Empowering Pakistani women in peacekeeping

Wajiha Arshad

“The day I received Force Commander’s commendation card (highest award given for best performance to an officer on the United Nations Mission), officers from other countries’ armies in the mission were inspired and started to motivate their female officers to perform for coming up to the level of Pakistani female officers’ performance,” said Major Farah Nazneen, who served in the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). The shine in her eyes and delighted tone said it all. Indeed, I get to meet our young and energetic Pakistani women every day, carrying themselves with grace in khaki with the Pakistani flag on their uniforms. They are the real faces of our females, our future and represent womenfolk on an international forum like the United Nations with dignity and pride.

Today, Pakistan stands as one of the longest serving and largest contributing countries to UN peacekeeping and has a long history, having been one of the largest contributors of troops and police for decades. We provide more than 6,000 military and police officers to UN peacekeeping missions across the globe. Pakistan has lost over 140 peacekeepers throughout its history in UN peacekeeping. As of March 2021, we are the sixth largest troop-contributing country for United Nations peacekeeping missions.

With the deployment of the first-ever female engagement team to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan has become a leader in championing women peacekeepers now. Last year, the first ever Pakistani Female Engagement team in any United Nations (UN) mission around the world received UN medals for serving in MONUSCO. The team of Pakistani women officers received major recognition for being the first all-female group from Pakistan to serve in a UN peacekeeping mission. This first Pakistani Female Engagement Team (FET) was deployed in South Kivu, Congo in 2019. The team of Pakistani women peacekeepers provides a range of resources to the region. They are psychologists, stress counsellors, vocational training officers, gender advisors, doctors, nurses, operations officers, information officers, and logistics officers. Since then, several additional Pakistani women officers joined FETs in Congo and United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution in August 2020, calls on the UN and its member nations to step up action to increase the number of women in military and civilian positions at all levels in the UN’s peacekeeping operations. The resolution recognises, “the indispensable role of women in increasing the overall performance and effectiveness of peacekeeping operations,” stressing that a better balance between men and women contributes to “greater credibility” of the UN missions among the people they are mandated to protect.

Pakistan’s armed forces, keeping in view the increased significance of women peacekeepers in peacekeeping missions have been deploying female officers on missions on a regular basis. UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) underscores the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and calls for their equal participation in peace building. Pakistani female officers serving at UN missions; their efforts and expertise in increasing the effective participation of women in peacemaking and conflict prevention efforts are of immense importance. Our female officers from multiple fields like IT, media, public relations, legal advice, Medical Officers (MOs), operations and planning officers and as a part of female engagement teams, play a vital role.

Leaving behind their own families and serving for peace in war-torn countries or difficult security situations, risking their lives, is not an easy job for a woman. Pakistan’s armed forces are indeed keeping well with the UNSC’s call, made in 2015, for doubling the number of women in uniformed peace operations by 2028. The most crucial role is being played by the Female Engagement Teams constituted by psychologists, stress counsellors, vocational training officers, gender advisors, doctors, nurses, operations officers, information officers and logistics officers. All roles well represented and performed by our female officers in the UN Peacekeeping missions. The main role of these teams is community outreach and engagement, to plan and conduct all the activities with the local community. The inherent limitations of engagement while reaching out to women and children of the local population in the past, has been well compensated by inclusion of female officers from different arms. Now for the local community our infantry battalions become more approachable and accessible when they see females patrolling and engaged in civil-military activities and making a meaningful impact at all levels. Our female peacekeepers serve as powerful mentors for women, girls and children in post-conflict settings in the host community, setting examples for them to advocate for their own rights and pursue non-traditional careers. Our female officers, who are serving far away from their own families and children, wholeheartedly work closely with communities across the globe. They can access the locals by generating critical information like interviewing and supporting survivors of sexual assault or gender-based violence. Female stress counsellors build trust and confidence with local communities where women are prohibited from speaking to men.

Since last year, UN peacekeepers are facing one of their greatest challenges—Covid-19. Peacekeepers are assisting governments and local communities in response to the pandemic and continuing to adapt their activities to execute their mandates, including protecting vulnerable communities. Our female peacekeepers are on the frontline in this fight and are an integral part of the Covid-19 response team as well as in implementing mission mandates, within current constraints while taking all precautionary measures. Covid-19 has brought along challenges and reshaped the working environment highlighting the importance of perception management in the peacekeepers and female officers, specifically those who are doing wonders in the field of media.

In addition to their role in the field, our female officers are working at key appointments in Mission as Staff Officers. Female peacekeepers serving as Military Public Information Officers (MPIO), contribute towards effective perception management as per mission mandate. Our staff officer plans, coordinates and directs all sectors regarding information operations campaigns. Female legal advisors assist the authorities on all legal issues including existing agreements, UN’s policies, privileges, and immunities. The IT officers are helping missions adapt new working environments to serve the host communities.

The UN Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative views the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda as critical to enhancing peacekeeping operations’ performance through supporting women’s participation in peace processes and making peacekeeping more gender-responsive and inclusive by increasing the number of civilian and uniformed women in peacekeeping at all levels and in key positions. More women in peacekeeping mean more effective peacekeeping. Pakistani female peacekeepers are helping in this regard to their fullest by becoming role models and a source of motivation for women of every host nation where females are deprived of their basic rights and who do not have opportunities to get education and participate in the development of their country.

Pakistan Army is valued as adding tremendously in UN Peacekeeping missions and now taking the bar much higher by increased induction of females in the armed forces and their deployment globally in UN peacekeeping missions in distinct professional roles. I personally feel proud to be a part of the force and wish to see more women from our society to step up having been provided equal opportunities. The road indeed comes with inherent challenges, where our Pakistani sisters in arms are moving ahead with pride and paving way for our future generations.

The writer has served as a military public information officer in the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. (Courtesy The Nation)