A Female Approach to Peacekeeping

Publication Date: 
March 5, 2010
New York Times
Photo: New York Times

MONROVIA, LIBERIA — When darkness comes to Congo Town, women in crisp uniforms take the streets, patrolling with Kalashnikov rifles and long, black hair tucked into baby-blue caps.

The brisk sergeant in command, Monia Gusain, matter of factly calls them “my men.” But the stern Indian women facing her are actually wives and mothers who wage peace for a living on the rutted dirt roads of Liberia.

The women — part of a special female United Nations police unit from India — lead dual lives: stamping out street crime by night and standing guard under the steamy equatorial sun outside the Monrovia headquarters of the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. When they retreat, home is a military barracks where they tell bedtime stories to their toddlers via video conference calls.

Together they form the thin pink line of a U.N. recruitment campaign for the 21st century. As it marks the 100th International Women’s Day on March 8, the United Nations is intensifying efforts to recruit women for peacekeeping missions that seek to mend what war has wrought.

The theory — which has evolved since pioneering female peacekeepers started participating in U.N. missions in the Balkans in the 1990s — is that women employ distinctive social skills in a rugged macho domain. They are being counted on to bring calm to the streets and the barracks, acting as public servants instead of invaders.

“When female soldiers are present, the situation is closer to real life, and as a result the men tend to behave,” said Gerard J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has written books about women in the military. “Any conflict where you have an all-male army, it’s like a holiday from reality. If you inject women into that situation, they do have a civilizing effect.”

As modern peacekeeping has evolved into nation building, the number of female police officers in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world has doubled during the past five years to 833, or more than 6 percent of a force of 12,867. Nigeria and India are top contributors to a total that is still far below the international goal of 20 percent. In some missions — notably Darfur and Liberia — women are edging closer: Women account for 14 percent of the 1,354 police peacekeepers in Liberia.

Liberia — a West African country created in 1847 to settle freed American slaves — is something of a modern laboratory for the rise of women making peace. Women are marching in foot patrols; the head of the U.N. mission, Ellen Margrethe Loj of Denmark, is a woman; and the Liberian president, Mrs. Sirleaf, is the first woman elected as an African head of state, in 2005.

Mrs. Sirleaf — whose nickname is “Iron Lady” — is particularly blunt about the role of women in the recovery of her fragile country, which was battered by 14 years of civil war that left about 200,000 people dead and survivors haunted by torture, systematic rapes and the exploitation of drug-addicted boy soldiers.

“What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring,” Mrs. Sirleaf said in an interview. “I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”

The softer approach is critical in Liberia. In 2004, a U.N. report criticized peacekeepers in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti for the sexual abuse of young women by trading food and money for sex. In 2005, 47 peacekeepers were accused of sexual abuse in Liberia, compared with 18 peacekeepers who were accused last year, according to the U.N. mission.

Top U.N. officials credit the arrival of women for helping improve behavior. Yet within Liberia, national peacekeeping units from different countries are still debating the best approach, tinkering with ways to best deploy female peacekeepers — or “blue helmettes” in U.N. lingo.

The contingents from India and Nigeria have both settled into Liberian outposts with contrasting approaches that raise a simple question: Should female peacekeepers be mixed with male peacekeepers?

The Nigerian Approach

From a dusty military base on Old Road, outside Monrovia, the capital, Lt. Col. Joseph Ogbonna presides over a battalion of men and women from Nigeria, the first country to send peacekeepers to Liberia, in 2003.

The Nigerian women — who number 59, or 5 percent of 1,159 officers — hold largely traditional jobs, including working as cooks, nurses, supply clerks, police officers, teachers and refugee workers, said Colonel Ogbonna, who argues that women are more disciplined.

Some of the male peacekeepers joke uneasily that the women are getting too much attention. Brig. Gen. Ebiowei Awala said he notices a change in himself when women are present. He lowers his voice when talking to men and women, softening his language.

“It’s like any household,” he said. “When the mother culture is there, people change.”

The Nigerian women live in narrow barracks tacked with photos of smiling little boys and girls in frothy dresses left behind in the care of husbands or relatives.

The trade-off is adventure, financial opportunity and the chance to aid a weak nation.

“I came here to make peace in this country,” said Olayiwola Olanike, 50, a staff sergeant, nurse and mother of two who arrived five months ago and tends Liberian patients at a special free clinic. But the beginning was difficult; she missed her family, and the torrential rainy season was a thundering force. Malaria was constant, Sergeant Olanike said.

Charity Charamba, a Zimbabwean who is operations coordinator for the U.N. police, said she had almost turned back before leaving for Liberia because her husband and sons, 19 and 11, were miserable.

“It is a tough decision to leave a family, and this is why most female officers find it difficult to come to the mission,” Ms. Charamba said, recalling the tug of 2 a.m. telephone calls from her younger son demanding intercession: “Mommy, Daddy is not listening to me.”

In their peacekeeping roles, one of their usual duties is reaching out to other mothers and their children.

Cpl. Kehinde Dbadamoisi, 42, is an 18-year military veteran and mother of three sons ages 8 to 16. She wears an olive Nigerian uniform in a Monrovia classroom where she is deployed as a biology teacher.

Initially, the school’s principal, A. Darkpay Johnson, worried that Liberian students would fear the imposing woman in uniform.

“But you can see that when she asks questions, they answer,” Mr. Johnson said.

Outside the classroom, Corporal Dbadamoisi said her uniform had no effect.

“The children love us,” she said. “It’s the way that you interact with them that matters. If you can pass along lessons to students, they admire you.”

She said she had been drawn to Liberia for the challenge and the opportunity to do anything in the military.

Indeed, in some respects, Nigerian women have taken up so many tasks with the men that they have also shared the bleak side.

For many military and police officers from poorer nations, a main attraction of peacekeeping is a special allowance financed by the United Nations and disbursed to the home countries of peacekeepers. It adds up to about $1,000 a month, which — for peacemakers from third world countries — can be equivalent to five times their base pay.

In April, 27 Nigerian peacekeepers in Liberia — three of them young women — were convicted of mutiny by a military court and given life sentences for participating in demonstrations in Nigeria in 2008 to protest the embezzlement of their peacekeeping allowances.

The life sentences were later commuted to seven-year prison sentences, a much harsher punishment than for those who took the money. The Nigerian officers accused of embezzling $68,541 and diverting the allowances to another military unit were demoted.

The Indian Approach

Since early in 2007, Indian women have stood guard outside the president’s office on the main street in Monrovia.

It is a highly symbolic post, even for critics who complain that the women — whose English is weaker than their Hindi — have minimal contact with the local population.

“I don’t think women in peacekeeping have come across to the Liberian people,” said John Richardson, an adviser to Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, who remains popular in Liberia although he is on trial in The Hague on war crimes charges.

Still, another close Taylor supporter, Cyril Allen — chairman emeritus of the former ruling party — sees advantages because of the country’s divisions.

“I don’t think that Liberian women should be carrying guns and standing in front of the president,” he said. “You don’t know where their loyalty is.”

The Indian unit of 103 women also plays a more unsung role, mentoring unarmed local Liberian police officers who must deal with the lingering suspicions of citizens who resented police participation in the civil war.

On the streets of Congo Town, a Monrovia suburb where crime rates soared after the war, supporters credit old-fashioned Indian foot patrols with cutting armed robberies by as much as 65 percent, according to Gostine Hallie, a Congo Town police chief who trudges on patrols with the women.

“Since we started foot patrols, the crime has considerably reduced, and we’re getting maximum cooperation from local people,” said Mr. Hallie, whose station only recently received electricity.

From their base in Monrovia, the Indian unit is also credited by the local police academy for encouraging increased reporting of sexual abuse and inspiring recruitment of Liberian women for the national police, which had 602 women last year, or about 15 percent of the force of 4,019.

Most of the Indian women were leaving their country for the first time when they joined the U.N. mission in Liberia. Their English is often shaky, but their commanders say they have established a rapport.

During the Liberian civil war, “it was the men who inflicted harm on women, and most of the time the sufferers were women and children,” said Annie Abraham, 45, the commanding officer of the Indian unit that just finished its rotation and was replaced by new recruits. “When you have male peacekeepers, you get the feeling that the women are more intimidated. Women aren’t as aggressive as the men. Women don’t speak as loudly as the men.”

The Indian contingent has brought along 22 men, who are the cooks, mechanics and drivers who support the female unit.

The abilities to drive a manual transmission vehicle and fire weapons are often critical barriers for female peacekeepers. The Canadian government and the Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Ottawa have donated vehicles and organized driving lessons in Ghana for peacekeepers.

On the street, the Indian women are perceived as sober and intimidating, but the biggest menace in the barracks is homesickness and depression.

To counter the blues and connect with Liberians, the unit organized Indian festivals, Bollywood dancing lessons and the “adoption” of a school and orphanage.

“That was the way we could reach out and build trust,” Ms. Abraham said. The idea, built on offering solace, is a strategy that the United Nations is preparing to study to explore the effects of female paramilitary units — particularly with Bangladesh poised to dispatch a new women’s unit of peacekeepers.

“We need to go deeper to study the impact that this is having and what aspect is really a good practice,” said Carole Doucet, the senior gender adviser for the U.N. Mission in Liberia. “We need to be careful about saying it’s fantastic. We need to know why.”

Some women have found the challenge of leading a life far from their family too daunting. As female participation grows, that issue will be critical for the United Nations, which is considering shorter, more flexible rotations.

“No more missions — it’s the first and the last because it’s difficult for me as a mother,” said Syalus Maharana, an Indian operations commander who finished her yearlong tour along with the daily ritual of mothering her 5-year-old son by hourlong video conference calls.

“He’s being looked after nicely and he is not missing me, but I am missing him,” she said. “He tells me, ‘Mama, are you using a mosquito net?’ He is advising me, and I should be advising him.”

Ms. Maharana came for the challenge, travel and financial opportunities, but she left Africa in late February with a few life lessons from Liberians, particularly one exotic notion.

“In India, a male child is preferred, but in Liberia they do not use methods to stop a girl child coming into the world,” she said. “For them, a male child and girl child are equal. I think that’s positive.”