Peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand guard in a formation following  demonstrations in Beni in North Kivu province, October 2014.
Peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand guard in a formation following  demonstrations in Beni in North Kivu province, October 2014. 
Kenny Katombe / REUTERS

When I started working in peacebuilding over 20 years ago, the United Nations was coming under fire because multinational forces working as peacekeepers in Cambodia had sexually abused women and girls and spread HIV/AIDS and other diseases among local populations. In the many years since, UN peacekeepers have been accused of doing the same in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, and beyond. In 2014, peacekeepers from France and Georgia were implicated in incidents of sexual violence against young children in the Central African Republic. In 2016, following investigations, the UN reported 41 cases of abuse involving peacekeepers from Burundi and Gabon, including eight paternity cases and six filed on behalf of minors.

This violence does not happen only when national forces are deployed as UN peacekeepers. In May 2017, the New York Times reported that similar accusations had been made against the Ugandan People’s Defence Force. Having been deployed to one of the world’s most remote areas in the Central African Republic to capture the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army—a violent extremist group known for terrorizing communities and for their horrific abduction, rape, and abuse of boys and girls in Northern Uganda—UPDF soldiers instead were themselves implicated in raping and sexually exploiting young girls.

Where poverty is rife, the promise of a bar of soap and some food was often enough to entice a teenager, let alone promises of marriage and security. But the ending is always the same. Some girls become pregnant, others may be diseased, but the soldiers disappear, and the authorities typically deny, obfuscate, or promise investigations that ultimately lead nowhere. 

Over the years, one UN secretary general after another has responded with outrage. The Security Council and member states have also proverbially pounded the table in anger. Yet too often that ire is directed at the whistleblowers rather than the perpetrators.

Denials come fast and furious from many quarters. In the case of Somalia just a few years ago, it was a virtual open secret among many in the international community that African Union Mission in Somalia forces were prostituting Somali girls and young women. Human Rights Watch shed light on countless cases of rape, forced prostitution, and exploitation—meaning that many local Somali women were enticed with a promise of food or water. The report further notes that women and girls were passing through “official and guarded gates.”

Yet the reports rarely if ever made it to the Security Council. And the girls and women who name their male accusers are too often ignored or discredited. In the case of Haiti, local women have given up on reporting cases. As Femi Oke, a reporter for Fault Lines, said, “The UN claims the number of assaults has gone down, but after almost two decades of impunity, these women told us they just saw no point in reporting the crimes.”

These soldiers violate every ethical and moral code. Their actions denigrate the countries they represent, the uniforms they wear, and the institutions they represent. The men who serve to protect civilians under the UN flag but then abuse them are the greatest threat to the credibility of the United Nations.

The world’s most powerful states cannot continue to hide behind tired arguments about their commitment to so-called zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse if they do little to penalize violators or even fund investigations properly. As the Associated Press reported in early 2017, over the past 12 years, there have been nearly 2,000 formal allegations of sexual exploitation and assault by peacekeepers and other UN civilian personnel globally. Over 300 involved children, yet only a fraction of the perpetrators has been imprisoned.


It is not true that this problem is intractable. Since the first cases of peacekeeper abuse and so-called UN babies came to light in the 1990s, a global movement of women’s rights and peace activists has persistently articulated clear and practical solutions to the problem. In October 2000, with strategy and sheer determination, the global Women Building Peace campaign took the issues directly to the Security Council and secured Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. This, along with seven subsequent resolutions, provides a comprehensive roadmap for addressing glaring gaps when it comes to women in all aspects of peacemaking. Regarding peacekeeping in particular, the resolutions demand gendered training for peacekeepers, including on the protection, rights, and needs of women in the communities they serve. They call on member states to provide awareness on HIV/AIDS and ensure that their forces who serve under the UN’s flag are aware of the UN’s zero tolerance policies on sexual exploitation and abuse and to fund such educational efforts. There is also a demand to increase the number of women in their peacekeeping forces.

Since 2000, despite the expansion of the Women, Peace, and Security policy agenda, compliance with the resolutions has been ad hoc at best. Each UN secretary general has tackled the issues and demanded better behavior from member states, but their calls have fallen short. In part, this is because the resolutions in this agenda fall under Chapter Six of the UN Charter: member states are obligated to act, but they face no penalties for non-compliance.

The good news is that critical steps have been taken to change business as usual. In March 2016, with the United States leading the way, the Security Council adopted its first resolution explicitly tackling the peacekeepers’ sexual exploitation issue. A key measure that then US Ambassador Samantha Power fought for was that, if any abuse was alleged, the entire country unit would be repatriated. Egypt led a group of dissenting countries, claiming that such an action amounted to collective punishment. But in the end, the US position won out.

With the arrival of Antonio Guterres as the new UN secretary general and Sweden’s presence in the Security Council in 2017, the issues have again gained traction. (As a champion of a “feminist foreign policy,” Sweden has made the Women, Peace, and Security agenda a priority at the UN.) In March 2017, the secretary-general issued a report and a game plan to address victims’ needs as a first priority. His report draws attention to the needs of survivors and puts the onus on member states to develop new protocols, change laws, support investigations, and keep their troops in order. It also calls for a ban on the redeployment of soldiers previously accused of such crimes, highlighting how flawed practices have been thus far. Recognizing that sexual exploitation is also linked with gender inequality, the secretary general has also committed to increased women’s leadership and gender equality in UN peacekeeping missions.

There is less good news on the critical point of prevention. The report notes the importance of working with civil society, but its recommendations are not robust enough. Yet there is one transformative step that the UN and the greater international community could take to prevent and dramatically reduce sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers: ensuring that more women are recruited and deployed in military and peacekeeping forces. As Guterres and the Swedish delegation noted, a better balance of women and men in peacekeeping forces would enable greater access to communities while increasing transparency and accountability among the forces themselves and reducing levels of sexual abuse. If this seems farfetched, it is worth imagining a scenario where UN peacekeepers are 100 percent female. Incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse likely would disappear altogether. Yet little effort has been put into increasing the number of women.

In 2005, I co-led the first department-wide training programs for the UN Department Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) on this issue. At the time, women made up just three percent of UN peacekeeping forces. The DPKO personnel stated that recruiting women peacekeepers was tough because troop-contributing countries (TCCs) do not have enough women in their police or military forces. We considered the obstacles and issued recommendations to resolve the problems. An Australian officer, for example, noted that many women in that country’s security forces were unaware of peacekeeping, and he suggested an outreach campaign directed at women in uniform. Others suggested establishing minimum quotas.

But 12 years on, the story and the statistics remain the same. In 2008, I met a senior Jordanian female police officer who said that, for years, she’d dreamt of serving as a peacekeeper in the Jordanian forces, yet she was always rejected at the national level. Herein lies the crux of the matter. In many of the UN’s member states, soldiers and police officers are paid higher salaries when they are deployed as peacekeepers than when they are domestically based. Those who benefit are unwilling to give up their slots. Inevitably, women find themselves excluded or edged out. It is an old story. These underlying factors and vested interests must be tackled. Otherwise, inertia will prevail.

As the summer begins, the UN and its member states are gearing for a major debate at the annual General Assembly in September. Guterres has established a high-level task force to produce and report on an ambitious plan to tackle the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. The body can use this opportunity to push for real change; there is plenty more that can be done.

Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna, January 2013.
Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna, January 2013. 
Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS


Prosecuting violators is important, but the threat of possible future prosecution is not enough to prevent military men from abusing women and girls. If prevention is the goal, then the shame and fear that the victims and survivors carry now must be shifted to the perpetrators. Naming and shaming is a powerful tool in many settings, and military and peacekeeping personnel should be informed that if they violate the zero tolerance policies, their families and communities will be notified. This, along the threat of termination and no pay, would go a long way to keep many men in check.

Many member states compete to become troop-contributing countries not only because the soldiers get better pay but also because the contributing government keeps a percentage of said pay. The UN could provide an incentive to countries lining up to offer troops. Those that increase their percentage of female recruits to 20 or 30 percent could jump the TCC queue and deploy first. Indeed, there could even be a bonus for each female officer deployed. Wealthier member states could fund the bonus pot.

The UN could assist member states in forming women’s peacekeeping training institutes.

In addition, the UN could assist member states in forming women’s peacekeeping training institutes with the explicit goal of providing opportunities for women to serve in the forces. Many countries, such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, have existing government-endorsed programs for female migrant workers typically bound for the service or care industry jobs abroad. Many become vulnerable to abuse away from their homes. These governments could initiate women peacekeeper programs as new job opportunities for women willing to serve abroad. Certainly, countries with a recent history of armed conflict, such as Nepal, have plenty of women with the necessary military experience who would welcome the chance to serve. In 2008, I met some 40 women from across Africa who had served in armed movements. Many had been abducted and forced to join but had acquired critical military skills in so doing. They were strong, self-empowered, and keen to be peacekeepers. Yet there is no program to enlist and enable them to serve, but as the cases of Bangladesh and India have shown with their all-female units, if the political will exists, governments will find a way.

Robust training is another practical option. Women’s organizations in TCCs and in war zones have offered their services. In Sri Lanka, for example, the Association of War Affected Women has trained some 750 male and female officers in 431 police stations across 25 districts in the country between 2013 and 2014. The net effect has been a reduction in violence against women and improved relations between the police and communities, where in the past they were fraught. This type of programing, as well in-country training by women-led organizations, is cost effective and could be used by governments to set high standards. There are plenty of women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership or the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, that are willing and able take on this task.

If TCC governments are unable to protect at-risk groups, then other options exist in the private sector. Genderforce, for example, is a recently created private security company that hires skilled security professionals to prevent and protect against any type of sexual or gender-based violence. The company piloted the program in Afghanistan and the DRC. In the DRC, the group set up an active early warning network including 120 women in the Rutshuru territory. Its team has not only prevented sexual violence but also negotiated disarmament with local militias. The organizations are helping villages develop community awareness programs on the issue.

Finally, the secretary general’s report rightly calls for a better communication strategy. Such a strategy must include raising public awareness in communities where peacekeeping forces are deployed. The UN and other international actors, working with local women’s organizations, could inform communities about the roles, duties, and responsibilities of the incoming troops. They should explain clearly what actions would constitute a violation of their mandate and offer a means for locals to report on incidents as well as provide their own feedback about how best to prevent abuse by soldiers. And they should share the information through local radio, as well as in villages, mosques, churches, and spaces where women and girls gather, and warn them about the risks.  

Here again, local women’s organizations can be effective. They are trusted in their communities and can advise the UN on the best means of conveying the necessary information without causing alarm or disrespecting local cultures. This information can be integrated into the UN’s public information and outreach efforts when it establishes peacekeeping missions in any country. In countries such as Nepal, community radio networks would be ideal media for getting the message out in multiple languages to even the most remote areas.


Sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces demands the international community’s attention. As Guterres has said, “We owe it to the people we serve, to all of those women, men and children who see the UN flag as a symbol of something as invaluable as it is intangible: hope.” The UN must be the standard bearer for the global community and demand compliance with policies to which member states themselves have agreed to adhere. Existing TCCs could even lead by example. These issues are not new, but with a new secretary general in place, this is the moment to act. Delaying any longer would be a blow to the essence, spirit, and credibility of the UN and regional peacekeeping units. It is offensive to the thousands of good uniformed men and women who serve with dignity. It is also an insult to the citizens and taxpayers of the countries whose governments protect their sexually abusive security personnel. There are many complex security threats and challenges today, but sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people by men in uniform—especially those serving under the UN flag—is one that can be resolved now, once and for all.

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