It was late at night when the woman farmer came out of her house in the village of Joru in Sierra Leone to go to the lavatory. She saw a large white truck that had stopped about 50 metres from her home. It was an unusual sight, so she hid and watched what was going on. Inside were two white men and a black woman, who was yelling, 'leave me alone'. 'The door was open and one of them was on top of her', recalled the farmer,'K', who is in her fifties. 'The lady was really struggling. I saw...read more
It was late at night when the woman farmer came out of her house in the village of Joru in Sierra Leone to go to the lavatory. She saw a large white truck that had stopped about 50 metres from her home. It was an unusual sight, so she hid and watched what was going on. Inside were two white men and a black woman, who was yelling, 'leave me alone'. 'The door was open and one of them was on top of her', recalled the farmer,'K', who is in her fifties. 'The lady was really struggling. I saw that one was holding her down while the other was raping her …I saw both of them have their turn on her. After they had finished, I saw one of them drag her out of the cabin and put her in the back of the big truck. They then drove off' (Stuart, 2003).
Currently, there are over 55,000 military personnel and police from 97 countries serving in 16 Peace Support Operations (PSOs) around the world. These personnel have to confront a range of complex challenges involving mass movements of people, war crimes including torture, rape and ethnic cleansing, as well as confronting child soldiers - frequently within hostile environments. Overall these men (and considerably less women) contribute a great deal to the peace, stability and reconstruction of post-conflict states and their traumatized and displaced populations.
While it is clear that many peacekeepers carry out vital work in tough conditions to improve the security of host populations, in recent years, a significant number of male peacekeepers have been implicated in the sexual abuse of local women and children. These exploitative activities have included the manufacture of a pornographic video by an Irish peacekeeper involving a local woman in Eritrea, the exchange of sex for goods and services in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and the routine use of prostitutes (including girls under the age of 18) in many PSOs (Enloe, 2000; Fisher, 2003; Higate, 2004; Naik, 2002; Rehn and Sirleaf, 2002).
Anecdotally at least, activities of this kind appear to be widespread and almost always involve peacekeepers abusing their positions of trust, power and privilege to acquire sexual services from local women, and young girls and boys. These actions can have negative short and long-term impacts on the victims of such abuse and the wider host population.
First, it could be thought that the presence of peacekeepers might signal a break with the past for local women. Given that many of these vulnerable women have already endured unimaginable experiences of gender-based violence during the conflict, the close proximity of aggressively heterosexual military men might serve as an unwelcome reminder of their trauma. Second, many local women are made pregnant by peacekeepers who then leave the PSO and in so doing renege on their responsibility for paternity. Third, the stigma attached by the wider community and families to the involvement of local women and girls in prostitution may further marginalize individuals who are desperate for income. Fourth, local men may struggle to form relationships with local women as some of their potential female partners are drawn to the power and privilege of peacekeepers with large disposable incomes. In these instances, peacekeepers activities with local women can undermine their broader relations with the local community, in this example causing friction between local men and peacekeepers. Fifth, military men remain a key vector in the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Finally, militarised commercial sex industries can become institutionalised and, after the peacekeepers have gone, become a magnet for sex-tourists disposed to the abuse of young boys and girls. This has been the case for a number of the regions used for 'rest and recreation' by US troops deployed in South East Asia over the last 40 years.
Clearly then, the idea that 'boys-will-be-boys' - signalled by male peacekeepers' fraternization with members of the host population - may not be the benign activity that it is often argued to be. The post-conflict setting is especially sensitive and requires a host of skills including cultural awareness and self-discipline. These challenges need to be balanced with peacekeepers' very real human needs for affection and intimacy. In the remaining discussions of this article I present findings from exploratory fieldwork in the UN PSO in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (MONUC) and Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). Here, I attempt to provide some insight into how male peacekeepers perceive their activities with local women and girls. My aim is to illuminate the ways in which the male peacekeepers in the study both enact and perceive their masculine gender identities.
In the spring of 2003, with the support of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, I spent time in the DRC and Sierra Leone interviewing male and female peacekeepers, civilian UN personnel and representatives of NGOs. I also accompanied peacekeepers on patrol, spent time chatting informally with them and observed their leisure-time activities in local bars and hotels. Throughout this period of fieldwork research, my aim was to learn more about peacekeeper's perceptions of gender in its widest sense, their experiences of gender awareness training and, as the work developed organically, the nature of their relation with local women and girls. I wanted to understand how these experiences helped to shape the peacekeeper's masculinities (Higate,2004).
The operating conditions of the PSO in the DRC are particularly challenging (Ginifer, 2002). Average annual income per capita in the DRC is US$100; life expectancy for men is 47 years and for women 51 years. Sierra Leone has a history of trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. The violent war in the country has involved rape, gang rape and sexual slavery, and is argued to have affected between 215,000 and 257,000 women and girls (Ministry of Gender and Children's Affairs, Sierra Leone, 1996). The documenting of sexual exploitation in refugee camps is likely to represent one aspect of a much wider instance of gender-based violence. Both PSOs have, in common with post-conflict societies more generally, a severe dislocation of the civilian population. This first extract come from a fieldwork diary kept throughout the course of the work:
“I am waiting to brief the Sector Commander as to the details of my research in his geographical area of responsibility; this is an anxious moment for me, given the sensitivities of my developing interests in peacekeepers and prostitution. Three North African peacekeepers (in support roles to the Sector Commander) ask me about the details of the work. I explain that it involves 'gender issues' and 'gender relations', linked to the gender-awareness lecture attended by military observers in Kinshasa. There is an awkward silence, broken by some nervous laughter and quizzical looks. They ask me what I 'mean' by 'gender'. I stall momentarily, and my colleague rescues me by providing an appropriate definition. I find myself surprised that such a question might be posed as I hadn't considered the terms' potential to be interpreted differently from the ways in which I unthinkingly used it” (Extract from fieldwork diary, 20 April).
Participants struggled to recall the gender-awareness strategies in both PSOs. Some remembered the involvement of a woman in the proceedings, with others speaking at length about responsibilities and tasks that chimed more centrally with their roles as soldiers. It was clear that concerns around personal and team safety, patrolling conventions, radio-communication protocols, vehicle maintenance, care of and familiarisation with equipment such as electricity generators and medical problems had been successfully assimilated. Pride is institutionalised through discipline and the structures of units to which individual soldiers can feel loyal; pride in the military context is also masculinised, circulating within discourses of the peacekeeper as 'saviours of the war-torn citizenry' - who inevitably are women who require 'protection' (Stiehm, 2000).
When these sentiments were combined with what might be described as the neo-colonial orientations towards the host population evident in the two battalions from the Indian sub-continent deployed to Sierra Leone, it was possible to make sense of peacekeepers' interventions into local culture. For example, one officer explained with great pride how local women in the villages no longer 'showed their breasts'. He explained how he had held discussions with Paramount Chiefs who had been asked that the women in the villages 'cover up'. Several women had replied that they did not have sufficient clothing to meet the demands of the peacekeeping hierarchy. Members of the battalion then set about distributing clothing so that the women could ensure their breasts were no longer exposed to peacekeepers on patrol.
In another incident, early one night, we were driven around the town by a local NGO worker who expressed concern at the level of prostitution and the apparent impunity of peacekeepers in these activities. The town was alive with activity, and adjacent to one peacekeeper barracks were a fleet of velo-taxis waiting to take peacekeepers to local bars, hotels and a bushy area in which sex was alleged to take place. We were told that members of the contingent had to scale their barrack fence in order to make these liaisons, as they were formally subject to a curfew. Local women and girls were seen dotted around the vicinity of the barracks, as was one young man; their demeanour and location indicated that they were touting for business with peacekeepers.
A UN civilian worker had stated that in one class at the local secondary school 'at least two-thirds of the girls are paying their fees with money made from sleeping with peacekeepers', even though some of these girls were said to have regular local boyfriends as well.
Battalion personnel from a northern region of Africa, deployed in one of the eastern sectors of the DRC, were routinely observed with local members of the female community in bars, hotels and clubs. An NGO participant suggested that they 'weren't strictly allowed to have anything to do with 'sex-workers' although 'a blind eye was turned' to their activities. However, some concern had been expressed in the local town at the outcomes of several of these sexual liaisons that had culminated in pregnancy, leading to controversial paternity issues and further damaging the reputation of the UN.
Commanders did, however, make some concessions to local opinion by declaring certain bars as 'out of bounds' to peacekeeping personnel. To this, several peacekeepers responded by parking their UN vehicles away from the bars and clubs in question, and spending only enough time on the premises to link up with a local woman. Thus, activities of this nature were known to be ongoing, but definitive action tended not to be in force. Peacekeepers in both PSOs also employed other strategies to make their liaisons less visible. These included providing women with mobile phones so that they could be contacted more discretely, and indicating that the women they accompanied in hotels and other public spaces were 'translators'.
By contrast, in Sierra Leone the legacy of the UNHCR/SCFUK report detailing the abuses of refugees appeared to have influenced the extent to which peacekeepers were open about their use of sex-workers. For example, at various bars and clubs renowned as 'pick-up' sites with sex-workers visited during my brief period of fieldwork, peacekeeping personnel did not wear uniform (unlike in the DRC fieldwork site) and tended to be low-key in their activities. The sensitive political climate around the nexus linking peacekeepers, prostitution, sexual abuse and the UN Code of Conduct prohibiting sexual abuse of women under the age of 18 shaped masculine performances in Sierra Leone in ways that differed from those observed in the DRC.
During an interview in Kinshasa, a peacekeeper openly discussed the issue of prostitution:
Peacekeeper: 'These guys want to see what it is like'
Interviewer: 'What it is like?'
Peacekeeper: 'Sex with young girls…to see if it is different.'
Peacekeeper: 'Some of them have daughters who are the same age, 14 or 15, and they want to know…they can have more than one at a time, it's an adventure. The guys might turn them down…but the girls are persistent and then it becomes a challenge for them [the girls] to get [sleep with] him.'
A female civilian UN worker in the DRC spoke of peacekeepers and civilian UN personnel keeping a mental tally of how many women or girls they had had sex with and competing with colleagues. She mentioned how she had seen older men, 'fat and balding' with 'plenty of young girls around them'. She added that in fact she preferred to work with a man who had a sexual outlet of this kind, as he was more likely to be 'controlled' in the office. She considered that 'the girls must have had a smell or something about them' that peacekeepers from overseas found attractive.
Once again, there was no recognition of the women's lack of alternative opportunities to generate income: they were being blamed for their predicament and their response to it. A central theme emerging in accounts from across the sample was that of the local women being 'enthusiastic' in attracting peacekeepers. A female UN civilian reinforced this point by referring to the ways that local women who were 'after peacekeepers' would lift up their skirts to passing UN vehicles to 'show them what they had'. The following excerpt from a military police officer captures this reversal of feminine and masculine roles, exchanging women's passivity for their part in the traditional role of the male in initiating sex:
“We were in a bar one night in [the local town]. It was full of girls, dancing and drinking…all over us. [The name of the peacekeeper] paid one of the women to keep the others away from him, they were hassling so much.”
Other accounts presented as 'vocabularies of motive' - again from both male and female civilian and military participants - drew on this discourse in which peacekeepers' masculinity was (re)presented as vulnerable to the advances of local women intent on 'getting to know them better'. The following account, relayed by a male participant working for an NGO in Sierra Leone, frames the women as 'doing all the running':
“Just as soon as the [nationality of peacekeepers] are rotated, the women are straight up to Lunghi [the international airport in Freetown] to meet the new ones [replacement troops]. You see, they're having relationships, and all in love, and crying and waving them off [the returning troops]…next thing, they're picking out the ones they like, just after they've landed!”
The participant went on to speak of the 'relationships' between the peacekeepers (who originated from a neighbouring African country) and some local women. He injected a degree of glamour into his account, painting the peacekeepers as 'playboys' who were real 'ladies' men', able to provide well for 'their women'. In these terms, any notions of prostitution and the profound inequalities in power and privilege were absent from his understanding, which spoke more of affluence and carefree sexual and romantic liaisons.
In this article I have argued that while many peacekeepers do a good job whilst deployed, a significant number of others abuse their positions of power and trust through their sexual abuse of local women and children. These peacekeepers live out a masculine identity that has negative consequences on a number of local women and children and that may further undermine already vulnerable groups.
Though women in these contexts should not be seen as bereft of human agency, nevertheless, the opportunities and possibilities available to them are extremely constrained. The UN, whilst having in place a range of policies intended to combat the sexually abusive activities of its peacekeepers appears largely ineffective in its response to perpetrators. Many of them go unpunished and act with impunity. Reasons for this are complex and involve delicate political and cultural dynamics at a number of bureaucratic and international levels. However, a significant component of gendered exploitation is argued here to relate to the dominance of masculine world-views and masculine culture that continue to struggle to take seriously the plight of many women and children in the post-conflict context. If we decide - as we should - that there is nothing essential or fixed about masculinities (suggested in the 'boys-will-be-boys' rhetoric), then we should make greater efforts to help change what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for male peacekeepers.
* I would like to acknowledge the help of Nadine Puechguirbal, Vanessa Kent (at the ISS), Dr Marsha Henry and the continued support of Katinka and Mo in this and ongoing work.
* Paul Higate is a Lecturer in Social Policy in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. His research interests are gendered relations in peacekeeping operations and he has recently started a project to further explore the topic in Liberia, East Timor and Cyprus.
* Please send comments to
* See link below for references