More female Indonesian peacekeepers, please

The recent visit of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to Lebanon to meet the Indonesian United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the Middle Eastern country has highlighted the government’s appreciation of female peacekeepers, who, Retno said, had raised Indonesia’s image. Recognition of women’s equal and full participation in upholding peace and security is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 adopted in 2000.

However, the number of female Indonesian peacekeepers has grown marginally, from only 1 percent of the total number of personnel in 2009 to 3 percent in 2017, quite a shame for a country with a relatively equal male to female population ratio.

Former chief of the Indonesian Military’s (TNI) Peacekeeping Center (PMPP), I Gede Sumertha KY, said in an opinion piece published by The Jakarta Post in 2011 that the number of women peacekeepers was low because of their “minimal English skills”. Although the lack of English proficiency is something one needs to take account of, my research conducted between 2014 and 2017 through in-depth interviews with around 20 personnel involved in UN peacekeeping deployment, found that the primary problem lies in the entrenched masculine culture within defense and security institutions.

The research findings, which will be published in mid-year in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Analisis CSIS Journal, indicate at least four obstacles standing between Indonesian female soldiers and UN peacekeeping missions.

First, there are stereotypes that the defense and security sector is a male domain, as women are perceived as “weak” and thus unable to provide protection. This results in a misperception that the presence of women in the sector would make it inefficient and even defeat its purpose in providing security, thus denying women personnel assignment opportunities, especially in areas that are deemed too dangerous.

Historically, the deal agreed in 1959 to allow women enter Indonesia’s defense and security institutions is gender biased. The representatives of the Indonesia Women Congress (Kowani) and the TNI and police (at the time both were still under one institution named ABRI) agreed that the employment of women should consider “their womanhood” and exclude them from combat roles. As a result, in the TNI women mostly take up such jobs as clerks and nurses, while in the police the Women and Children’s Service Units are almost completely women-only.

Second, the “perceived” women’s roles in the security and defense sector limit their career promotion and deployment experience. This, in turn, renders them less competitive in the peacekeeping selection test, as advanced peacekeeping roles require the candidates to have field assignment experience in addition to physical and mental health, physical resilience and left-hand driving as well as official UN language skills.

Foreign Minister Retno
Third is the necessity for female personnel to obtain endorsements from their superiors and husbands to join UN peacekeeping missions. When the call for recruitment as UN peacekeepers is announced all interested personnel need to obtain their superiors’ approval prior to taking the test. This is quite a standard procedure, except that because of the small number of women working in the sector — which hovers around 5 percent in the TNI and police — the concern to fill positions considered as “female jobs” makes it difficult for local and regional commanders to allow their women staff to leave their stations to pursue career advancement, including participating in UN missions.

From the field interviews, it was found that the challenge for female personnel in obtaining superior referrals to undertake peacekeeper selection tests was more noticeable in the military compared to the civilian institution. Additionally, the TNI also implements specific requirements for female officers to obtain signed approval from their husbands prior to deployment. When a UN official in New York was questioned on this matter, it was revealed that husband’s permission was not a global requirement, but rather an Indonesian stipulation.

A former chief of the PMPP said the rule was adopted because women were considered the family’s support system and therefore consent from the husband was considered necessary so that female deployment would not violate Indonesian social values. With this understanding, the institution also deemed wives’ consent for husbands’ peacekeeping deployment as unnecessary and therefore is not required.

The fourth barrier rests in deployment types and areas. Based on the UN peacekeeping database, member states have preferences as to how and where their female personnel are deployed, including Indonesia. While countries have deployed female police officers on UN peace missions in both individual and unit assignments, they preferred to deploy female military personnel only as part of a unit or company consisting of between 80 and 150 soldiers.

Before conducting an emergency evacuation for individually deployed female military observers in Syria in 2012, Indonesia had deployed several female military personnel in individual deployments, including to risky areas of Congo and Darfur.

Similarly, Indonesia has not yet entrusted a woman with heading a UN peacekeeping contingent, unlike the Philippines, which appointed a female commander to lead a mixed-gender unit to the UN mission in Haiti in 2013. In regard to deployment areas, so far, Indonesia has yet to deploy female personnel to Central Africa or Abyei. This limitation on deployment types and areas has reduced the probability of Indonesian women joining UN missions.

Arguably, English proficiency is an issue that can be overcome through increased training. But the deep-rooted social-cultural challenges are difficult to address. International Women’s Day and Indonesia’s bid for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat should compel reforms toward advancing the contribution of women to the national defense and security institutions.

As much as we would like to think that personal challenges do not impact global issues, feminism is convinced it does.

Female peacekeepers speak volumes about how the personal is political, as much as it is international. Happy International Women’s Day!


The writer is a researcher at the International Relations Department of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

Published in Jakarta Post, 9 March 2018

Image courtesy of Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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