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By LISA HOFFMAN
Another milestone in women’s history will be reached in coming weeks, when the first all-female unit of U.N. peacekeepers deploys to a troubled corner of Africa.
More than 100 strong, the contingent of paramilitary policewomen from India will arrive in October in the West African nation of Liberia, where they will help provide security in a country crawling its way back to stability after more than a decade of strife.
While women can be found in many of the 18 U.N. peace operations now under way across the globe, they never before have comprised an entire contingent, the United Nations said. Noting that 75 percent of all refugees and displaced people are women and children, humanitarian groups say it’s about time.
"This is excellent," said Sarah Martin, an expert on gender issues at Refugees International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization.
The imminent dispatch of the Indian troops, who are well-seasoned in handling insurgent conflicts and civil strife within their own country, casts a spotlight on a growing consensus among those in the aid field that vastly more women should be integrated in the largely all-male ranks of peacekeepers.
The United Nations itself agrees. In 2000, the world body resolved to increase the number of female peacekeepers. It also called for the establishment of "gender advisers" for assignment to the senior staffs of predominantly male peace operations to ensure an awareness of the particular vulnerability of women refugees to sexual and other abuse, and to institute protections to prevent it.
Experience has shown that such women _ especially those in conservative cultures where rape attaches a terrible stigma to victims _ find it far easier to seek help and report they have been sexually abused when they can confide in a female authority rather than a male, Martin and others say.
In recent years, U.N. peacekeepers themselves have been accused of sexually exploiting and assaulting women in a string of countries, including Congo, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and Liberia. With more women in the units, the propensity for abuse would lessen, Martin and other experts said.
Women peacekeepers also are valuable in performing security searches and other duties where social strictures have created taboos for male-female interactions. And, experts say, they often demonstrate special skills at mediating conflicts and easing tensions.
Retired Maj. Gen. Bill Nash, who commanded U.S. peacekeepers in Bosnia, said he found women troops to be useful in many circumstances.
"There’s a unique capacity that women bring," said Nash, now director of the Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action.
Even so, the presence of women in peacekeeping missions remains minimal, and the United Nations has so far placed just a handful of women in positions of authority.
Since 1948, when the world agency conducted its first peacekeeping operation, just eight women have held command posts in the more than 50 peace missions that have followed. In the rank and file, women currently account for only 640 of the 64,000 military peacekeepers and 330 of the 7,500 police personnel now assigned to peace operations, according to U.N. statistics.
Unlike most countries, India has long placed women in military and police ranks. The Indian policewomen heading to Liberia have experience taking on Maoist rebels, separatist guerrillas and violent insurgents in the flashpoint region of Kashmir, tropical jungles and city streets. They are trained in riot and crowd control, hand-to-hand combat and the use of both deadly and non-lethal force.
"(W)e believe our experience in handling difficult situations in India will come in handy" in Liberia, Seema Dhundia, the commander of the all-female unit, told the Associated Press.
In Liberia, they will be joining a U.N. force that currently numbers more than 15,000. The peacekeeping mission began after a 14-year civil war ended in 2003. An estimated 200,000 Liberians died in the conflict, and more than half the nation’s 3 million people became refugees. So far, 63 U.N. peacekeepers have been killed there.
(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanL(at)shns.com.)