The United Nations’ goal of getting more women to serve in peacekeeping missions in conflict zones is at risk now because of the global pandemic and an erratic approach to gender equality taken by countries before the pandemic hit, a Canadian diplomat said today.
Testifying before the House of Commons committee on national defence, Jacqueline O’Neill — who holds the title of ambassador for women, peace and security — acknowledged that the progress made to date on gender balance in peacekeeping has been on paper, but said she remains optimistic.
Many multilateral organizations — NATO and the African Union included — have adopted policies that point toward gender equality.
“Progress on implementation has been inconsistent,” O’Neill said, noting that efforts to increase the number of women deployed on operations have been dragging.
“For example, the representation of UN military women peacekeepers is only about six per cent. And some within that remarkable group still experience unacceptable working conditions,” she said.
Progress on women’s rights ‘in peril’
O’Neill warned the committee that the global consensus on women’s rights is in dire straits.
“What more, much of the progress we have achieved is in peril,” O’Neill told the multi-party committee.
“There are increased attacks against the defenders of the rights of women and LGBTQ, and the pandemics — particularly authoritarian responses to COVID 19 — represent existential threats for many women peacebuilders and local organizations working at the community level.”
O’Neill received her three-year appointment last year, in the aftermath of a peacekeeping conference in Vancouver in late 2017 — where the Liberal government pledged millions of dollars to help other countries boost the number of women in peace operations.
The UN has set its own targets for the involvement of women on international missions; it’s asking that women make up 15 per cent of military contingents and that observer missions be 25 per cent female by 2028.
“There’s a lot of conversation around the UN about women peacekeepers and very little conversation to women peacekeepers,” said O’Neill.
Canada’s efforts to demonstrate leadership on this front may be hampered by the fact that its level of participation in UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions is quite low now.
One of the ambitious goals set by Canada in 2017 was to see more women peacekeepers interacting with other women in conflict zones — an idea that has been outsourced to countries that actually have boots on the ground in trouble spots.
“We have a lot of relationships with countries that are doing that work,” said O’Neill, noting that Canada is working with Zambia and Ghana, which are among the top troop-contributing countries for UN missions.
The Canadian military itself is struggling to recruit enough women to meet peacekeeping recruitment expectations and its own self-imposed gender equality goals.
The Canadian Armed Forces has made progress “but there is still some ways to go, particularly when it comes to recruitment and retention of women,” said Brig-Gen Lise Bourgon, who holds the title of “Defence Champion, Women, Peace and Security” within the Department of National Defence.
“With 16.1 per cent of women in the CAF today, it will be a challenge to reach our employment equity goal of 25.1 per cent by 2026, especially since we continue to compete against traditional cultural identity and gender roles in Canadian society.”
Last year, the military launched a targeted recruiting campaign that Bourgon said “has already had a noticeable impact on the number of women and minority groups recruited.”
Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant pointed to what she called the lack of progress in addressing the issue of sexual misconduct in the military.
Other militaries around the world are grappling with the same issue, but don’t have the same “coherence” as Canada, said O’Neill.
Bourgon said the military is making the effort, citing the military’s “Operation Honour” project to stamp out sexual misconduct in the ranks.
“There’s a lot of attention on Op Honour and we are working extremely hard to have a solid policy, changing the culture in the CAF and supporting the victims,” she said, arguing that the campaign has convinced people to come forward who otherwise might have stayed silent about misconduct.
“Although it might look negative, it is a positive because people are coming forward and that is more than half the battle.”
O’Neill said there’s still a sense of frustration among many women in the ranks over the need for such efforts — a sense that they still feel they’re expected to “justify their existence.”
“Many of them have said, you know, when was the last time we started an event with the theme of the discussion saying, ‘Why do we need men in security forces?'” she said.