Over the past two days more than 1,700 men and women gathered together for the Sea Service Leadership Associations’ Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium, the largest gathering of women in uniform in the world. As service members reflected on the theme “United in service: Our global impact,” a special panel focusing on women in peacekeeping was held for Coast Guard attendees with Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, co-hosts of howstuffworks.com‘s podcast “Stuff Mom Never Told You.” Coast Guard Compass interviewed Conger, discussing the emergence of women in peacekeeping missions and its global implications.
Coast Guard Compass: There has been a recent surge of information out there on the female approach to peacekeeping. Why is it that women are being brought to the forefront of global peacekeeping efforts?
Cristen Conger: One of the big reasons women are being brought in, or there is an effort, is because we finally started to realize that conflict – especially the nature of 21st century conflict – effects men and women differently.
Men and women react differently to conflict, and they understand peace differently as well. The lens men might see for a peaceful rebuild is different from the way women would see it.
For a long time women were making these decisions in grass roots organizations, from within their positions in the community. So its not that it hasn’t been done in the past, its just now that now we are finally coming to the point where the contributions women are making are being brought to the forefront of power structures.
Compass: You brought up the idea of a “lens” at which men and women see conflict and peace differently, and men and women also have different styles when it comes to conflict resolution and peacekeeping. With a lot of today’s peacekeeping centered on nation building how do these differences come into play?
Conger: A lot of times, women as peacekeepers is framed in a maternal sense – that we aren’t thinking of money and power – but more of how the community, specifically children, are affected.
Theoretically that is one of the big things that comes up in gender differences, but in more real-world terms – because that stereotype is disingenuous and doesn’t convey the true strength women have – women are better at bridging the cultural divide because of their investment in the community.
Because of how they see “community,” women can develop long-term successes to things as basic as education to more complex issues like sexual violence. For instance, there is a recent study, looking at almost 600 peace agreements since 1990, that there are some themes that are not addressed when only men were involved. Of the close to 600 agreements looked at, only 16 percent contained at least one reference to women or gender.
That’s not to say men cannot be involved in these issues. The danger is in saying because men might have these “masculine” natures that they are bad at peacekeeping. It’s a matter of bringing in as many perspectives as possible to understand what exactly it takes to build – and maintain – nations.
Compass: While the Coast Guard does have men and women deployed in combat regions, we are more intimately involved in humanitarian relief such as post-Hurricane Katrina, responding in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake and performing evacuations during the Midwest floods of 2011. While humanitarian missions differ from peacekeeping efforts, there are also many similarities. Can you discuss these similarities and how gender plays a role?
Conger: The first thing that came to my mind was from the U.S. National Action Plan. There is such an emphasis in placing women not only in conflict resolution but also in humanitarian efforts and how important it is just to go in and teach. How empowering a community leads to huge impacts.
In peacekeeping we think about war and these enormous conflicts but it all goes back to community. All of these community efforts relate to women, at the smaller level where women are key stakeholders.
When we think of peacekeeping we also think of things outside of our borders but when we look at Katrina that was very much a type of peacekeeping mission; we had to go in and help the community and support them as they rebuilt after a natural disaster.
Just as the nature of warfare has changed in the 21st century so too have humanitarian missions changed. It’s on a smaller but not a less important scale.
Compass: Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected and we draw inspiration and hope from global successes. What have you learned in researching this topic and hope others draw inspiration from as well?
Conger: It’s all about awareness. It’s about knowing and seeing the importance and impact of these kinds of missions. Even just public awareness is crucial for the military because it offers more support to what we are doing.
One of the disheartening statistics after United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 was that after 10 years only 16 nations had developed an action plan, so we are still catching up on the knowledge that women can make unique contributions. There is such a strong connection to women’s voices and building strong communities but we are still getting feet on the ground – or specifically women’s feet on the ground.
The biggest take away for me is the importance of looking beyond just the basic stereotype of the nurturing woman needing to balance out the “macho” man and looking at the very powerful and very real contributions women in the military and women at NGOs are making. It has nothing to do with our abilities to be mothers but our very strong abilities to be peacekeepers.