Pegs on a clothes line

The politics of training peacekeepers on gender

This article was written by Aiko Holvikivi, London School of Economics and Political Science
This article was published on

Aiko Holvikivi, winner of the 2020 Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize, discusses the findings from her thesis Fixing Gender: the Paradoxical Politics of Peacekeeper Training.  The thesis was described by the judges as "an exceptional piece of work" that "has potential ramifications across a range of literatures and fields".

Peacekeeping involves deploying soldiers and police from impartial countries to war zones in order to create the space in which peace may be built. Despite its formidable promise of providing security to conflict-affected peoples, peacekeeping forces are not a reliably benevolent presence. Abuses committed by peacekeepers against the local population, and the more general neglect of women’s needs and priorities in conflict-affected areas have been widely documented by scholarship, activists, and the media. After decades of lobbying by women’s groups, in 2000, the UN Security Council established the international Women, Peace, and Security agenda, which – among its broader goals – aims to address the gendered harms of peacekeeping. In this agenda, gender training is consistently evoked as a way to remedy or ‘fix’ the shortcomings of peacekeeping. Over the last two decades, such training has become a requirement for uniformed peacekeepers, and has developed into a significant transnational practice.

Although gender training is an increasingly popular practice – offered as a response to problems of gender discrimination and inequality in a range of settings from private companies to government agencies as well as the security services involved in peacekeeping – this practice remains under-examined in academic work. While some activists and scholars embrace the notion of training peacekeepers on gender as an unambiguous normative good, critical and postcolonial feminist scholarship warns us that this practice is characterised by a number of contradictions and tensions. It involves the introduction of gender knowledge – indebted to feminist theorising and activism – into police and military organisations – commonly characterised as institutions of hegemonic masculinity. A crucial question for feminist strategising persists: How is gender training made to work in and for military and police organisations? Is it a normative good from the point of view of intersectional feminist politics?

It was this curiosity about the politics of peacekeeper gender training that animated my doctoral research. My PhD thesis, Fixing Gender: The Paradoxical Politics of Peacekeeper Training, addresses the question: What epistemic and political ‘work’ does gender training come to ‘do’ in the martial institutions associated with peacekeeping? The project combined an examination of policy commitments and training materials with participant observation of peacekeeper training in East Africa, the Nordic region, West Africa, the Western Balkans, and Western Europe. It examined how gender is conceptualised, taught, and learned in peacekeeper training, and with what political effects.

Fixing Gender argues that this training constitutes a deeply ambivalent (in Homi Bhabha’s sense of the term) practice from the point of view of intersectional feminist political commitments. On the one hand, gender training affirms many of the critiques that postcolonial (and) feminist scholars have levelled against how peacekeeping institutions take up the term gender (for some excellent examples – both recent and foundational – see work by Lisa Carson, Marsha Henry, Georgina Holmes, Sherene Razack, and Sandra Whitworth). This training typically draws on and re-inscribes the logics that martial force constitutes an appropriate solution to gendered insecurities; facilitates understanding gender through the lenses of racialised difference; and affirms attachments to normative heterosexuality. These dynamics are clearly at work in training on preventing conflict-related sexual violence, where gendered violence is often portrayed as a problem of racialised others, and where the readiness of military peacekeepers to use force to prevent such violence is affirmed as the solution to this problem.

On the other hand, this training also at times exposes the contradictions that inhere to the structuring logics of martiality, coloniality, and heteronormativity, provoking affective and cognitive dissonance for trainees and precipitating crises of meaning for hegemonic knowledges. Many training sessions do wade into the complex and messy territory of discussing continuities between gendered violence and discrimination at home as well as ‘over there’, and trainees often question whether sending soldiers and police officers abroad are the most effective means of addressing gendered harms. In effect, training can importantly disturb the proposition that gender is an issue that resides elsewhere, and a problem amenable to the use of martial force. Further, some feminist-identifying gender trainers purposely exploit such moments of disruption. They enact what I call ‘small subversions’ by insisting on examining gender from deeply personal perspectives, and facilitating the uncomfortable work of examining our own complicities in structures of oppression. In other words, gender training is not simply about the co-optation of feminist analyses to serve the politics in peacekeeping; it both affirms and disrupts business-as-usual in these institutions. Accordingly, I contend that gender training constitutes both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminist politics.

In an attempt to push our thinking beyond the eminently reasonable but analytically and politically unsatisfactory conclusion of ‘it is both’, Fixing Gender conceptualises the politics of gender training as a specifically paradoxical pedagogy. Feminist debates over engagement with military institutions have typically been structured along the lines of dichotomously opposed viewpoints, where some scholars advocate for the potential for reforming these institutions and others view such engagements as inevitably resulting in the co-optation of feminist politics. Rather than attempting to resolve this division in the favour of one or the other, I argue for sustaining the tension, and thinking with paradox (a proposition that is both true and false at the same time). Fixing Gender engages with postcolonial, queer (and) feminist theorising to explore modes of analysis that do not end in either ‘the nihilism of despair or the utopia of progress’ (Bhabha 1994, 365). Recognising that the politics of the endeavour are paradoxical highlights the political worth of continuing to contest what work the term gender can and cannot be made to do, even when such efforts do not guarantee – or indeed even promise – radically transformed futures. Such recognition provides impetus to continue to develop feminist pedagogical practices that resist martiality, coloniality, and heterosexism as logics of meaning making.


Aiko Holvikivi received the BISA Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize in 2020. She is currently preparing a book manuscript from Fixing Gender.

Photo by Félix Prado on Unsplash