The period of military dictatorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1985 resulted in a decrease in Brazil’s participation in UN operations, which went as far as its withdrawal from the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in 1977. Since the end of the authoritarian regime in 1985, and most especially since the ratification of the 1988 Constitution, Brazil’s successive democratically elected leaders have tried to reorient the country’s foreign policy to become a world leader in questions of peace and security, especially for the region of the Global South. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution laid out the foundations for the country’s participation in the global scene, including the promotion of human rights, non-intervention, self-determination, peaceful conflict resolution, diplomacy and multilateralism. Under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which brought a period of unprecedented economic growth, Brazil’s involvement in UN missions increased in huge strides: from 2005 onwards, personnel contributions went from 83 to 2,190 peacekeepers deployed by 2011.

The UN defines peacekeeping operations as a “technique designed to preserve the peace, however fragile, where fighting has been halted, and to assist in implementing agreements achieved by the peacemakers.” Brazil has joined an ever-growing number of countries recognizing that integrating women peacemakers into peace building efforts is a necessary and valuable step. It has done so in part because of its desire to become a world leader in issues of post-conflict stability and transitional justice, and also to align with its new strategy of “non-indifference,” which was coined by Celso Amorim, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs. It represents a position in between the traditional South American non-interventionism and the more Western willingness to intervene in foreign countries’ domestic policy.

These new approaches have helped to increase Brazil’s involvement in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in two major ways. First, Brazil has increased funding for projects meant to tackle problems of sexual violence and gender-based violence, especially in post-conflict situations, for displaced women and girls. In September 2014, during its time as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Brazil convened an evententitled “Women, Everyday Peacebuilders,” which stressed the crucial role played by women in reconciling former combatants and mending community divisions. Additionally, its National Plan of Policies for Women integrates relevant recommendations contained in UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The second dimension is the integration of women into Brazil’s armed peacekeeping forces to increase their role in international peacekeeping operations. To this end, Brazil launched a number of efforts to reform the ways in which women are incorporated into the Armed Forces. These efforts began in 1980 with the creation of the Women’s Auxiliary Reserve Navy, and in the Air Force through the Female Body of the Air Force Reserve. Access to the Army came later, in 1992, when women gained access to the Army Administration School. In 2017, Brazil will see the first class of women admitted into Army military schools.

However, in 2014, there were 23,787 women in the military, representing only seven percent of the total personnel in the armed forces. Moreover, these female soldiers are usually employed in the technical, administrative and health sectors, except for the Air Force. In comparison, American women make up 14.5 percent of the active-duty force of nearly 1.4 million soldiers, and that figure is widely acknowledged to be insufficient.

I sat down to interview Dr. Renata Giannini (see full interview transcript here), a Brazilian researcher and expert on gender in armed peacekeeping, who wrote a report entitled Promoting Gender and Consolidating Peace: The Brazilian Experience for the Igarapé Institute. She underlined the fact that prospects for change in Brazil are positive in terms of integrating gender in peacekeeping. For example, Brazil will chair the UN Commission on the Status of Women‘s 60th session in March 2016. However, Dr. Giannini stressed that the qualitative and quantitative advances made on the role of women in national armed forces and peacekeeping efforts is directly related to Brazil’s evolving role in the UN, meaning that further progress is conditioned upon the country’s integration into UN peacekeeping missions.

However, Dr. Giannini underlined several unfortunate realities about female peacekeepers. In her interview, she shared that the women who had integrated the Army colleges thanks to the new set of laws seemed pessimistic about the role of women in the armed forces. It seems that there is a disconnect between the judicial progress made for gender equality in peacekeeping and the reality felt by women on an institutional level. This reality applies to women in the Army and the Navy, as well as the police forces.

According to Dr. Giannini, although there are no legal impediments to women and men performing the same field duties in international missions, an “unofficial division of labor” survives, with women often being assigned to administrative duties such as internal secretarial services, preventive tasks and childcare, and work with adolescents, women and the elderly. In addition, at a domestic level, potential women peacekeepers sometimes face institutional impediments. One such impediment is that the law has set 2017 as the time after which military academies must be ready to receive aspiring female field fighters, but before the passing of this law, women could not receive the necessary training and education to even attempt to participate in armed peacekeeping missions as soldiers.

Despite these institutional barriers to women’s ability to integrate into the armed forces, Dr. Giannini discussed the many signs showing that Brazilian women are becoming an important part of the peacekeeping process. She cited the cases of female doctors and translators in the field – especially in Haiti (with the MINUSTAH mission) and Guinea-Bissau – as well as female logistics and weapons specialists in Army schools. These are also encouraging signs of increasing South-South cooperation in the peacekeeping field, as well as a Brazilian commitment to using and training greater numbers of female military peacekeepers.

Dr. Giannini also discussed another type of peacekeeper: women in the Brazilian diplomatic corps and government mediation teams. Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was a recent unofficial policy of increasing enrollment rates and the promotion of Brazilian female diplomats. As a result, there has been an improvement in the representation of women at certain levels of the diplomatic corps, but women remain overwhelmingly under-represented as diplomats, and women are the minority in areas related to international peace and security, as well as in senior positions. This reflects the reality in the international community: in 31 major peace processes carried out between 1992 and 2011, women represented only four percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of main mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and nine percent of negotiators.

Progress has been slow in Brazil, which has traditionally followed a policy of non-intervention in international operations. However, the country is working to shift its foreign policy stance to emerge as a world leader on peacekeeping. The new laws integrating women into army training schools are encouraging signs, as are the financial and diplomatic commitments made by the country to the UN’s gender agenda, and its domestic commitments to stopping gender-based violence.

There is still much to be done however, not only in Brazil but also in the larger South American region. Dr. Giannini includes many recommendations in her report targeted at female military peacekeepers, as well as women in the Brazilian diplomatic corps. Some of these recommendations include: increased research on women in the military, more training on gender and sexual violence for peacekeepers stationed abroad, a greater engagement on the part of Brazil with the Security Council debates on the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the continuity and expansion of international cooperation programs – particularly South-South – that aim at transferring social technologies to women in situations of domestic and sexual violence, and greater upward mobility for female Brazilian diplomats to increase their participation in peacekeeping decisions. Meanwhile, representatives of the government have acknowledged that a greater push is needed “to fully integrate women into national and multilateral peace efforts,” and that “more women delegates and mediators were needed, as well as greater prevalence of substantive provisions focused on women in peace agreements.”

Brazil has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, in and outside of the peace and security agenda. In a country where a woman is killedevery two hours, where 8.9 percent of the total population lives below the national poverty lines (50.5 percent of which are women), and where women have higher unemployment rates and earn significantly less income than men, it is easy to see how the Women, Peace and Security agenda could get lost in the fold of the many problems the country faces at home. However, it is important to see that progress in the access and visibility of female soldiers and peacekeepers can only benefit the cause of Brazilian women at home. Though the efforts have so far been limited, hopes remain high that the country will continue on the path to becoming a leader in the gender dimension of peacekeeping.