Each year, 29 May marks the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, in remembrance of the more than 3,500 people who have lost their lives in peacekeeping operations over the UN’s 70-year history.

This year, it also falls on Memorial Day, when Americans commemorate their fallen servicewomen and men. On the face of it, there is little overlap between these two solemn anniversaries as the United States provides just 78 of the 97,774 peacekeeping troops currently deployed. However, the United States remains the single largest funder of UN peacekeeping operations, contributing 28 percent of the almost $8 billion annual cost, and it could play a major role in improving peacekeeping operations in one crucial area: gender balance. Doing so could be a low-cost way to improve peacekeeping operations, as well as the role of women around the world.

According to 2015 figures, only around four percent of UN peacekeepers are women. This is up from one percent in 1993, but far short of former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s campaign to reach 10 percent by 2014. And at that rate of progress, it would take the UN 337 years to reach gender parity in peacekeeping operations. We have an idea about how to speed up this progress, but before that, it’s important to understand the very real and evidence-based reasons why more women peacekeepers would be a good thing.

Firstly, the UN must address the issue of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers. In the 18 months from January 2015, 106 formal allegations were made against the blue helmets—around one allegation per 1,000 peacekeepers. Many more acts of misconduct undoubtedly go unreported. In fact, in a survey of 475 women aged 18 to 30 in Monrovia, Liberia, considerably more than a quarter reported having had transactional sex with a peacekeeper. But studies suggest that increasing the proportion of women in a peacekeeping operation from zero to five percent reduces the expected number of sexual misconduct allegations against that contingent by half.

Second, there is some evidence that missions with more women personnel are more likely to meet their mandate and bring sustainable peace. Simply put, more women peacekeepers better ensure the peace.

Third, adding more women to peacekeeping missions could help shift norms both in the countries that send peacekeepers and the countries that host them—norms about women in society, with knock-on economic and security benefits. But all these effects are only likely to materialise if women peacekeepers are given real responsibilities and play an active role outside of UN bases.

So, how do we increase the number of women in peacekeeping missions? The evidence of several past missions is that the UN’s favored approach—of calling for or requiring greater participation in the specific language in a mission’s mandate—has limited effect on the proportion of women actually deployed. We need more powerful incentives.  

The fact is that troop-providing countries are responding in part to financial incentives when they provide peacekeepers. The UN pays a fixed amount per troop per month—around $1400—and for many poor countries that is more than it costs to train and provide the troops. That is why developing countries provide far more UN peacekeepers than richer nations. Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal, Rwanda, and Senegal between them provide 30 percent of the UN’s total peacekeeping force. So, why not offer them a premium for providing women peacekeepers? The UN already pays $303 extra for specialist troops. We calculate that if the same supplement were offered as an incentive to countries to provide more women peacekeepers, the UN could achieve a target of 20 percent participation for around an extra $77 million, which, given the $8 billion annual price tag of peacekeeping operations, is a tiny additional amount for a considerable gain.

Of course, this can’t be a permanent solution; it should be a programme designed to put itself out of business by fostering equality in armed forces worldwide. In addition, any such incentive programme should be nested in a broader set of initiatives to ensure that women peacekeepers play an active role in operations. In particular we would like to see Secretary-General Antonio Guterres select more women force commanders and police commissioners.

Payment-based affirmative action may be abhorrent to some who think it puts a price tag on a woman soldier’s head, but the current system of quiet encouragement towards greater female participation simply isn’t working. Secretary-General Guterres has made clear his commitment to gender equity: this is one way to make good on it, as well as to improve peacekeeping operations. What better way to honour the fallen?


This post originally appeared as an op-ed on IRIN.