Dr. Gwendolyn Beetham discusses some recent episodes of gendered power in global governance institutions, arguing that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal and other well-publicized incidents should be seen less as unfortunate but separate incidents than as evidence for continuing structural inequalities.

This summer was a lively one for those interested in the intersection of sex and development. The world’s media watched as the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and French presidential hopeful, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, resigned after allegations that he raped a cleaning person at a New York hotel.  Hollywood also released its take on a decade-old scandal, which severely shook the international community, with the movie The Whistleblower.

Having both worked at the UN and studied peacekeeping missions, I know all too well the kind of gendered power imbalances that function in these arenas.  Much of it, of course, is not as extreme as involvement in a sex trafficking ring, or rape. As one mentor and long-time women’s rights advocate told me early on in my tenure at the UN: ‘In addition to the 193 countries represented here, we have just as many types of misogyny to deal with.’  These imbalances are difficult to address in the international institutional setting. For example, the institutional procedures for filing sexual harassment claims are notoriously fraught within the UN, due to a trifecta of diplomatic immunity, complex and secretive bureaucratic procedures, and the difficulty of gathering evidence in a highly mobile workforce. Indeed, reporting on the ‘plague’ of sexual harassment in the UN in 2009, the Wall Street Journal found that:

Cases can take years to adjudicate. Accusers have no access to investigative reports. Several women who complained of harassment say their employment contracts weren’t renewed, and the men they accused retired or resigned, putting them out of reach of the U.N. justice system.

During the DSK case, it didn’t take long for the mainstream media to uncover reports documenting a similar culture of sexism – and lack of redress – within the IMF. It also didn’t take long for some to make the connection between the structural gender inequities within these institutions and the policies that they promoted. In a Foreign Policy opinion piece in the immediate wake of the DSK allegations, Christine Ahn and Kavita Ramdas asserted:

For many in the developing world, the IMF and its draconian policies of structural adjustment have systematically “raped” the earth and the poor and violated the human rights of women. It appears that the personal disregard and disrespect for women demonstrated by the man at the highest levels of leadership within the IMF is quite consistent with the gender bias inherent in the IMF’s institutional policies and practice.

What was surprising about the DSK case, then, was not so much that the allegations were made, but that he was arrested for them.


Although a fictional account of real-life events, The Whistleblower paints an accurate picture of the myriad ways in which gendered power imbalances operate within institutions. The film recounts the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a U.S. police officer hired by U.S. corporation contracted with the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia to provide training to police officers.  While in Bosnia, Bolkovac uncovers a sex trafficking ring that operated with the involvement (or at least acknowledgment) of UN staff and those contracted to work with the UN’s mission, documenting the way in which gendered imbalances may become particularly acute when the field of work is particularly skewed toward male involvement, which is certainly the case in peacekeeping settings.  As Marsha Henry and Paul Highgate lay out in their book, Insecure Spaces, peacekeeping enclaves are gendered sites, as are the interactions that play out therein.  Throughout the film, in addition to the larger issue at hand – the sex trafficking – we also see many ways in which Bolkovac’s position as a woman in a male dominated work place is used against her: being forced to listen to sexist jokes, suggestions that her chosen line of work makes her a ‘bad mother’, and other gendered assumptions about her (in)abilities to work in the peacekeeping setting.

The UN itself has made concerted efforts to address gender inequalities within its peacekeeping missions over the past decade, spurned on by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325, which was passed after much lobbying by international women’s rights activists in 2000.  Since that time, women, peace and security activists have continued to press for the implementation of the standards set out in UN SCR 1325 (and similar resolutions), with varying levels of success.  Successful implementation of UN SCR 1325 has been contingent on several factors, which varies according to Department. For example, when I worked for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations on a project seeking to implement some of the UNSCR 1325 objectives, Assistant Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute, currently the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security in the United States, strongly and vocally supported the implementation of UNSCR 1325. In a hierarchical organization such as the UN, such support is crucial, proving, as many studies have shown, that commitment to reaching gender equality goals inside institutions can only be accomplished with ‘buy in’ from those at the highest levels of the establishment.

Interestingly, the way that this ‘buy in’ is interpreted can vary widely – when I was conducting research for my PhD thesis in Haiti, the peacekeeping mission there, known as MINUSTAH, had one of the largest gender units of any UN mission in the world.  (As of writing, there are 16 peacekeeping missions being operated by the UN around the world, and only 10 with gender advisors.)  I learned that this was partly due to ‘buy in’ at the top – the persistence of the former head of the gender unit there.  The move was also partly reactionary, in light of MINUSTAH’s own difficulties with very public allegations of sexual assault of Haitian women by members of the peacekeeping mission.

Although both the events recounted in The Whistleblower and the DSK case might be viewed as ‘exceptional’ instances within the development context, the reality is that they are two widely-publicized cases that, when unpacked, showcase the structural inequalities embedded in some of the most powerful institutions in the world. To ensure the rights of women working in these institutions, and, moreover, to ensure that the policies and programs promoted by these organizations reflect a gender equitable approach, these power imbalances must continue to be addressed.

In the meantime, they continue. Last month in Haiti, allegations that five members of the peacekeeping mission from Uruguay sexually assaulted a Haitian teenager led to their removal from country.  This time, however, Uruguayan authorities pledged that the accused peacekeepers would be ‘prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if found guilty’.  The five are currently in jail in Montevideo, awaiting trial. One hopes that the outcome will be different from another highly publicized case, in which over 100 Sri Lankan troops were sent home from Haiti after sexual abuse allegations, with promises of accountability by Sri Lankan authorities. The UN has never confirmed whether any actions were taken.


And did I mention that the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped?  He is no longer at the helm of the IMF, however, having been replaced by a woman, French lawyer Christine Legarde.

Gwendolyn Beetham is a freelance researcher and writer with an MSc and PhD in Gender from the Gender Institute. Her work has appeared in Gender Theories: Key Concepts, The International Handbook of Gender and Poverty, The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism, Gender & Development Journal, and The S&F Online (http://barnard.edu/sfonline/reprotech/archives.htm). She lives in Brooklyn, New York where she is actively involved in queer, feminist, and food justice movements. You can find her on twitter at @gwendolynb.