Women in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa: The Case of the Ethiopian Army deployed in Abyei (Sudan / South Sudan border)

par Seble Menberu [1]

Ce billet présente une recherche de Master menée en 2015 à l’Université panafricaine (à l’Institut de la gouvernance, des sciences humaines et sociales, Yaoundé), consacrée aux femmes dans l’armée éthiopienne servant sous casque bleu dans l’opération de paix des Nations Unies à Abyei, à la frontière entre le Soudan et le Soudan du Sud. Le terrain ainsi réalisé à Abyei a permis une immersion dans le quotidien de ces femmes. Il offre certaines pistes de réflexion sur les défis qu’elles rencontrent, concernant en particulier les préjugés auxquelles elles font face dans la vie civile, dans les familles, également les conditions de vie sur le terrain, les relations avec leurs « frères d’armes » masculins, ou encore les logiques d’assignation des missions par leur hiérarchie. L’auteure, Seble Menberu, a réalisé ce travail académique en anglais, en utilisant des citations collectées en amharique. Elle est aujourd’hui une chercheure associée à un think tank éthiopien basé à Addis-Abeba.

In May 1991, victorious rebel forces led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) toppled the military regime (known as the Derg, meaning, “the Council”) of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and seized power. What followed was a fundamental restructuring of the old imperial unitary centralized state into an ethnic-based federal government. The new EPRDF regime disbanded the entire armed forces of the state, which were initially built after 1941 liberation from Italian occupation along modern principles with modern, imported armaments by Emperor Haile Selassie. A new national force was reformed from scratch. The former liberation fighters served as the core of the army. In addition, new recruits proportionally representing diverse ethnic groups in the country were added.

In 2000, the government also opened recruitment in the army to women. During the 1990s, some women were already part of the new army. They had been integrated as former members of the rebel movement, in which women played an important role[2]. But they were only few. The current government does not release information about the current numbers of the newly reconstructed force nor about the exact female representation in it. However, it has policy directives designed to attract and enhance female participation. Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that these directives are seriously followed up in practice. There is no statistical data available to the public to allow an examination of the gradual increase in female composition. Concerned officials only state that the national defense forces guidelines allow up to ten percent (10%) of female representation. What remains a fact is that women representation in the armed forces is woefully low. Nevertheless, during 2010, Ethiopia has attained the top position by the UN for the number of troop contribution for peacekeeping missions worldwide.

Concerning the role of women, scholars have advocated an increase in their participation in peacekeeping operations as a response to increasing reports of operational inefficiency including accusations of sexual exploitation, rape of locals by male peacekeepers, etc. These demands have resulted in the adoption of a policy of gender balance in peacekeeping operations by the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on 31 October 2000. It is also often argued that, in addition to minimizing sexual-related abuses by UN missions, increasing the number of women serving in peacekeeping operations can make some unique contributions to improve the operational effectiveness of a peacekeeping unit and guarantee the human security of vulnerable groups. However, in spite of the strong case made and efforts by the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations in order to increase women involvement, troop contributing countries remain reluctant to do so.

A case study: The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)

This study, conducted in 2015, was aimed at describing and analyzing the factors that have affected the participation of Ethiopian women in United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)[3]. The Abyei Area covers about 4,000 square miles of desert, farmland, and oil fields located along the ill-defined border between Sudan and South Sudan. Abyei is claimed by both countries and has been a source of conflict for over 50 years. Its rich oil reserves make the region economically desirable to both Sudan and South Sudan. Its border location has also led to conflicting ethnic, cultural, and linguistic claims. On 20 June 2011, the belligerents signed a peace agreement to demilitarize Abyei and allow a peacekeeping mission under the UN to monitor the area. In July 2011, the UN established the UNISFA. Ethiopia has been the sole troop contributor of this mission.

The table below shows the distribution of the three categories of uniformed personnel within this UN Mission, and the proportion of women among each category, by July 2015.

UNISFA Ethiopian uniformed personnel including

Female uniformed


Female uniformed personnel in percent (%)
Troops 4369 298 6.82
Military observers 79 14 17.72
Police 5 0 0

Source: UN fact sheets on troops contributing countries, July 2015.

During the fieldwork in Abyei, a purposive sampling of fifteen Ethiopian uniformed female personnel from that mission was used for in-depth interview with each of the participants. In addition, two focus group discussions (FGD) were held and personal observations integrated. Four themes collected from female peacekeepers views and experiences were identified for data analysis:

  1. Recruitment to the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), volunteering to peacekeeping mission, and pre-deployment training;
  2. Camp accommodation and duty assignments;
  3. Relations with surrounding local community;
  4. Suggestions to enhance female peacekeepers role in improving efficacy of mission.

The sampling strategy was piloted in two phases. In the first phase, the informants were chosen on the basis of their exposure (interaction with the local communities while performing their duties on mission). Second, since the aim of the research is to examine the factors that affect their participation in peacekeeping operations, some participants were also selected to illustrate specific experiences (those serving the mission in their capacities as observers (2), radio operator (1), office/administrative staff (1), and  medical doctor(1)).

I will now present some findings of the study, which inspire at least four main reflections:


(a) Traditional patriarchal economic dominance in Ethiopian families and negative stereotypes of probable infidelity by married female peacekeepers

The findings have revealed that women join the national defense forces primarily as a choice of last resort due to insufficient grades and/or means disabling them from opting for other career paths.  They have to overcome certain negative stereotypical perceptions before deciding to enlist (military as a dead end career) despite favorable affirmative action policies instituted to attract females to join the force. However, once enlisted, opportunities are available for women advancement in education and professional training.

Volunteering to join United Nations peacekeeping missions is also challenged by adverse stereotypical perception prevalent among significant servicemen in the military who are convinced that their women counterparts will be spoiled if permitted to leave their families behind to go on a mission. Particularly, this adversely impacts servicewomen who are married and have children. As one of the informants informed: “I know for example a specific case where a husband threatened to annul his marriage because his wife wanted to go, and he believed she will also start flirting.”  Further, another informant revealed “there are husbands from home who have asked for a divorce, have summoned elders to facilitate divorceEven my own husband had said that because of what he had heard about such activities, he would prefer to transfer my expected monetary benefits and have me stay.”  To be sure, few incidents are on record from previous UN missions where some women were dishonorably discharged and returned home for having been found pregnant from extra-marital affairs. It should be noted that intimate relations are forbidden in UN peacekeeping operations. However, the adamant discouragement in the address of female peacekeepers may have more to do with a resistance by the men/husbands from forfeiting their traditional patriarchal domination of families as a result of females suddenly earning the lion’s share of the family income. It should be recalled that the UN offers a hefty lump sum in monetary reward for peacekeepers upon completion of their tour of duty.  Expectedly, according to the findings, this is one of the two major reasons attracting service women to volunteer for these missions.  The other reason suggested is pride of duty for the motherland.

(b) Inadequate gender training to facilitate operational adaptation

The results obtained also reveal that pre-deployment gender training had not been offered for all peacekeepers as they should have been according to UN mission guidelines. This is the responsibility of the troops contributing countries. The broad training encompasses several gender-related themes that contribute to harmonize male-female relations and roles within the mission camps as well as with the local community. But according to the findings of this research, when it was offered the focus had only been on sexual gender based violence and steps female peacekeepers need to take to safeguard themselves from such attacks.  Furthermore, according to UN guidelines, an in-camp gender office ought to have been established with a knowledgeable professional that could, among other duties, facilitate on-going gender training for mission participants. At the time of this field research that was still missing in Abyei.

The accommodations are partially below standards set forth by UN guidelines and cannot be reasonably claimed conducive at attracting women.  Given the specific biological needs of females especially in the adverse climatic condition of Abyei, the unavailability of sanitary items such as menstrual pads, the cramped leaving quarters and inconvenient toilet/shower location as well as sub-standard fixtures there have been a significant challenge to FPKs. For example, here all focus group participants concurred: “the toilets are not comfortable for women. For example during hot weather, as women we need to take a shower. The lights were fixed only recently. The toilets are not up to standard and make us susceptible to infections. This is not a luxury but a natural requirement as long as women participate in the mission such things should be thought of and provided.”

The findings provide important information as to the duty assignments of female peacekeepers and their interaction with their male counterparts. As such, no division of labor is put in place based on gender, except for physically demanding tasks that are considered beyond the capability of women. In addition, during adverse climatic conditions or when there are dangerous night-time patrols in pursuit of unfriendly elements, women might be relieved from participating in out-of-camp assignments temporarily out of consideration for their safety and this will happen only if they concur. As one informant explains one such scenario, “when there is unfavourable weather condition (too much rain) and the roads are difficult to navigate due to the mud, only male peacekeepers are assigned on patrol and other outside duties because of the difficulties associated with, and the sheer physical strength necessary to, retrieve vehicles stuck in the roads”.

(c) Reproduction of gendered roles in peacekeeping missions: Female nurturing and male protection

Because females engage in most tasks together with the males, the study reflects a relationship exhibiting caring and mutual respect, a relationship that strengthens the group and which, nevertheless, reproduces highly gendered functions adopted from the motherland society. According to one interviewee: “truly we don’t face undue pressure and the boys take care of us and see us as fragile eggs (Ethiopia saying). They help you, assist you. They say “you are a woman let me do this.” And the mere presence of the female peacekeepers in the midst of their male counterparts is considered to have helped boost the morale of the males. During holidays and breaks, the women say that they help create a homely, nurturing and cozy atmosphere and provide a sort of substitute for those missing their family and loved ones.

While the participants unanimously agree that an all-female contingent may be detrimental to the mission due to some tasks that are supposed to be only carried out by men, they also point out, again unanimously, that an all-male contingent will also be incomplete in that the nurturing, caring, and family-like environment indispensable for a healthy team will be compromised.

In regards to relations with the surrounding community, the findings predominantly point toward the tangible benefits of having female peacekeepers in terms of building a good relationship between the locals and the mission. As one of the interviewees elaborated: “We work together both male and female peacekeepers. For example, there is a local market around here and we go on patrol wearing our ranger fatigues. Women, elderly mothers, show their desire to greet us (female peacekeepers). This shows that they feel secure. Seeing females as soldiers in itself makes them happier. The same is true when we stop by to pick up and hug their children.  Though so far I haven’t encountered a woman who came to us after encountering a problem, I believe they will come to us in such a case. When we go on patrol at the market, they specifically call us female peacekeepers and greet us warmly. They take pictures hugging us.” It is found that female peacekeepers serve as a role model at first exciting then inspiring the local population, particularly the women and children, simply by their presence. They provide hope for the hopeless, as eloquently stated by one of the informants. Had there not been a significant language barrier deterring more intimate communication, the community would have been able to impart with more information regarding their problems, anxieties, fears, aspirations, etc. that could be invaluable for the mission’s successful accomplishment of its mandated tasks.

(d) Suggestions to enhance female peacekeepers role in improving efficacy of mission

The majority of informants believed women have a unique role in fostering good relations with the local community. However, the predominant majority of female peacekeepers are assigned to patrol/guard duties. It has been noted that, apart from exchanging brief greetings and niceties, or meeting at the occasion of festivities like March 8, their interaction with the local community is not intensive. It is observers and police force whose mandate is to communicate extensively with the community on a daily bases so as to gather information about problems encountered and discuss ways of solving them. Ethiopian women working as observers are very few. Informants for this study explain that the main reason for the low representation is their inadequate skills for this assignment, such as computer knowhow (to write reports), language skills (English) and driving skills. One interviewee talked about her misfortune:“I don’t drive, my male partners are the ones who drive, when we first came here we took the driving test and had passed the first operational part, but when we drove on the highway with my female partner we were told that both of us had failed… There are those who have come from the infantry to becoming observers despite  inadequate language knowledge (English)… it hasn’t taken us more than a month to familiarize with UN report writing format (computer skills Lotus)… There must be a better way for previous personnel to teach how things are done for the new ones taking their place. There was a mistake there, but we somehow managed within one month.” As a result, they fail the specific recruitment examinations. Thus, related training and preparatory work should be institutionalized and put into practice to maximize mission efficacy. In addition, discouraging stereotypes that stifle female integration should also be actively challenged.

As a whole, the findings convincingly reveal that gender integration is indispensable for the efficacy of the mission.  It shows the numerous challenges facing female peacekeepers and alludes to an understanding that the representation of women should increase both in numbers and in the importance of the roles that are assigned to them.

[1] Seble Menberu is researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFRSSI), a policy research think tank based in Addis Ababa. The author would like to thank the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Ethiopian peacekeepers in Abyei and the participants of this study. She also would like to thank Dr. David Ambrosetti for facilitating this publication.

[2] Tsegay, Berhe Gebrelibanos, The Tigrean Women in the Liberation Struggle and Its Aftermath, 1975-1996, Research Report on Gender Issues, Addis Ababa, OSSREA, 1999.

[3] This research has been achieved and presented for a Master thesis in Governance and Regional Integration at the Panafrican University, Institute of Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences in Yaounde, Cameroon, under the supervision of Dr. Kiven James Kewir.

Citer ce billet
Seble Memberu (2019, 23 janvier). Women in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa: The Case of the Ethiopian Army deployed in Abyei (Sudan / South Sudan border). LAMenparle. Consulté le 23 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/qpt3

Seble Memberu

Seble Menberu is researcher at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFRSSI), a policy research think tank based in Addis Ababa.

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