The United Nations is marking the annual International Day of Peacekeepers by honouring the brave troops, police and civilians who serve in some of the most difficult places around the world, and by stressing the unique role played by women and the need to deploy more of them.
This year's commemoration comes at a time when the services of UN peacekeepers are in greater demand than ever. Deployment is at a record high, with more than 113,000 peacekeepers serving in 18 operations on four continents.
Yet, “there are still far too few women peacekeepers,” as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in his message for the Day, pointing out that women make up only 8 per cent of the UN police and 2 per cent of its military personnel.
“We have a long way to go both with the military and the police,” Susana Malcorra, Under-Secretary-General for Field Support and one of the UN's senior female officials, told a news conference in New York.
She stressed the importance of women in the UN's peacekeeping activities, which in many cases also involve programmes related to peacebuilding, reconstruction and reconciliation.
Often, female blue helmets, human rights monitors and other mission staff can better communicate with local women, generating a greater sense of security, as in the case the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where rape has been used as a weapon of war and UN agencies estimate that 200,000 women and girls have been assaulted over the past 12 years.
Serena Tiberia, a human rights officer with the UN peacekeeping mission there, known as MONUC, said that she experiences easier access to victims, as a woman.
She added that female UN staff can also serve as models of women's empowerment. “I think the fact of seeing women working [with the UN], driving cars and managing teams, it can be a good example for Congolese society,” she said.
“Women can care about the family, but they can also study, they can also work, they can also do other things. I think reinforcing the role of women within the UN system, from the lowest to the highest level, could definitely serve as an example for the society we work with.”
India was among the first to answer the call for more women personnel with the deployment in 2007 of an all-female Formed Police Unit (FPU) – comprising police officers who have received specialized training in high-risk operations and managing crowds – to the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
That subsequently led to a marked increase in women applicants to the West African country's national police force.
UNMIL chief Ellen Margrethe Løj, the only female currently heading a UN peacekeeping mission, highlighted the important impact of the Indian police officers on the local society, during a medal ceremony last year in the capital, Monrovia.
“You have made a real difference, not only to us in UNMIL, but to a cross-section of Liberians, especially women and girls. Your presence in Liberia has demonstrated that women can play and have an increasingly crucial role in the establishment of the rule of law in post-conflict countries,” she stated.
As noted by the Secretary-General, UN peacekeepers often face insecurity, disease and violence on a daily basis while working to make a tangible difference in the lives of many in some of most difficult and inhospitable places around the world.
“Peacekeeping is tough and it means spending a lot of time away from your family,” said Bokani Hart, who heads MONUC's civil affairs unit. The Zimbabwean native added that the UN could look at issues such as conditions of service, and help with work/life balance.
At the same time, the job was not without its advantages, she said. “It's very, very interesting work. Every day is different. I come into work and I'm juggling 101 different issues and that'9s what I love about my job.”
Ms. Hart said her decision to work with UN peacekeeping has to do with her own personal history. “I spent the first 15 years of my life as a refugee and I've always been pulled to this kind of work. So I have sort of a personal attachment to my UN peacekeeping job, and I'm very proud to call myself a UN peacekeeper.”
She added that while there are many women working in the UN system, there could be more, especially in decision-making positions. “If we put our own house in order, then we could be a very good example to wider Congolese society,” she noted.
The UN is working to increase the number of women in senior positions at Headquarters and in field missions, according to DPKO.
“We have done a lot but we need to do a great deal more,” UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said, noting that women peacekeepers make a critical contribution in areas such as providing security, reforming State institutions and supporting political processes, and their work encourages others to participate in local peace processes.
General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto, in his message for the Day, stressed that peacekeepers do not just carry out their mandated tasks. “They create a lasting legacy by exemplifying how military and police can engage in humanitarian work while interacting respectfully with civil society.”
From New York to Naqoura, Darfur to Dili, the Day is being marked at UN offices around the world with a range of events, including ceremonies to honour those who paid the ultimate price in the service of peace. In 2008, 132 peacekeepers – including 10 women – lost their lives, whether through attacks, illnesses or accidents – one of the highest one-year totals in the history of the Organization.
“The legacy of these men and women lives on. It lives on in what they did for the people of the countries in which they served. It lives on in the example they set for all of us as talented, dedicated professionals,” Mr. Ban said at the wreath-laying ceremony in New York.
The Secretary-General also presided over the awarding of the Dag Hammarskjöld Medals, which are given posthumously to the military, police and civilian personnel who lost their lives last year.
He said he hoped the Medals – named for the former UN Secretary-General, who himself died on a peace mission to the Congo – “can serve as a tangible symbol of our sincere condolences as well as our immense gratitude for their sacrifice.”
Designated by the General Assembly in 2002, the International Day is observed on 29 May, the date in 1948 when the first UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), began operations in Palestine.