The Women in Blue Helmets: Gender, Policing, and the UN's First All-Female Peacekeeping Unit

The Women in Blue Helmets: Gender, Policing, and the UN's First All-Female Peacekeeping Unit

by Lesley J. Pruitt

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The Women in Blue Helmets tells the story of the first all-female police unit deployed by
India to the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia in January 2007. Lesley J. Pruitt investigates how the unit was originated, developed, and implemented, offering an important historical record of this unique initiative. Examining precedents in policing in the troop-contributing country and recent developments in policing in the host country, the book offers contextually rich examination of all-female units, explores the potential benefits of and challenges to women’s participation in peacekeeping, and illuminates broader questions about the relationship between gender, peace, and security.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290617
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Lesley J. Pruitt is Senior Lecturer in
International Relations at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

The Women in Blue Helmets

Gender, Policing, and the UN's First All-Female Peacekeeping Unit

By Lesley J. Pruitt


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96471-6


The FFPU in a Global Context

It's kind of a golden age of gender work. 1325 was the push leading to it.

Department of Peacekeeping Operations official

United Nations peacekeeping has gained broad international acceptance as a mechanism for dealing with conflict and promoting peace. Likewise, demand for UN peacekeeping today is higher than it has ever been and has consistently grown in recent decades. Today's peacekeeping operations are multidimensional, including humanitarian, military, and police components. The transformation of peacekeeping to include this broader peacebuilding approach has further highlighted the importance of gender equality for international peace and security. Today's peacekeepers work under the UN's authority to protect civilians, enable humanitarian work, and foster conflict resolution and reconciliation. Most often, they operate on the basis of three principles: "consent of the parties to the presence of the peacekeeping force, impartiality of that force, and no use of force except in instances of self-defense." Within this environment, peacekeepers defend the operation's mandate, other parts of the operation, and themselves while participating in the everyday life of diplomatic, security, and local communities.

The all-female formed police unit (FFPU) is one such peacekeeping unit and is overseen by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the UN Police Division (UNPOL). While historically UNPOL took a backseat to the military division, in recent years it has risen in status and is increasingly acknowledged as crucial for successful UN peacekeeping operations. This has occurred alongside a perceived increase in numbers of what have been deemed weak states or failing states. Moreover, citizens and host governments are often more accepting of police missions than military operations, which are exponentially more expensive to deploy. Thus the use of formed police units (FPUs) has increased as a lower-cost way to show local populations that postconflict demilitarization is occurring while also demonstrating credibility around dealing with high-risk situations and training local police to deal with future problems. At the same time, delivering police services in these cross-cultural contexts, often in unstable situations, poses significant challenges.

The members of the FFPU are drawn from a paramilitary police organization (India's Central Reserve Police Force). "Policing" generally signifies law enforcement, so "paramilitary police" are understood to share characteristics of military and police institutions, which they may complement or even replace at times. John Andrade defines a paramilitary force as one that "has a degree of military capability, although strictly speaking it is not a branch of an armed service." However, it has been argued that all police institutions are paramilitary to some degree, though the level of militarization varies to a great extent. Over recent years, police and military roles have increasingly started to converge in peacekeeping operations, both for international organizations and within particular countries. The use of paramilitary police, usually understood to be a cross between normal armed forces and normal police, has been critiqued but has also been seen as necessary for limiting military participation in police activities while offering services not normally available through civil police. Such groups are drawn on in UN peace operations, as FPUs are seen to "act as a key bridging unit between the military component of a peacekeeping mission and lightly-armed, often institutionally weak local police."

Unlike standard police units of the UN, FPUs are recruited as a cohesive unit from an individual member state, rather than being employed by the UN as individual UNPOL officers. First deployed to Kosovo and East Timor in 1999, they are intended to be more quickly deployable, better armed, and better equipped for independent operations than regular UNPOL units, allowing them to deal with diverse scenarios across the range of peace operations, especially high-risk operations. They must be deployed only in full units consisting of 120 to 140 persons, or in a functional subset with a minimum of ten to twelve officers. Intended to feature enhanced operational effectiveness based on the particular model of recruitment and training they use, FPUs are most often expected to fulfill three kinds of high-risk missions: managing public order, protecting UN personnel, and assisting UNPOL and local police units in especially high-risk situations.


The deployment of the first FFPU in 2007 has closely followed policy developments, such as the promulgation in 2000 of the Women, Peace and Security agenda through passage of Resolution 1325, that give greater attention to the role of gender in conflict and in the establishment of peace, and the expansion of peacekeeping operations to encompass core political and economic transformations, including consideration of what have often been seen as "women's rights" or "women's issues." Conflict is linked to the way genders are socially constructed; this requires analysis of the different roles of women and men in violence. One key goal is to ensure that the ideas of masculinity and femininity that are linked to violent behavior are not uncritically carried over in postconflict situations as part of daily life. For example, local gender orders can play a role in feeding conflict and making peace more elusive by encouraging men and boys to participate in violence while creating disincentives for women and girls to get involved in security work. Likewise, feminist scholars, advocacy groups, and the UN have all formally recognized that creating more peaceful societies will require participation by both men and women. This especially means redressing the absence of women in formal conflict resolution attempts, as substantive studies on the impact of conflict on life expectancy indicate that on average, compared to men, women are more adversely affected by civil and interstate wars. In the context of the FFPU, it is thus relevant to consider whether and how women are involved in reducing violence and how this may reflect or challenge existing social constructions of gender.

Historically, war has been associated most often with men and more particularly with the characteristics expected of men — masculinities. As a result, institutions tasked with military, defense, and security activities have traditionally been treated as men's property and dominated by men's bodies, a feature that has necessarily influenced the policies, politics, and agenda of security institutions. Institutions tasked with security, such as the DPKO, have been widely conceptualized as sites of hegemonic masculinity, since, in addition to being dominated by men, they situate a specific form of masculinity as the norm.

This book looks at FFPUs as a unique way of involving more women in the larger social structures of the UN and its subsidiary bodies. Institutional structures can be both constraining and enabling, with inner logics transcending individuals. "Although structural constraints absolutely preclude the possibility of making certain choices, they also provide the basis of human thought and action, and therefore offer the very possibility of human choice." Likewise, social choices can be seen as occurring "within structurally defined limits among structurally provided alternatives." Agents are partly formed through institutions and most often reproduce existing structures, but the process of their doing so is always in flux, so in some times and in some ways agents may make choices that have transformative impacts on existing structures. Institutions can and do change. Individuals working with and within the institutions recognize such changes and respond to them. Hence, as Kathleen Jennings has argued, it is important to understand the everyday lives and interactions of peacekeepers and the gendered form and implications of such interactions. Moreover, Annica Kronsell argues that when institutions built on hegemonic masculinity take in "others," for example by including women, they may create space for the institution to develop and alter gender relations. Understanding whether and how this takes place requires looking at the knowledge gained from the stories of women engaged in such institutions and at how the institutions themselves are constituted, understood, and transformed.

Since FFPUs, FPUs in general, and the paramilitary forces from which they are drawn are themselves social institutions (like families, educational institutions, or governments) and can be studied sociologically as arrangements of roles grounded in norms, beliefs, functions, and structures, multiple levels of institutions can be and are considered throughout this book to explore the intersection of broader practices and understandings of UN peacekeeping with questions of gender equity. For example, the DPKO can be examined here in light of the ways it manages current social issues, such as the introduction of women into nontraditional roles. It is also useful to consider how the FFPU is situated within the broader organization of UN peacekeeping, since "professions and groups within professional institutions can be ranked in terms of power, prestige, and compensation. Also associated with these professions are popular images of their values and ways the professionals interact with each other and wider society."

"In our gendered political institutions, men are the default assumption." This remains the case despite an increased frequency of rhetoric around gender equality, since stereotypes that leaders must behave in masculine ways persist, as does the notion that men in general can and should embody masculine characteristics, such as rationality and lack of emotion, while women are seen as unable to do so. These characteristics associated with men and masculinity are situated as neutral and "best" practice. Indeed, "With troubling frequency, gender is used interchangeably with women, conflating the two and leaving men as the unmarked, default category — the generic human against which others are compared and potentially deviate." In this way supposed gender neutrality can obscure the assumptions of masculinity that make gender inequity difficult to see, or when it is seen, make it appear "natural." Formal institutions may take a more conservative approach to gender equality, or one that fits more obviously with the institutional culture, which may not always line up neatly with goals of gender equality in theory or in practice. Indeed, "Institutional concepts of gender equality are shaped by the need to accommodate a broad range of positions, including those that see no need to 'fix' gender relations."

Where this is the case and critical engagement is lacking about the absence of women or femininity and the related dominance of men and masculinity, international institutions like the UN may perpetuate or foster gender inequality in areas where peacekeepers are deployed. In fact, when entering postconflict countries to facilitate transitions, international organizations can import gender inequalities, especially where they fail to reflect on their own masculinist biases and perpetuate the practice of replacing men in power with other men in power. Their doing so is reinforced by norms that stereotype women as homogeneous, evaluation of policy approaches according to "a logic of ranking rather than problem solving," and a tendency to label women from the global South as victims rather than agents. Likewise, as Carol Harrington argues, in many ways and contexts "peacekeeping practices clearly manifest 'Western' male violence and domination."

Could FFPUs challenge dominant manifestations of peacekeeping? In institutional environments where men's bodies and masculinities are seen as "naturally" dominant, including those tasked with peacekeeping, the presence of women may destabilize the institutional reliance on hegemonic masculinity. More broadly, scholars studying bureaucracies have argued that a critical mass of women, typically defined as about 30 percent, can alter the operating procedures of male-dominated institutions, allowing them to strategically advance feminist strategies from the inside.

It is important, however, to note that women are not homogeneous. Just as "elected female representatives will not necessarily share the same political positions," and women political representatives cannot be necessarily assumed to always "take a "pro-woman" stance" such as "in relation to the central political task of setting a national budget," women police cannot be universally assumed to act as women for women. For example, in Sarah Hautzinger's study of women's police stations in Brazil, policewomen working there repeatedly told her that "a police officer does not have a sex." Hautzinger did find that at times women police were expected to "sacrifice" themselves as individual women for the presumed greater good of all women. But as she noted, expecting policewomen to do gendered policing without changing the way politics and power were coded as masculine in Brazil meant that policewomen emerged as "the losers"; while some women were enthusiastic about their unique role, many were reluctant to assume it because they felt that the gendered division of labor and limitations on the duties they could perform would impede their future careers.

Over time, Brazilian policewomen working in these specialized sections have increasingly committed to and identified with the project of women's policing, providing greater support to women complainants and improving the quality of their services. But like male police, police-women may discriminate on identity factors like race and class — gender is not stand-alone. For example, when encountering complainants they saw as coming from populations they identified as "marginal," such as poor people or Afro-Brazilians, Brazilian policewomen often devoted\significant effort to telling the complainants how the "immoral" or "improper" activities they engaged in created the conditions for the violence they had experienced.

In the peacekeeping context factors that intersect with gender — such as race, class, and religion — may similarly affect relations between female peacekeepers and other women. In comparison to some other troop contributors, India might be assumed to have a strong commitment to valuing diversity, as Indian state policy reflects a commitment to secularism, and the troops provided are "multi-faith and ethnically diverse." Nonetheless, Marsha Henry, for example, notes that other factors certainly play a role in the identity constructions of peacekeepers. In particular, she highlights the visible legacy of colonialization in the Indian military context, where ethnic and caste-based differences in representation persist. Henry, in analyzing All Girl Squad, a BBC documentary film on the FFPU's deployment, points out that the women peacekeepers interviewed express no particular feeling of connection with the local female population and that two of them criticize Liberians' sexual behavior and culture, viewing themselves as more respectable. The film itself reflects this critical distance, juxtaposing "upstanding" FFPU women with the Liberian women, who are portrayed as "fallen" and "damaged" victims.


FFPUs have been introduced and implemented in a period when gender has been gaining continuously greater attention in discussions around peace and security, both domestically and internationally. At the international level, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda of the United Nations Security Council has formally recognized the goal of women's equal participation in peace and security initiatives as integral to achieving and sustaining peace. Resolution 1325, which requires member states to expand the roles and representation of women in the prevention of war, in peace negotiations, and in postconflict reconstruction, is legally binding on state signatories to the UN Charter. It has led to numerous national action plans and other policies supporting women's participation, leading some scholars to describe it as a significant move toward gender equality. Although it and the subsequent seven resolutions that make up the WPS agenda (Resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242) have sometimes been co-opted or only superficially complied with, they are important in that they reflect "a set of norms that are gradually becoming institutionalized within the UN."

At the same time, one could argue that progress toward achieving gender equity in peace and security processes has been slow. Heidi Hudson's statement from over a decade ago that "progress has certainly been flawed and nonlinear" still applies. This may be in part due to an overemphasis on the notion of women as victims: while there is keen interest in discussions around conflict related to sexual violence, little attention has been given to the ways women can participate in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Moreover, although now "it is generally accepted that to include both men and women in a peacekeeping team is beneficial with respect to achieving mission objectives," a focus on instrumentalist reasons for including women dominates. These reasons, which are generally based on stereo-types about women's "natural" talent for carework, limit critical engagement with barriers to women's participation in peacekeeping and the pursuit of gender equity more broadly.


Excerpted from The Women in Blue Helmets by Lesley J. Pruitt. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Abbreviations ix

Introduction 1

1 The FFPU in a Global Context 15

2 How the FFPU Began 27

3 Women at Work: Securing the Peace 50

4 Political Economy, Women, and Peacekeeping 65

5 Who's Afraid of the Girls? Fears about FFPUs 84

6 Increasing Women's Participation in Peace and Security 100

Conclusion 116

Appendix: Interviews 123

Notes 125

References 143

Index 157

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