Peacekeeping and Gendered Relations
Author: Paul Higate
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 07/14/2003
Category: Special Report
Recent announcements that a multinational peacekeeping force under the command of the United Nations is to be established in Iraq appear to signal the next phase of operations in this troubled country. Some 11,000 British troops will be swapping their traditional head-dress for blue berets signifying their status as peacekeepers. They will be joined by a further 5,000 international troops, from a number of contributing countries drawn from Eastern, Southern and Northern Europe. Their work will be hazardous, demanding and for some, more challenging than combat, as it may rely on poorly developed skills in terms of the need for acute cultural sensitivity and patience and passivity rather than conditioned response to well-rehearsed battle scenarios.
Pressure from key members of the international community to involve the UN turns on a perception that while the organisation has not always achieved its aims, and indeed, at times may have failed to act in the face of impending crises (such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994), nevertheless, on balance it represents a force for good in the post-conflict setting. Further, in the particular case of Iraq, the opportunity to replace the American presence with UN personnel is a pressing aim for many.
Television pictures of peacekeepers holding babies, handing out sweets to children, and disarming militia combine to portray these individuals as saviours of the war torn citizenry. Peacekeeper’s involvement in the reconstruction of schools, roads and utilities add to the sense that wealthier, more powerful countries wish to assist through their agreement to contribute peacekeeping troops, who in turn, are noted to impact positively on the society in question.
However, these representations jostle with others that may evoke a qualitatively different response. In this alternative imagery, peacekeepers are cast as hypermasculine men, barely able to control their rampant heterosexuality. The rape and murder of a 12 year-old Kosovo-Albanian girl by a UN peacekeeper, the alleged rape of a 10 year old Congolese girl by a Moroccan peacekeeper, the making of a pornographic film through the violation of a local woman by an Irish peacekeeper in Eritrea, and the high profile exchange of goods vital for survival – such as food and material for shelter – for sex by humanitarian workers and peacekeepers in refugee camps in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone represent grim examples of sexual exploitation.
Unsurprisingly, the juxtaposition of reconstructive with exploitative activities invokes a sharp response from concerned onlookers. How could peacekeeping troops, under the auspices of the UN, be caricatured in such starkly opposing ways? Why would peacekeepers trade on the devastating poverty and inequalities to be found in conflict and post-conflict societies, situations in which the subordinate situation of women are further exacerbated? How can knowledge that women and girls have often been the victims of rape and other sexual violation escape the awareness of peacekeepers? Should not the situation of women and girls in these environments serve to limit sexual exploitation in the form of widespread prostitution in proximity to UN installations?
In order to begin to explain the incidences of violations of women and girls as outlined above, and the prevalence of prostitution throughout peacekeeping missions, it is important to set the discussion in a wider context. The extent to which we might be surprised by the exploitative activities of some peacekeepers may be somewhat diluted by considering them primarily as soldiers, ‘squaddies’ or ‘GI’s’. Rather than seeing them through the lens of altruism as individuals sent to assist members of war torn societies, more appropriately, they should be seen as military (mostly) men trained in the use of force within a hypermasculine milieux. This is not to argue that all of these individuals will use prostitutes or even become involved in more serious sexual abuse; indeed the majority are a credit to the UN and the countries they are sent to serve. However, a number sufficient to draw media and other attention do abuse their positions of relative power and impunity from prosecution.
In order to begin to illuminate the factors that appear to dispose some peacekeepers to sexually exploit local women and girls, it is necessary to consider the dominant form of masculinity that is developed in the military. Broadly speaking, this serves to create and reinforce a sharp distinction between the genders, and is expressed in the celebration of an aggressive and frequently misogynist heterosexuality. This divide takes a multitude of forms, though typically treats the feminine as the inferior ‘other’. The feminine is linked to poor performance, inadequacy, incompetence and weakness. In offsetting masculinity against femininity, the former is celebrated as all that the latter is not. Yet, the military is not unique in its gendered ideology; rather, it represents a microcosm and amplification of civilian institutions including the police force and fire service. Yet, it remains the case that, as Joshua Goldstein1 argues, soldiers show an ‘almost universal preoccupation with sex’, and that, particularly in times of war (and we might add, in times of peace), ‘most soldiers were ready to have sexual intercourse with any woman wherever they could.’
Discussions about sex, images of sex, constant references to sex and the sexual conquest of women, are relayed graphically and frequently, functioning as the lynchpin upon which the soldiering profession turns. As the Canadian sociologist Deborah Harrison2 has suggested: ‘[t]he members of especially macho [military] units celebrate their shared maleness by objectifying women, viewing pornography films and joking about making women the targets of violence.’ In order to develop military masculine sexuality it is necessary for recruits to be exposed to an intense period of military socialisation.
This process starts prior to enlistment with the idea of the archetypal warrior figure whose tough, invulnerable and sexually potent persona is revered and celebrated throughout popular and other cultural mediums. Military recruits – in the main adolescent men – are already likely to be familiar with this aspect of soldiering from comic books and movies. Undoubtedly, many are motivated by the possibility that enlistment into the military will encourage the development of heterosexual virility through the organisation’s association with the ‘making of men’. Perhaps a number of enlistees are subconsciously seeking out an environment conducive to the fostering and attainment of manhood that many of their peers and family will quietly celebrate.
One aspect of military indoctrination that may also be of relevance to understanding the nature of gendered relations in and around military installations is the ability for troops to dehumanize the enemy or the ‘other’. Women, as a socially subordinate group, are frequent victims of this othering as the Mai Lai massacre, in which US troops butchered women and girls in a Vietnamese village, graphically demonstrates. When a macho culture promoting aggressive heterosexuality is combined with strategies designed to strip away the humanity of others, the possibilities for sexual violation of women and girls increase significantly, and have recently been powerfully portrayed in the movie Casualties of War.
When focusing on the sexuality of military personnel, it is important to recognize the heterogeneity of the organisation in terms of the existence of sexualities that come into sharp focus when subject to a more fine grained analysis. This is significant not only in respect to the more obvious distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality (a more liberal approach to homosexuality in the military has emerged on both side of the Atlantic in recent years), and the growing proportion of military women, but also in terms of how masculinity is performed. It is important to note that not all military men use prostitutes, or rape for example. Further, in discussing peacekeeping troops, there should be an acknowledgement that nationalities may differ in how they manage gendered relations together with the extent to which they view women and girls as subordinate. It is all too easy to work with a monolithic understanding of military masculine heterosexuality that may limit policy responses intended to modify the more destructive variants of peacekeeper’s impact on gendered relations. In addition to rank, there may also be differences in the ways that Military Observers (commissioned officers) manage their sexuality when contrasted with the heterosexual performances of members of the contingent personnel (non-commissioned ranks who guard UN assets). The former may exercise discretion in their sexual liaisons, contingent soldiers may celebrate their heterosexuality in public in bars and brothels, easily identifiable in their uniform and large groups.
Cynthia Enloe3 has written about the military’s support of prostitution in close proximity to its bases, or in zones designated for the rest and recreation of officers and men. Throughout the extensive history of the close relationship between camp following women and the military, the psychological and health interests of military men have been prioritised over those of the women whose role it is to provide a vital sexual outlet, whilst being under medical surveillance by the military authorities. This control and monitoring of militarized prostitutes has involved oppressive practices, including the use of degrading examinations through which their part in the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases has been highlighted, whilst the role of the men in this process has been largely ignored. The direct and unapologetic involvement of the military in prostitution lies in its belief systems that turn on a particular understanding of male sexuality.
For some militaries, to deny their men this sexual ‘safety valve’ for a natural and barely controllable sex drive, is to court serious problems, in which aggressive heterosexuality might prove dysfunctional. According to these particular organizations, denial of sex could result in a significant diminution in combat effectiveness as, in the absence of heterosexual activity, military men are unable to affirm all aspects of their warrior-hood. Unscientific theories abound concerning testosterone levels and potential for aggression in respect of regular sexual intercourse, though there is little credible empirical evidence to support such a proposition. More disturbingly, (so far as the military are concerned), is the possibility that men who are denied heterosexual contact, born of sheer desperation, will seek out homosexual liaisons with soldier colleagues. In this scenario, it is envisaged that the military masculine ‘glue’ cementing unit cohesion is likely to melt away, rendering impotent the now feminized fighting force. Thus, male sexuality in the military is akin to a truck whose brakes have failed. The best that can be hoped for is to steer it onto the correct highway; alternative routes are bound to result in disaster.
Ultimately, the UN is attempting to regulate the sexuality of its personnel, and particularly its peacekeepers whose reputation for exploitation is of greater visibility than that of civilian staff. In this way, the UN stands at the interface of troop contributing countries and concerned onlookers, who consider that prostitution in a post-war setting is unacceptable for personnel who have unique responsibilities. If it is considered that prostitution and exploitation are inseparable, then, for many, these codes are unworkable. Soldiering and prostitution – argued by some to be the ‘two oldest professions’ feed off one another and exist in a symbiotic relationship that can only be detached by resorting to – according to the military in question – oppressive practice such as turning troop barracks into virtual prisons. If, however, prostitution is not considered as exploitation, then the codes have some chance of success, and the masculinized culture of the UN retains a key outlet for certain elements of its personnel.
It would appear that the aggressive heterosexuality of a significant number of peacekeepers is somewhat unique. Yet in many ways, the activities of these men differ little from those of sex tourists, for example. Similar conditions prevail, extreme inequality, minors often feature as the preferred option of men (and some women), and the justification for taking part in these activities resonates with sentiments offered up by peacekeepers.
Finally, this essay should not be taken as a condemnation of the work of the UN, as undoubtedly its interventions over the years have proved crucial to the preservation of life and the creation of peace. However, the UN, caught as it is between national militaries on whom it depends for peacekeepers, and demands by those deemed to be ‘outsiders’ that they significantly temper the aggressive heterosexuality of these troops, prove largely irreconcilable and a key fault line in the nexus linking national militaries, the UN and members of wider societies who seek accountability. One place to start, and here we add to a growing clamour for action of this sort, is for the perpetrators of sexual violation against women and girls to be brought to rapid and decisive justice. The impunity they currently enjoy sits closely with the notion that these men really are at the whim of a biological drive that can over-ride their sense of moral duty.
* Paul Higate is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, UK. He has recently edited a collection entitled Military Masculinities: Identity and the State (2003) published by Greenwood. His research interests focus on peacekeepers and gendered relations.
1 Joshua Goldstein (2001) War and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2 Deborah Harrison (2003) ‘Violence in the Military Community’ in Paul Higate (ed.) Military Masculinities: Identity and the State. Wesport, Connecticut: Praeger.
3 Cynthia Enloe (1999) Maneuvres. The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. California: University of California Press.
Bio: * Paul Higate is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, UK. He has recently edited a collection entitled Military Masculinities: Identity and the State (2003) published by Greenwood. His research interests focus on peacekeepers and gendered relations.