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Increasing the female presence in peace ops


by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
November 24, 2017

There is a new move afoot both in the United Nations and in Canada to increase the number of women in UN peace operations. The prime reason seems to be that an increased presence of women in UN operations will undermine the remarkably persistent problem of sexual abuse by UN personnel on peace support operations, especially in Africa. Put simply, it is assumed that women soldiers and/or police will not engage in that type of spurious activity.

The reasoning seems sound enough, and also points to the question of what specialized roles women can play in the Canadian Armed Forces.

It was decided long ago, by the courts, that Canadian women ought to have an equal opportunity to participate in the Canadian Armed Forces and, eventually, if they qualified without lowering physical standards, in the combat arms as well. In making those decisions, Canada followed a host of other countries, and also led others – such as the U.S. – that had relegated women to combat service support and flying aircraft but not combat itself. That has now changed in the United States.

The admission of women to all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces has brought with it a blessing and a curse.

The curse is the persistence of sexual abuse in the CAF and the continuing unfolding of such crimes despite General Jonathan Vance's consistent efforts to change the culture. Operation Honour was designed by the Chief of the Defence Staff to wipe out sexual misconduct in the military.  There are any number of good reasons why the CAF must continue its efforts in this vein, beginning with the basic fact that the military in this or any democratic country depends heavily on public support not only to pay its bills, but also to maintain morale among the troops at the highest possible level.

As Canadian society itself is slowly learning, there simply is no room for gender discrimination in government, private industry or the armed forces. No nation can afford to put a glass ceiling over 50+% of its population in this modern age and hope to achieve brilliance in the sciences, arts, or business. And the same is true of the military. So even discounting the question of moral public (and private) behaviour – what is plainly right and what is plainly wrong in how males treat females – the public is far more intolerant of gender discrimination today than at any point in the past, and if such discrimination (or sexual misbehavior) continues in the military, public support will quickly erode.

The blessing is that key roles in non-kinetic environments can be better performed by women than by men. Let’s face it, there is a difference in both mentality and empathy between the way women will generally tackle social issues than men. It is not a stark and dramatic difference, but there is a difference. And in non-kinetic operations, such as peace-building and development (which are both vital activities in counter-insurgency operations) women may well do a better job than men not only in relating to other women, but in relating to social issues in general.

This is not to say that women should be restricted to CIMIC operations, nor discouraged from operating mortars or machine guns if they meet the physical requirements, but that these other necessary military skills should seek out women soldiers as being particularly apt for such situations.

Once again, however, women’s performance in any branch of the armed services will depend largely on their self-confidence, and nothing erodes self-confidence faster than discrimination or sexual harassment.

So kudos to the government in making the current effort to bring more women into the Canadian Armed Forces and to General Vance in trying to stamp out unacceptable behavior among male soldiers.  But the struggle for true equality will not be an easy one given the very nature of soldiering itself.

David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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