000 when the Security Council of the United Nations adopted Resolution 1325. This was followed by six more Resolutions in later years. Despite these efforts and the continued discussions at all levels ranging from top UN circles to civil society organisations in troop contributing countries, the percentage of female participation in peacekeeping continues to remain below 5%.
Explaining the challenges faced by female peacekeepers, she said that it was visible in two categories; women in lead roles and those in field-based operations.
According to Senanayake, some research have revealed political considerations inherent in the recruitment of high profile posts, bias against candidates from the outside, key qualification requirements such as military experience or previous UN experience, pursuit of geographic balance, and promotion of underrepresented nationalities can easily work against female candidates being considered for high profile lead roles in UN peacekeeping. “Mandate of the peacekeeping force, difficulties of understanding the establishment of security, low attention paid to issues of gender in peacekeepers’ mission readiness training and the general lack of cultural awareness can act as barricades for increasing female participation in field-based operations. Both these types of employment get affected by the possibility of appointing female peacekeepers to non-family duty stations where they cannot take their families along,” she explained.
However she said that although there were attempts to increase female participation in peacekeeping to a sufficiently high level, neither the UN nor troop contributing countries have been able to address these challenges to get a more inclusive female participation into peacekeeping so far.
“A research conducted among female peacekeepers from South Africa has shown that they had been subject to gender based discrimination and violence during their tenure in peacekeeping Missions. Whilst emphasising that generalising this experience to all troop contributing countries might be an unfair exercise, expecting female peacekeepers to prevent gender-based violence and assist its victims while they themselves can be victims also seems a conundrum,” she stressed.
Senanayake pointed out that as long as those paradoxes remain inherent to the system and the system continues to ignore the emotional requirements of females that are different from those of males, attempts to increase the female contribution to peacekeeping will not be fruitful.
“Rather than designating a certain percentage for female peacekeepers and urging troop contributing countries to fulfil that requirement, creating a conducive environment for females to get into peacekeeping will help increasing their contribution. Getting their unique contribution for ensuring soft security while paying attention to their emotional requirements instead of employing them for the same ‘infantry-like’ duties of hard security measures might also enable women to feel more comfortable with getting into peacekeeping,” she added.
At the end of the three-day seminar, the participants identified cultural taboos, managing the home front and the work, low number women in the military and police, vulnerability of women in war or conflict areas, feminine, misperceptions, psychological barriers as challenges for women to become peacekeepers.
They also cited logistic issues, inadequate mission specific trainings, lack of political will, lack of motivation and confidence to employ females and lack of a national plan, uncertainty in geopolitics and foreign policies are also as challengers.
Contribution to gender mainstreaming, improving knowledge and skills, increasing educational level of women in developing countries, positive socio-economic impact, employment in higher management levels, raises a sense of pride and self-esteem, career development, financial benefits and international exposure were cited as the opportunities for women who join as UN peacekeepers.
Meanwhile, empowering women, enhancing the country’s image, contribution towards the international peace and security, reduce unemployment, strengthening diplomatic and trade relations, empowering women and reducing gender imbalance identified as national level benefits by expanding more opportunities for females to join as UN peacekeepers.
Country Focal Point/Program Analyst of the UN Women Sri Lanka Ramaaya Salgado said women peacekeepers were instrumental in prevention and protection against sexual and gender base violence whilst playing a huge role in preventing conflict related sexual violence and protection of civilians.
“For example, in Darfur, women peacekeepers provided armed patrols for women and girls along water supply routes and when colleting firewood. The United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL) was proactively engaged with the inclusion of women associated with armed forces which as a result led to the integration of a gender perspective throughout the DDR program from 2004-2009. These are only a few amongst the many examples of where women peacekeepers have made a difference,” she noted.
Women peacekeepers help reduce conflict and confrontation, improves access and support for local women, provide a greater sense of security to local populace including women and children, broaden the skills set available and become role models for the women in the community.
Salgado said that the UN Women had emphasised the need to fight against sexual exploitation and abuse that was perpetrated by the blue helmets themselves and the UN’s zero tolerance policy over such misconducts.
“Increasing the number of female peacekeepers has proved that women and men experience conflict differently and therefore understand peace differently. By increasing the number of women peacekeepers it was stated that not only does it empower women in the host community but it also assists in addressing specific needs of female ex-combatants during the process of demobilising and reintegration into civilian life, helps make the peacekeeping force approachable to women in the community, supports survivors of gender-based violence, mentors female cadets at police and military academies and facilitates the interaction with women in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men,” she explained.
For more on the subject, read Sanam Naraghi Anderlini’s articles:
- Nobel Women’s Initiative Interviews ICAN Partner Visaka Dharmadasa (Sri Lanka)
- Interview with Visaka Dharmadasa, Association of War Affected Women in Sri Lanka
- Visaka Dharmadasa’s work acknowledged by H.E. the President of UNGA
- Elusive Peace, Pervasive Violence: Sri Lankan Women’s Struggle for Security and Justice. (Spring 2013)
- How Visaka Dharmadasa’s Tragedy Led to a Rise in Sri Lankan Peace Activism