Peacekeeping Training For Female Officers Extols Role Played by Women in the Military

Date: Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Peace keeping training for female officers
The officers break for tea. 40 military women from 26 countries attended the two-week course (Photo credit : UN Women)

The second UN peacekeeping training for female military officers, convened by UN Women in collaboration with the South African government, concluded after two busy weeks on Friday, September 18th. Held at the South African Army School’s Peace Mission Training Centre in Pretoria, the training was attended by 40 female officers from 26 countries around the world. It follows a successful first pilot held in Delhi, India earlier this year.

The purpose of the course is to increase the number of female military officers deployed to peacekeeping missions by providing a space where women in the armed forces can gain exposure, additional training, and opportunities for professional advancement and networking with military women from other countries. The course facilitates engagement between UN Women and troop contributing countries, incentivizing the deployment of more women in their military contingents.

In UN military components, women still account for only three percent of military personnel, an improvement of only two percentage points in 21 years. This is despite repeated calls for more women in peacekeeping since the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 was adopted in 2000.

During the course, several of the participants recounted how they had battled for years to be deployed. “I am here to get that time back”, said Brazilian Lieutenant Commander Carla Peixoto, who tried for ten years before she was selected for a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon last year.

The presence of women improves the outcomes of peacekeeping missions. As UN Women Special Advisor, Ms. Nozipho January-Bardill, speaking at the opening of the course on behalf of Dr. Auxilia Ponga, the Representative for the UN Women South Africa Multi-Country Office, explained, “We have in recent years established beyond a doubt that women’s participation and inclusion makes humanitarian assistance more effective, accelerates economic recovery, and contributes to the conclusion of peace talks. The same goes for our peacekeeping efforts. Commanders on the ground have recognized that women peacekeepers broaden the range of skills and capacities among all categories of personnel, enhance the operational effectiveness of all tasks, and improve the mission’s image, accessibility and credibility among the local population.”

Over the two weeks, the officers completed scenario-based exercises about gathering intelligence, preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence and trafficking, the rules of engagement and use of force in peacekeeping missions, cultural and gender awareness, child protection, civil-military coordination, and how to speak with victims of abuse or trauma.

Asked why she chose to attend the training, South African Major Mahlatse Malatji explained: “As a soldier you are trained to fight. So when I am faced with women and children in the field, I only know how to help them by using my rifle. But peacekeeping missions are something else. If you pass a hungry child and you’re carrying your rifle, he doesn’t understand the security you provide. But if you can offer him milk, for him it’s heaven.”

Knowing how to help women and children in conflict zones is vital to today’s peacekeeping operations. Now, more than ever before, civilians, especially women and children, are victims of extreme violence in conflict zones, where peacekeeping often involves battling organized crime, disease, or terrorism. In keeping with this was a call that rang clear throughout the two weeks. It is necessary to change the approach to conflict, because the nature of conflict itself has changed. “Be unconventional!” was the order given by Major General Patrick Cammaert, previously Military Advisor to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, during a lecture on the operational environment. “You will find when you are in the field that a path has been nicely cut for you. What I want after this course is for you to grab a machete and carve your own path.”

Now that the course is over, many of the officers already know when they are being deployed. One officer is going to Darfur. Another to the Central African Republic. Others, to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN currently has sixteen missions globally.

Before attending a vibrant farewell dinner, the participants were handed certificates and declared ready to be deployed on peacekeeping missions by their member states. At the certificate ceremony Major-General Olga Nodola, Chief Director of the Transformation Management Unit in the South African National Defence Force, paid tribute to young female corporal Molatelo Nkoana who, during a mission to CAR, volunteered to assist casualties. “While returning to the base the convoy was ambushed by a rebel group,” said General Nodola, “Without vehicles and maps the Corporal took the lead, and for two nights and two days they moved under her command and guidance, carrying the casualties.”

Several stories of skill, bravery, and leadership had already emerged throughout the two weeks. Lieutenant Colonel Felicia Maganwe, quoted in South Africa’s Sunday Times, recalled her first mission, to DRC, “It was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. At times I was afraid, but I was in charge of young women who were also there for the first time. I couldn’t let them down.” Over the course of her mission, leading three platoons, she rescued her soldiers from the crossfire between the rebel groups, mediated between rebel groups to open borders to civilians, and provided a safe haven for children who were being targeted for recruitment as child soldiers. She was later honoured as the best company commander on the mission. “I must say, I was proud of myself.”  

The course took place on the eve of the UN General Assembly in New York, where gender equality received unprecedented political attention. This year, the UN celebrates 20 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. On September 27th, a historic event saw 72 world leaders personally commit to end discrimination against women by 2030.

A day later, US President Barack Obama chaired the Leader’s Summit on Peacekeeping, where the governments of 43 UN Member States pledged 40 000 peacekeepers for deployment to UN peacekeeping missions. In his opening address, Obama noted that reforming and modernizing peace operations “means making sure we get more women leaders into critical roles.” In the summit’s closing declaration, the member states again stressed the importance of including women in UN peacekeeping operations. Forty officers from this course now stand ready to ensure the safety and freedom that are vital to achieving the recommendations of these meetings.