Listen Now

A different kind of mission: How UN peacekeeping forces will benefit from more women in their ranks

OpenCanada speaks
Spehar, head of the UN’s peacekeeping force in Cyprus, about a ‘
burgeoning sisterhood’ of women leaders, the importance
of the Elsie Initiative and why more women are needed in peace operations. 

By: /
26 March, 2018
Elizabeth Spehar waits before the start of the Cyprus reunification talks at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

Last week, after much speculation as to how Justin Trudeau’s Liberals would deliver on their peacekeeping commitments, the Canadian government announced it would be deploying helicopters and support troops to West Africa as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali.

The announcement will go some ways to fulfilling the Liberals’ 2016 promise to commit $450 million and up to 600 troops and roughly 150 police officers to UN peacekeeping missions. With this deployment, which will reportedly include a marked female presence, Canada also hopes to “walk the walk” when it comes to its push to have more women in peace operations.

In 2015, a UN Security Council resolution called for the doubling of the number of uniformed women involved in military and police peacekeeping operations within five years. But since its adoption, the number of women deployed has risen only from 4.2 percent to 4.4 percent.

In response, last November Canada launched the Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations, named for the world’s first woman aeronautical engineer, Canadian Elsie MacGill, who designed and manufactured her own planes during World War II. 

Earlier this month, at the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York City, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a packed room: “The Elsie Initiative is an opportunity for us to work alongside countries that have tremendous experience in peacekeeping and are themselves trying to deploy more women and advance the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.”

“When women are included in governance, states are more stable,” Freeland said. “When women are included in our collective security, everyone is safer. When women are included in peace processes, peace is more enduring.”

Elizabeth Spehar, special representative of the Secretary-General and head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), is a Canadian who has seen Freeland’s assertions first-hand over the course of her career. Spehar has been with the United Nations for a decade, and in 2016 was appointed to lead the UN peacekeeping force charged with maintaining stability and promoting reunification on the divided Mediterranean island.

OpenCanada spoke with Spehar from her office in Nicosia about the benefits and challenges of increased gender representation in peacekeeping, and the importance of the UN “looking like those it serves.”

Tell us a bit about the role of UNFICYP.

In broad terms, we play a key role in maintaining calm and stability in and around a buffer zone between the two sides that’s about 180km long, so right across the island (you have about a thousand [Greek and Turkish] soldiers on either side of the buffer zone who are armed and who are considered belligerent vis-à-vis each other). We do that by the deployment and patrolling of police and military, and also civilians.

A second, important thing that we try to do on the ground is to help create the conditions that would make it a more favourable environment for successful peace negotiations, to end with the actual reunification of the island. 

Canada has a very long and illustrious history with UNFICYP. We’ve been here since 1964, and had some of the first military peacekeepers as part of this mission. Right now we have one Canadian military peacekeeper with us, a very dynamic young woman, who is doing a great job here at our headquarters.

How has UNFICYP integrated women into its work?

UNFICYP has been able to prove over the last number of years that we can successfully integrate women into our operations at the top levels, and that it works extremely well. We have six percent women in the military, that’s almost double the average, and we have 35 percent among our police.

We had the first ever force commander who was a woman, a Norwegian woman, Kristin Lund. She was the first woman heading the military component of a peacekeeping mission in the UN’s history, so we’re very proud of that. We presently have Ann-Kristin Kvilekval — another Norwegian, incidentally — who, as our senior police advisor, heads a team of 69 police officers in our mission. She joined a few months ago and is doing a terrific job. And I am the third woman, over our long history, to head this mission.

So we have been making quite some strides, and I think it’s very important, because it shows that it can be done — it shows that women can lead in these missions and can make results. We have made a conscious decision to make this a signature aspect of our mission, because it has served us well. 

“UNFICYP has been able to prove that we can successfully integrate women into our operations at the top levels, and that it works extremely well.”

How rare is it, nowadays, to have a woman heading a UN peacekeeping force?

Up until fairly recently, having a woman heading a peacekeeping mission was quite a rare thing. But over the last few years it has become more common, although still we’re in the minority. There are currently four female heads of UN peacekeeping missions out of total of 15 missions (soon to become 14 with the closure of UNMIL in Liberia this week).

The numbers are going up and down all the time with respect to female leads of peacekeeping operations because of course people’s tenures end, and then they’re replaced, and so on — some missions are closing, others are opening. 

But what I can tell you in terms of peacekeeping more broadly is that the area of peace operations, and in particular peacekeeping missions, is one of the parts of the UN where you see the lowest number of women. The percentage across the board has to go up. We only have 3.8 percent of the military personnel deployed in peacekeeping missions presently, as I understand it, who are women. It’s a little better in terms of police officers but that’s still only 10.9 percent. So there’s really a long way to go. On the civilian side, it’s a little better, but still the numbers are lower overall. 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has just put out a gender parity plan, where he has pledged to make sure there is 50 percent men, 50 percent women in all senior positions, including in peacekeeping missions, by 2021. So that’s quite an ambitious target, but absolutely doable. He is working very hard to appoint more women to these roles who bring their particular skill sets and experience to the job.

What are your thoughts on Canada’s Elsie Initiative?

I really have to commend Canada for taking this initiative. It’s really needed, because if we want to bring up the numbers in peacekeeping in general, including some military, we can’t do it without our [UN] member states. 

In peacekeeping missions, it’s the Secretariat that hires the civilians that make up the staff on a peacekeeping operation, but we rely on the member states that we call police-contributing countries or troop-contributing countries to provide us with the military and police that we need. We can indicate to them that we would like to see more women and we would hope to have more diversity in the ranks and so on, but really they are the ones who choose and bring these people to us. So if they are not sensitized to the importance and to the opportunity of having more women in peacekeeping missions, we’re just not going to get the numbers up.

Canada is really leading by example; they’re talking the talk but they’re also walking the walk, for example with the future deployment of troops to Mali. Hopefully that will encourage other countries also to consider sending more females into peacekeeping, and particularly in the uniformed personnel roles in police or military… both as an opportunity for those women and an opportunity for even more effective missions going forward.

What are the challenges facing women who operate in dangerous conflict zones like Mali?

First and foremost I would say that, of course, a place like Mali is a very complex environment. It’s a difficult theatre in which to operate, it’s an area of quite active conflict, and a dangerous environment for everyone, no doubt. When we deploy our personnel to places such as Mali we have their welfare and their protection foremost in mind, and that goes for both men and women. We need to make sure that the people who are deployed there are properly trained, properly briefed before they go, and also that they have the proper resources to do their job well and to protect themselves.

I think at the very basic level, women should be given the same opportunity as men to deploy, if they so wish, to challenging but potentially extremely rewarding environments

Challenges, there are a number of them, and of course for women there might be a few, maybe not “extra,” but different challenges in some ways from the challenges of men. There are places where we work where the cultural norms don’t usually include very robust roles for women, or at the very least there are a lot of jobs that are considered non-traditional for women. So that might be difficult for the women at the beginning. Will they be accepted in these roles? Will they be able to make their points? Will they be listened to?

But there’s an upside to that as well, and that’s the demonstration effect — to be able to show that women indeed can take on these roles that are considered non-traditional and can be very effective at them. It’s a way for us to challenge some of those gender norms that limit women’s opportunities in certain places where we work.

“Women should be given the same opportunity as men to deploy, if they so wish, to challenging but potentially extremely rewarding environments.”

What are some of the other benefits to increasing the number of women in peace operations?

Another benefit of having women in these missions is that they can often relate to the women in the local populations that we’re serving in ways that maybe the men don’t, in exactly the same fashion.

In Liberia, up until very recently, we had an all-female police unit. You can imagine how useful that was when dealing with women that had been the victims of sexual crimes, or other types of crimes or issues that they might feel uncomfortable talking about with males. We were also able to deploy women in certain areas where it might have been perhaps more complicated for men to operate.

Women do often bring different skills and approaches to the table. And we need to have people in our peace missions that women and men can relate to, who will be able to help us draw out what women’s concerns are, as well as men’s concerns — sometimes women in our missions can help to do that. Men of course also can, and we need to have very gender-sensitive missions that are listening to a whole community and what everyone has to say. But again, sometimes it’s easier if you have females speaking to females.

It’s a real strength for peacekeeping missions and, I think, for the UN in general that women are now more and more in positions in which they are able to bring fresh approaches to leadership.

I can tell you that within this burgeoning sisterhood of women that are actually heading peacekeeping missions, or in quite senior positions in peacekeeping missions — we had an opportunity a few weeks ago to meet up in New York — we’ve been discussing amongst ourselves how we should help to redefine leadership in the 21st century and beyond. It’s not a question of creating a specific female leadership, but rather to have the skills, the experiences and the approaches of women that can enrich the way we lead and what we understand by leadership.

What are the barriers facing women when it comes to recruitment and retention for peacekeeping roles?

Sometimes [it’s challenging] to recruit and retain women in peacekeeping missions, and that is simply linked to the traditional roles that many women continue to have in our societies — that if they want to have a family, it’s expected that they probably will do the lion’s share of the child-rearing, or that they need to be available for that. Many of these areas where we have peacekeeping missions are called non-family duty stations; in other words, it’s considered a complex environment, perhaps a dangerous one, where you shouldn’t be coming with your family, so you need to leave your spouse and children elsewhere. 

If we had more family-friendly policies where it’s easier for women to take these jobs, then we might have more women in peacekeeping. [Having more family-friendly policies] is going to be good for men and it’s going to be good for women as well. And there’ll be hopefully more opportunities for people to choose based on what their personal decisions are within their families.

There are so many issues related to recruiting more of the many talented women who are out there who, if they knew about these jobs, if they knew that they had a real shot at these jobs, would tend to apply more. It’s not that the women aren’t out there, but there are a lot of problems with the way we advertise positions. Also, in interview processes, we’ve identified that at the UN sometimes we have a problem of unconscious bias, where people are somehow biased against a female candidate although they don’t really on the surface realize that.

Then there’s retention — you can get a really good woman in but, again, if as their career progresses there aren’t ways in which you can show them a path to advancement that’s not going to be at a personal cost to them, you tend to start losing them. So we really need to think of this in a comprehensive way, and it does make a difference on the ground. 

We want to hear from women in the communities that we serve; if we have more women in our missions, that helps us. We also want to look like the communities we serve — we serve men and women on the ground, we need to have men and women in our missions. And again, women can bring different approaches, experiences and skills to the table. They should have the opportunity to serve, and we will be better served in the missions if we have more of them. 

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us