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Lt. Col. Sadia Saleem

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Hilal Her

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: UN Mission in Congo

May 2024

Traditionally, war has been seen as a realm dominated by men, where gender barriers have always played a significant role due to the specialized nature of this field. Women’s participation in war or institutions associated with war and conflict has been largely marginalized. Throughout history, women have often been seen as passive participants in times of war rather than recognized as active agents or individuals with a stake in the outcome. Women in Western advanced militaries have long fought for equality in rank and file, striving to carve out a place for themselves in combat roles and positions. Nevertheless, the battle is far from over. Despite the progress, issues surrounding women’s performance, roles, space, specific needs, and harassment continue to cloud the supposedly clear-cut professional sphere. Consequently, a woman in uniform in the combat cadre has not yet shattered the glass ceiling.



In 2020, the global community achieved a significant milestone with the approval of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which recognized women as active participants in conflict, peace, and security for the first time. Given that war has both direct and indirect repercussions on women, particularly in terms of displacement, victimization, gender-based violence, abuse, harassment, and the impact on their families, it is crucial to recognize their significant role in conflict prevention, resolution, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation. 
The recognition of integrating a gender-inclusive approach into peacekeeping missions in various conflict zones has emerged as a crucial factor in enhancing their effectiveness. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242 (UNSC 2242) acknowledges the importance of women in peace negotiations, peacekeeping, and post-conflict reconstruction. It sets a goal of achieving greater gender parity in peacekeeping contingents by doubling the number of female peacekeepers in military and police contingents within five years. After the resolution was adopted, the percentage of female peacekeepers in UN peacekeeping missions experienced an upward trend.
Pakistan has consistently demonstrated its commitment to global peace and security by being one of the top five contributors of troops to UN peacekeeping missions. Over the past six decades, Pakistan has deployed approximately 200,000 troops worldwide. Additionally, Pakistan has successfully met the goal of providing a significant number of female personnel as part of its contingent forces. Approximately 450 Pakistani women have contributed to various peacekeeping missions across the globe. Pakistan’s two Female Engagement Teams (FETs) are currently deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Pakistani women officers carry out a diverse range of duties, including roles as psychologists, IT officers, media and public relations officers, vocational officers, gender advisors, medical professionals, logistics and informational branches. 
Furthermore, some civilian Pakistani women volunteer to serve in UN peacekeeping missions. Since the first female officer from the police service was deployed in the UN Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1997, the inclusion of policewomen and civilian contractors from Pakistan has become a common practice in peacekeeping missions. There is ample evidence to indicate that women make distinct and significant contributions that enhance the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations. Depending on the religious, cultural, and social customs of the local population, female involvement in peacekeeping operations has had a beneficial effect on the operational environment. By elucidating the significance of women peacekeepers, I shall recount my encounter as I served in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).
The scorching sun pounded down on the beautiful expanse of the Congolese rainforest as I walked from the plane, a woman on a mission. The year was 2019, and I was about to embark on a key chapter in my military career. I was deployed as a “Military Public Information Officer” with the MONUSCO. In 2019-2020, MONUSCO focused on safeguarding civilians caught in the crossfire of armed conflict, aiding the critical process of combatant disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), as well as assisting the Congolese government in its efforts to hold democratic elections. As one of the largest troop contributors to UN peacekeeping missions, the global responsibility of the Pakistan Army took on new dimensions in the heart of Congo.
My role might not have been on the battlefield, but I was a member of a dedicated Female Engagement Team (FET). We served as a bridge, creating trust and communication between the peacekeeping mission, local communities, and, most importantly, Congolese women. Women empowerment was more than a slogan in this context; it was the lifeblood of progress. We spoke with female-led groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community leaders. We listened to their problems in order to amplify their voices and highlight the beneficial impact of the UN mission. We arranged workshops on dispute resolution, human rights, and revenue generation to assist women in rebuilding their lives and communities.



The stories I heard were engraved with resilience and persistence. Women who had lost loved ones but maintained hope for a peaceful future. Women and children who fled violence but mustered the fortitude to rebuild their communities. These conversations were more than simply about duty; they were testaments to the resilient human spirit, which struck a profound chord with me. Being a Pakistani woman in this position had unique significance. I challenged stereotypes, demonstrating that women, like men, can be agents of peace and progress. I became a role model for young Congolese girls and girls back home, demonstrating that they, too, could aspire for the stars, wear a uniform (military or not), and serve their communities. The experience in Congo was transformative. It emphasized the UN’s crucial role in promoting peace and stability in war zones. It demonstrated the Pakistan Army’s persistent commitment to serving the international community. But, most crucially, it demonstrated the ability of women, both Pakistani and Congolese, to transcend gaps and construct a brighter future. 
As I left Congo’s emerald embrace, I felt a sense of tremendous success and reaffirmation of my belief in solidarity and collaboration. The trip was not an easy one, but I feel the lessons learnt will be cherished. And that, for a soldier who wears not only a uniform but also a woman’s mantle on a mission, is an unrivalled prize. I am filled with pride to be a member of the force, and I strongly encourage women from our society to seize the equal opportunities given to them to represent Pakistan by wearing blue berets. The journey towards women, peace and security is filled with obstacles. Still, our courageous sisters are leading the way with determination, inspiring the next generation of young girls to follow in their footsteps.


 

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Lt. Col. Sadia Saleem

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