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PEACETALK: Increasing Female Filipino Peacekeepers and the WPS Agenda

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WASHINGTON, DC (MindaNews / 17 October) — In August, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2538 (2020), which calls upon the United Nations (UN), its 193 member states, and regional organizations to increase the number of women in military and civilian positions across all levels of peacekeeping operations.

The initiative recognizes the significance of the 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325 — women, peace, and security (WPS) — and the 25th anniversary of the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing. The resolution highlights the enduring disparity between men and women in peacekeeping operations. Despite substantial efforts over time to improve the gender balance and a recognition of established evidence demonstrating the vital role women play in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, the WPS agenda in this sector remains a work in progress. Through his statement at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed full support of the measure.

Although women represent less than five percent of the uniformed personnel in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippines has a strong history of support and female participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Based on the UN sex-disaggregated data, the Philippines has deployed more women peacekeepers compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors in the last 10 years. Filipino female peacekeeping personnel currently serve in UN missions in South Sudan, Darfur, Central African Republic, Haiti, Somalia, Yemen, and on the India-Pakistan border. The number of female Filipino peacekeepers has grown from only six percent of the total number of Philippine personnel in 2010 to 52 percent in 2019—well beyond the 15 percent target for troop- and police-contributing countries. While this figure is admirable, the actual number of Filipino peacekeepers deployed declined by 97 percent from an average of 1,020 in 2010 to 30 in 2019. This substantial reduction resulted from the Philippines’ decision to withdraw 344 troops and staff serving in the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and gave notice that it will not send a new contingent to the UNDOF mission after tensions escalated when rebels attacked their Golan Heights outpost in August 2014. That being the case, Duterte’s commitment to increase the Philippines’ contribution to UN peacekeeping missions, to include an increase in the participation of women in these operations, is a welcome opportunity.

However, righting the gender imbalance will require additional efforts. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized at a Security Council meeting in April 2019, “this is not just a question of numbers, but also of our effectiveness in fulfilling mandates.” Member states have signed several UN initiatives including a voluntary compact that demonstrates the political will to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse on the ground by uniformed and civilian personnel operating under UN mandates.  Notwithstanding the value of these initiatives, there are challenges that undermine the effectiveness and prevent Philippine peacekeepers and other contingents from achieving the goals of the WPS agenda.

First, not all UN peacekeeping operations have integrated the WPS agenda, including protection of women and girls, into their mission mandates. Of the 26 peace operations active in October 2019, only 17 had articulated WPS explicitly as part of their mandates. Several missions that do not mainstream gender include Cyprus, the Golan Heights, India-Pakistan, Kosovo, and Western Sahara. Both media and human rights organizations have reported that UN forces have aggravated the problems women and children face in conflict zones. While the UN can investigate allegations of sexual abuse and rape, peacekeeper accountability is up to the country that deploys those troops. Even after media coverage and outrage, prosecutions have been few and far between.

According to the UN audit gender reports, one challenge in mainstreaming WPS in peacekeeping operations is the failure of senior leadership to prioritize WPS in their missions and hold staff accountable for integrating gender into their work. For the Philippines, signing the voluntary compact against sexual abuse is not enough. The country needs to hold domestic and foreign forces accountable for crimes committed against its own people and while serving under the UN.

Second, peacekeepers continue to struggle with how to protect civilians on the ground when the government of the host country itself poses the threat or does nothing to protect its own citizens. Studies have shown that while troop deployments help reduce the intensity of a potentially violent situation by  preventing misunderstandings and encouraging communication between adversaries, peacekeepers are less likely to confront government forces that target its own citizens. In July 2016, a UN peacekeeping force stationed less than a mile away refused to help women and girls who were raped and assaulted by South Sudanese soldiers. While the UN peacekeeping forces commander in South Sudan at the time was eventually fired after an investigation, this step alone should not be the cure-all to the mission’s shortcomings. Currently, there are 26 Filipino peacekeepers deployed in Central African Republic, South Sudan, and along the India-Pakistan border. Their missions and other active peace operations must ensure the protection of civilians is front and center, improve early warning capacities, and enhance engagement with local stakeholders.

Third, UN peacekeepers lack adequate practical and tactical training on preventing and mitigating violence against women. Trainings in the United States are managed by private military contractors, of which the method of instruction utilized has been criticized as lacking in depth. In the Philippines,  the 2017-2022 National Action Plan on WPS noted the need to increase the number of women participating in international committees and inter-state initiatives as an action point; however, nowhere in the plan did it address training for deployed police and military personnel to emphasize the protection of civilians and gender based violence. Indeed, more needs to be done and one way to do so is for the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center to strengthen its training programs by ensuring that WPS agenda is clearly embedded and understood, including the involvement of civil society organizations in program monitoring and evaluation.

Until the WPS agenda is harmonized in both domestic and international engagements through sound policies, any approach to gender equality remains limited or lip service.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ava Patricia Avila is a Strategic Fellow at Verve Research, an independent research collective focused on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia. She holds a PhD in Defense and Security from Cranfield University. Born and raised in Davao City, with experience working on gender and development issues across Mindanao, she currently resides in Washington, DC. She can be found on Twitter @ava_patricia. This piece was first published in www.analyzingwar.org)


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