For the first six months of Canada’s mission in Mali, Captain Elisa Holland’s job was to persuade United Nations peacekeepers to view their actions through a female lens.
"It is about ensuring that the gender perspective – of men and women – is taken into account through all phases of our operations,” Capt. Holland, one of about 30 trained gender advisers with the Canadian Forces, said in a telephone interview from Gao before she returned to Canada at the end of her deployment in the spring of this year.
The UN gender-adviser position was created to recognize that women’s participation, both as soldiers and allies, is vital to achieving and sustaining peace, and that armed conflict affects men and women differently. Among other things, women are often subject to gender-based violence that men are not.
Capt. Holland uses the example of military medical initiatives. “If you are doing a medical outreach program and all of the medical staff is male,” she said, “because of conflict-related sexual violence, some women are not going to want to go see male attendees or doctors.”
She worked with the deployed Canadian Forces as well as with the German and the Dutch troops who did not have their own gender advisers at Gao. She also worked with the Bangladeshi, Egyptian and Senegalese contingents in Mali, a country that has been racked by violence and instability since 2012.
One of her responsibilities was to ensure that patrol reports about troops’ interactions with Malian citizens included data to show whether local women were present. For instance, she said, if 400 local people attended an opening of a school, the report of that event should specify how many were female.
The UN wants to know, through the reports, if it is reaching its whole audience, she said. “If you only have men, then only men are getting the information,” Capt. Holland said. And, if women took part, it means they “they feel safe with the local security and they feel safe leaving their homes."
Capt. Holland said she does not see her work as adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to military operations. Rather, she said, it is about ensuring that all members of UN force, and the female members of the civilian population, are treated respectfully.
It is critical to consider the views of the female members of the forces, and of the female civilian population on the ground, Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon, the deputy chief of staff operations at Canadian Joint Operations Command, said in a telephone interview.
Without them, Brig.-Gen. Bourgon said, “you are missing a large group of people you can interact with, and get information from, and who can help you be successful. Women are part of the solution [to conflict] and they should be part of the process.”
It has been nearly two decades since a United Nations resolution called on countries to increase the involvement of women in peacekeeping and to incorporate gender perspectives into all peace and security efforts.
When Canada announced a year ago that it would send 250 military personnel to provide air support to the UN stabilization mission to Mali, the federal government said the year-long deployment would emphasize the role of women in the military.
Fourteen per cent of the Canadian troops and aircrew in Mali would be female, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. That is actually 1 per cent lower than a UN target set for 2020, but significantly higher than other missions undertaken by Canada where, on average, just 4 per cent of deployed personnel are women.
General Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, acknowledges that his goal of leading a military force that is one-quarter women is still a long way off. Female recruitment is proving more challenging than he had hoped. But he has also said that achieving a better gender balance in the military is critical because women bring new approaches to the changing methods of warfare.
From the pool of gender advisers employed by the Canadian military, eight have been deployed overseas since 2016 when the project began as a result of a directive from Gen. Vance. Two more will take part in missions later this year.
Capt. Holland, who has been in the Forces for nearly 18 years, started her military career in logistics and then became a tank commander. “I love the strength and ferociousness of combat arms,” she said.
But, during the war in Afghanistan, she was trained as a civilian liaison officer and spent much time speaking to Afghan women. When she returned, she began working at the Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston, and then was trained as a gender adviser.
In Mali, she said, her role was to challenge the way the UN troops think.
For instance, when two male members of a reconnaissance team returned from a camp in another sector where a medical unit was being established, the female members of the team wanted to know whether there were any women’s washrooms at the site. The men did not know the answer.
That is type of thing Capt. Holland wants to change.
And while the UN contingents from Africa and South Asia included women in a support capacity, she persuaded them that female personnel should be included on their patrols so they could talk with the whole population.
The end goal, she said, is to train UN peacekeepers to the point that gender advisers are no longer needed. “Eventually,” said Capt. Holland, inserting female perspectives into military operations “should not require an extra thought process.”