“We see you as family,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf last week told the women of the all-female Indian police unit serving in her country under the United Nations flag.
“If I had my will, I would have recommended for another unit of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) to leave, so that the Indian Formed Police Unit (FPU) would continue its stay in the country for the time being,” she said, speaking to a large crowd at their farewell ceremony, organised to coincide with India’s Republic Day.
Since 2007, there have been nine rotations of all-female police units from India, whose primary responsibilities have been to provide 24-hour guard duty and public order management and to conduct night patrols in and around the capital, Monrovia, while assisting to build capacity in local security institutions.
On February 14, 125 women and supporting personnel that constitute the unit packed their bags and returned home to all corners of India following a one-year rotation in the post-conflict nation. Since the civil war ended in 2003, UNMIL has been supporting Liberia to rebuild its institutions so it can maintain stability without its presence.
“When local women see the female peacekeepers, they get inspired by them – they see ladies can perform the same role as male counterparts,” Colonel Madhubala Bala, contingent commander, said.
And the proof is in the numbers. Liberian women now make up 17% of the country’s security sector, as compared to six percent years ago before the arrival and influence of the all-female Indian contingent.
“They’ve served as role models for local girls and the effect on Liberian women was significant,” added the Colonel.
In a statement issued today in New York ahead of the departure, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid tribute to the FPU’s “unwavering performance, professionalism and discipline,” and commended its contributions to creating an environment for the Government of Liberia to fully assume its security responsibilities by June 30 this year.
“Through their work, they managed criminality, deterred sexual and gender-based violence and helped rebuild safety and confidence among the population,” said the statement, in which Ban also highlighted the conduct of the FPU served as an example of how the deployment of more female uniformed personnel can help the UN in its efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse.
“The Secretary-General thanks all the women who served in the FPU for inspiring all Liberians, as well as current and future generations of female police officers and becoming role models for gender equality,” the statement added.
According to the UN, India has been an unequivocal supporter of women in peace and security worldwide. It is currently the fourth largest police-contributing country with 1,009 police officers worldwide, and the third largest contributor of female police officers with 115, just behind Bangladesh and Nepal.
“You have certain professions that are seen to be traditional masculine jobs,” explained Clare Hutchinson, a gender adviser for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).
“What we’re doing with the military and the police is breaking down the perception this is a male domain and women can’t be involved. We know the obstacles aren’t that it’s too dangerous or they don’t want to travel or leave their children. Those aren’t the most prevailing obstacles; it’s mainly they’re not aware of opportunities.”
She emphasised that to increase the presence of women in peace operations, the UN relies on Member States to recruit them at the country level first. To support the effort, the Organisation has helped train over 555 female police officers in five countries, leading to 174 additional women being deployed last year.
“What comes out as striking to me when you talk to women in the services, the first thing they say is they’re police officers, not women. So they’re not women police officers, they’re police officers who are women. And I think that’s important for us to remember,” she said.
Inspector Sangmitrai Kittappan (40) was encouraged to join the Indian police force by her family – especially her father and husband, who is also a police officer. She has served two one-year rotations in Liberia, returning in February 2015 for the second time because Ebola had ravaged the country and she wanted to help.
“Female infanticide was practiced in our society. That’s why my father always told me ‘one day you will play a big role in the world, you will be an example to the female community,'” she said.
“Girls talk with us freely, there’re always asking if it’s hard to live away from our families for a long time,” she added. “I tell them I love my country and I want to sacrifice my life for my nation.”
Inspector Santha Bhargavi (49) said she especially enjoyed helping to restore calm during riots, even when the situation grew violent. “It was a big moment for us,” she said. “We controlled the situation, we are well trained. It is a pride for any woman to serve in such a mission.”
The Indian contingent is not just controlling crowds; the women have earned the respect of Liberians thanks to their engagement in the community on many levels. For example, they gave map reading lessons to their peers in the Liberian National Police. More broadly, they taught Liberian women self-defence skills, conducted classes on sexual violence and HIV/AIDS and provided medical services. Some became involved with a local orphanage and school in Congo Town.
“It was a challenging job 24 hours a day,” said 31-year-old Sub-Inspector Subashini Mahunta. “It was a big responsibility to protect the people, save strangers and bring safety and comfort to the people. Being a police officer is respectable.”
This message was echoed by many UN officials, who in light of the contingent’s imminent departure praised the women’s contribution.
“The all-female Indian FPU played an outstanding role in Liberia since 2007 and put the soul of Security Council resolution 1325 into operational action and visibility,” said UN Police Adviser Stefan Feller, referring to the UN document adopted in 2000 urging all stakeholders to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all peace and security efforts.
“These courageous women patrolled Monrovian streets at night together with their Liberian counterparts, maintained calm during the Ebola crisis and devoted time and resources above and beyond the call of duty to protect communities. The legacy these peacekeepers leave behind is the next generation of female Liberian leaders, already serving in the national police.”
Ten years ago, there were 16,000 UN uniformed personnel in Liberia. By the end of June, there will be 1,240 military and 606 police.
“The all-female Indian FPU will not be replaced, but its legacy will continue in Liberia and throughout peacekeeping,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMIL, Farid Zarif.
“Having served with distinction they have earned the deep respect of the Liberian people and have also made themselves, their families and their nation proud of their sacrifice and service,” he added.