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global | REPORTS

Women in Blue Berets
U.N. mission addresses Congo violence-and gender equity

After decades of feminist pressure, in 2000 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on “women, peace and security.” It calls for women to play larger roles in peace negotiations and peacekeeping operations, and suggests a greater focus on how war affects women’s lives. One result is more female personnel in U.N. forces; another is that every mission now works to empower local women.

An example of the former is that, in January, the first all-woman U.N. peacekeeping force—105 Indian policewomen— began a Liberia mission at President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s invitation, working with the Liberian National Police to maintain peace and order. Efforts toward achieving the latter goal can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where MONUC—the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo—is the largest ever U.N. peacekeeping operation.

In the DRC war—the bloodiest conflict since World War II—4 million have died, although U.N. Blue Berets have tried to establish and maintain peace in this central African country since 1999. In 2006, former rebel Joseph Kabila took office as DRC’s first democratically elected president, but violence in eastern Congo persists. Few of the U.N. troops in Congo are women—just 314 of 16,000—but 30 percent of MONUC’s civilian employees are women. The U.N. relies on what member states offer, and most troops are from countries with a low record of women’s military participation. South African Col. Lynette Floegel is one of MONUC’s highestranking female officers; the sole woman at military briefings, she’s called “Mama Colonel” by the Congolese. But some male colleagues needed time to get used to her, Floegel says: “One officer would comment on my hair or clothes just about every morning. I took him aside and asked him to please refrain from those kind of remarks in the future. …This can be more difficult for a lower-ranking woman.”

Resolution 1325 also mandates a social duty: “If you want peace to stand a chance, you have to involve society, especially women,” says Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, MONUC eastern divisional commander. “We organize counseling for women on health, HIV/AIDS. Twelve years ago, this would have been unthinkable.”

Amy Smythe is MONUC’s senior gender advisor (a gender officer accompanies every mission). Her assignments include stimulating women’s social and political participation, such as the women’s voting campaign. “Turnout among women was very high,” she says proudly. “They formed the majority of voters.” Gender officers also educate U.N. personnel, a crucial task in eastern Congo, where one in three women have suffered rape during the war. “If a woman has been abused by a soldier or a rebel, the last person she needs to see is another man in uniform. But,” notes Smythe, “sometimes there is no one else. So it’s important for Blue Berets to know how to handle sensitive issues.”

The mission was heavily criticized in 2004 when a sex scandal involving MONUC personnel surfaced. The U.N. code of conduct forbids patronizing prostitution or having sex with minors, but peace troops and other personnel did both. Now, the U.N. enforces the code with zero tolerance. Recently, MONUC began investigating new accusations: Via a South Kivu prostitution network, girls as young as age 13 were allegedly paid $5 for sex with national soldiers as well as with MONUC troops. Amy Smythe wants to broaden women’s economic options, so they aren’t forced to sell their bodies to survive. “

A U.N. mission changes the lives of the local population,” she says. “We should acknowledge this, [and] give economic support to women so they don’t need to turn to soldiers for money.” Smythe also emphasizes that, once the peacekeeping mission leaves, “other U.N. agencies should be well-funded to ensure that women’s concerns are taken care of.”