This group of Indian women made up part of the first all-female United Nations Peacekeeping unit, and have just returned to their home country as international heroes. Since 2007 these women have been stationed in Liberia, and a total of 9 units allowed each woman to stay on duty for only one year.
The were required to be on 24 hour guard duty and public order management mainly in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, and assisting with security building capacities wherever possible. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was formed after the Liberian civil war ended in 2003 to assist the country rebuild security infrastructure to the point where these all-female troops are no longer needed. That day has finally come, and Liberian president (who is was also the first woman to become president of an African country) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hailed these women as both heroes and role models.
“If I had my will, I would have recommended for another unit of the United Nations Mission in Liberia to leave, so that the Indian Formed Police Unit (FPU) would continue its stay in the country for the time being,” she said in a ceremony honoring the women and the important role they played in Liberia’s road to stability after such a tumultuous time.
Aside from their official duties, the women have become role models to Liberians.
“When the local women see the female peacekeepers, they get inspired by them – [they see] ladies can perform the same role as male counterparts. They’ve served as role models for the local girls, and the effect on Liberian women was very significant,” said Colonel Madhubala Bala, the contingent’s commander, to UN news center.
As a result, the number of women in the security sector in the country has risen to 17%, where it was only 6% when the all-female unit arrived 9 years ago.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised the women and the impact they made in Liberia, saying their professionalism and discipline contributed greatly to the country’s ability to assume all security duties by themselves starting mid-2016.
“Through their work, they managed criminality, deterred sexual and gender-based violence and helped rebuild safety and confidence among the population. [I] thank all the women who served in the FPU for inspiring all Liberians, as well as current and future generations of female police officers, and becoming role models for gender equality,” he said in a statement, also pointing out how the deployment of more female peacekeeping and security personnel can play a role in helping the UN combat sexual exploitation and abuse in former and current conflict zones.
Surprisingly, India has been one of the leaders in contributing police officers for peacekeeping missions. They rank fourth in the world, with 1009 officers stationed worldwide, and they are the third largest contributor of female officers, just behind Bangladesh and Nepal.
While this is great news, we wish the notion of women as a strong and heroic presence in society would translate to India. Unfortunately it is a country that is dogged with gender violence where women daily face threats such as rape, acid attacks, honor killings, beatings, street harassment and inequality simply for being women. Much of this happens despite the Indian constitution have equality measures written into it.
Nevertheless, the news of the all-female Peacekeeping force being hailed as a reason for Liberia’s stability and peace should speak volumes to the patriarchal culture in India that does not allow women to be seen as equals.
“You have certain professions that are seen to be traditional masculine jobs. What we’re doing with the military and the police is breaking down the perception that this is a male domain and that women can’t be involved. We know that the obstacles aren’t that it’s too dangerous or that they don’t want to travel or leave their children. Those aren’t the most prevailing obstacles; it’s mainly that they’re not aware of opportunities,” explained Clare Hutchinson, a gender adviser for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).
The UN encourages its member states to employ female officers on a national-level first before allowing them to be deployed worldwide. So far they have trained over 500 women in five countries, with 175 officers being deployed in 2015 alone.
Clare Hutchinson says these women are making a bold statement about gender wherever they are.
“What comes out as very striking to me when you talk to women in the services, the first thing they say is that they’re a police officer, not a woman. So they’re not women police officers, they’re police officers who are women. And I think that’s very important for us to remember,” she said.
One of the women in Liberia, Inspector Sangmitrai Kittappan, 40, was encouraged to join the forced by both her father and husband, something not commonly seen in Indian culture. The Inspector served 2 rotations in total, going back to Liberia the second time during the Ebola outbreak. She told UN News Center the impact she and the other women had on the girls they come across.
“Female infanticide was [practiced] in our society. That’s why my father always told me ‘one day you will play a big role in the world, you will be an example to the female community’. Girls talk with us freely, they’re always asking if it’s hard to live away from our families for a long time. I tell them I love my country and I want to sacrifice my life for my nation,” she said.
These types of all-female peacekeeping units came after Security Council resolution 1325 was put in place in the year 2000 which outlined all member states must do more to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all peace and security efforts. They believe the Indian units in Liberia put this resolution into action.
Ten years ago, there were 16,000 UN uniformed personnel in Liberia. By the end of June, there will be 1,240 military and 606 police.
The civil war in Liberia began in 1989 and altogether saw the death of over 150,000 people, most of whom were civilians. In 2003, activist Leymah Gbowee became a figurehead during the war for mobilizing both Christian and Muslim women together to stage protests, strikes and sit-ins which eventually forced political action in the country’s favor. In 2011, Leymah was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and her story can be seen in the brilliant documentary ‘Pray The Devil Back To Hell‘.
The lesson here is that women should always be part of any peacekeeping strategy, whether it be on a local or community level, right up to a national level. Not only do they serve as role models to encourage other women to become participants in public life, they play a role in shaping the future of their country politically, socially, and economically.
Watch Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf bid farewell to the all-female Indian UN peacekeeping unit in the video below: