Feminist critiques of peacekeeping

While some feminist scholars and activists have drawn attention to the gendered nature of peacekeeping and advocated practices that address the gendered harms of conflict, other feminists have brought critical attention to bear on the principles that underlie peacekeeping in the first place. These critiques expose three important features of peacekeeping: the ways in which it sustains militarisation; the ways in which it reproduces racialised hierarchies in world politics; and the ways in which gender mainstreaming can function as a foil to sustain these dynamics.

First, feminist analyses have problematised the fact that peacekeeping is reliant on the deployment of soldiers to conflict-affected areas. They have noted with concern the many ways in which military organisations foster norms of masculinity that valorise aggression and violence, and denigrate femininity and sexual minorities, asking whether soldiers can reasonably be expected to perform the types of security work that peacekeeping requires (Fetherston and Nordstrom, 1995; Higate and Henry, 2009; Sion, 2006; Whitworth, 2004). Furthermore, the unquestioning reliance on militaries has raised concerns not only about the skills and attitudes of peacekeeping troops, but also about the ways in which peacekeeping contributes to the militarisation of troop contributing countries. Peacekeeping can be understood as providing a raison d’etre for militaries of countries that are otherwise not involved in armed conflict, but that present themselves as peacekeeping powers, such as Canada, Ghana, the Netherlands, South Africa, or Sweden. Deployment on peacekeeping operations can be understood as a bid by mid-sized countries to increase their diplomatic clout on the stage of global governance. Peacekeeping also works to sustain militaries in material ways: the practice provides opportunities to acquire combat experience for countries not otherwise involved in armed conflict, and it makes funds available especially for poor countries to update their military equipment (Henry, 2012; Whitworth, 2004). Accordingly, critical feminist scholarship has called into question the use of soldiers in peacekeeping missions and sought to explore substantial alternatives to doing so. Sandra Whitworth (2004, p. 186) famously suggested that “wildly impractical but responsible ideas might include contributing not platoons of warriors but contingents of doctors, feminists, linguists, and engineers; regiments of construction workers and carpenters; armies of midwives, cultural critics, anthropologists, and social workers; battalions of artists, musicians, poets, writers, and social critics”.

Second, postcolonial feminist critiques have drawn attention to ways in which peacekeeping is implicated in reproducing racial hierarchies and sustaining a global colour line. In conversation with a broader critical literature on peacekeeping, feminist analyses expose ways in which the peacekeeping endeavour is structured as a “civilising mission” (Paris, 2002) that aims to export liberal modes of governance (Duffield, 2001) to what the endeavour constructs as “conflict-prone third world countries” (Whitworth, 2004, p. 38). Peacekeeping thereby focuses attention and effort on using force to end violence, while at the same time detracting attention from analyses of the role of a neoliberal global economy and the modern state system in producing this violence in the first place (Vayrynen, 2004; Whitworth, 2004). Attending to the role of peacekeeping in sustaining global hierarchies leads feminist scholars to not only question its principles, but also provides ways of seeing its practices in a different light. Marsha Henry (2012) notes the reliance of peacekeeping on soldiers from the global south, asking whether their numerical majority among troops, and simultaneous underrepresentation in decision making positions, might not be best understood as a form of exploitation of cheap surplus labour. Postcolonial feminist analyses have drawn attention to the ways in which unequal structures of power enable violence committed by peacekeepers themselves, whether as sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) or other forms of violence (Agathangelou & Ling, 2003). Sherene Razack (2004, p. 86, emphasis added) examines the murder of Somali teenager Shidane Arone by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment and implores us to view peacekeeper violence not simply as violence perpetrated by a few deviant individuals, or as “violence typical of the hypermasculine world of militaries”, but importantly as “colonial or racial violence" (see also Meger, this volume). In Razack’s analysis, the peacekeeping encounter is a colonial one even when it does not involve inflicting violence on peace-kept populations; she is likewise suspicious of claims to be saving distant others. “The paradigm of saving the other”, she explains, “precludes an examination of how we have contributed to their crises and where our responsibility lies” (Razack, 2004, p. 155). Accordingly, recent feminist work has drawn attention to the ways in which neoliberal economic structures enable violence against conflict-affected women (Duncanson, 2018; True, 2014); the ways in which racialised imaginarles inform who peacekeepers see as worthy of protection (Jennings, 2019; Henry, 2015); and the ways in which structures of global governance discount peacekeeping expertise emanating from the global south (Pruitt, 2018). Peacekeeping, therefore, as critical feminist analyses reveal, involves the enactment of colonial encounters and exploits the inequalities of global political economy.

In light of these critiques of peacekeeping, feminist analyses have been understandably wary of the potential of gender mainstreaming to address the problems of peacekeeping. On the one hand, gender mainstreaming is plagued by gaps in implementation. Gender remains a demonstrably marginal concern for peacekeeping, marked by the ongoing failure to meaningfully increase women’s participation in peacekeeping, and lack of funding, staff, and gender units and gender advisors in missions (Bastick and Duncanson, 2018; Whitworth, 2004). On the other hand, the problem with gender mainstreaming efforts cannot be understood simply through gaps in implementation but must be examined through how ‘gender’ is framed in the first place. Critical feminist analyses have drawn attention to the ways in which the understanding of gender used in peacekeeping is reduced to a sexual binary, and often specifically to women, as understood through their vulnerability to violence (Carson, 2016; Vayrynen, 2004; Whitworth, 2004). This focus on women’s vulnerability is particularly evident in the ways that the WPS agenda, and subsequent efforts to mainstream gender in peacekeeping, have focused attention on conflict-related sexual violence, while obscuring other forms of gendered insecurity and/or agency (Eriksson-Baaz and Stern, 2013; Motlafi, 2018; Pratt, 2013). In conjunction to this understanding, efforts to ‘mainstream gender’ are most often reduced to providing training and increasing the number of female peacekeepers, who are expected to conform to the nonns of masculine institutions — tools that “call forth instrumentalist solutions to the gender question” (Vayrynen, 2004, p. 138; see also Pruitt, 2018; Simic, 2010). The radical potential of gender mainstreaming therefore becomes foiled as it is compelled to function within existing ways of carrying out peacekeeping (Herbert, 2012; Reeves, 2012).

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