Last month, Bangladesh sent one of the world’s three all-women peacekeeping units on a mission to Haiti where the United Nations (UN) peacekeepers had reportedly exchanged basic necessities for sex with poor women. The unit is comprised of Muslim women who have served in Bangladesh’s police force, and has been deployed to assist the UN police force and the Haitian national police. The job empowers the women financially as it pays more than serving in the Bangladeshi police force. The other two all-women peacekeeping units are deployed on missions to Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, a documentary directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Geeta Gandhbir following the 140 women serving in this unit on their mission to Haiti from June 2013 to July 2014, which was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
When asked about why she directed the movie Gandhbir responded,
“What you see in the film is that these Bangladeshi women are the breadwinners. They go out from their traditional communities to leave the men at home with the children. It’s a role for women in that region that we haven’t heard much about and these women do it effectively. It’s important for everyone to see that.”
In her interview she also talked about the lives of some of the women peacekeepers from the unit. Farida Parvin had lived a hard life and decided to go on a mission to become an inspiration to her son who had lost his father. Mousumi Sultan had suffered domestic abuse in her family and joined the Bangladeshi police force to battle domestic violence against women. Rehana Parvin comes from a conservative background; her son considers it a sin for her to work.
Ghandhbir witnessed the impact of a women-only peacekeeping unit on the local populations; women and children were more open and comfortable with them.
The Need for More Female Peacekeepers
The involvement of women in the UN peacekeeping forces has grown over the past years however at a slow pace. Twenty years ago, women made up only 1% of the UN uniformed forces, meanwhile today 3% of military personnel and 10% of police personnel are women.
Norway’s Major General Kristin Lund, the first female to serve as Force Commander in a United Nations peacekeeping operation said,
“Being a female, from my recent deployment in Afghanistan, I had access to 100% of the population, not only 50%.”
Peacekeeping operations require intelligence-gathering, as well as mapping and tracking military factions in order to protect local civilians and in most cases the local populations are the main source of information. Also, the peacekeeping forces have to put in early warning systems. All of these operations require the building of trust with the locals through communication. Since women and children are victims of armed conflict, peacekeeping forces need to interact with them in order to properly protect them. Due to cultural restrictions, male peacekeepers might not be able to access a significant part of the population. This issue can be solved with the presence of female peacekeepers as they would have access to women and children.
Moreover, women peacekeepers focus on community policing rather than aggressive methods of enforcing law and order. Gandhbir mentioned incidents in Haiti where young men threw stones at the female peacekeepers. Despite the police officers’ advice to arrest them, the peacekeepers chose not to do so because they thought of them as “harmless kids, playing around and looking for food.”