The women keeping peace... in the deadliest place

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Catherine UgorjiImage source, Xaume Olleros

The United Nations wants to recruit more women as peacekeepers, but only a small proportion of its Blue Helmets are female. In Mali, Jennifer O'Mahony meets some of women trying to bring stability to the region.

Superintendent Catherine Ugorji is settling in for another 24-hour shift monitoring UN patrols in the troubled Malian city of Gao. This formidable Nigerian policewoman cracks jokes with colleagues from Burkina Faso and Tunisia in fluent French, and scans her computer screen for the evening's planned routes.

As a woman, she is a highly unusual presence on the sprawling UN base here, where the prefabricated buildings, mess hall and football field are all full of men.

It doesn't seem to bother her much. "I like action. Whatever they say a man does, I like doing it," she says.

She is one of just 477 female police and military working for Mali's 15,000-strong peacekeeping mission, and the UN would like to recruit more.

But the job is a difficult sell.

The Mali mission has the grim distinction of being the deadliest active peacekeeping deployment in the world, with 106 blue helmets murdered so far by hostile forces and dozens more killed by accidents and illness.

Ugorji is used to working in challenging environments, however. She cut her teeth as a beat cop on the mean streets of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and a place legendary in West Africa for the inventiveness of its criminals. Her time chasing drug dealers and scammers around Lagos makes her work as a peacekeeper in this jihadist enclave seem "very easy", she beams.

Image source, Xaume Olleros

"Lagos is a very tough town. I worked as a divisional police officer and crime officer," she says. "I would work around the clock... In the night is when all the bad people move."

In her time off, she catches up with her husband and three children via WhatsApp, or heads to the gym for what she says is typically a two-hour workout.

The UN deployed peacekeepers here in 2013, once French forces had driven out al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who had taken over the city. The jihadists had occupied Gao for several months and imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included amputating the limbs of thieves and forcing women to cover their faces.

But the presence of the departed fighters is still keenly felt. The city was hit by a suicide attack in July, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have killed hundreds of civilians on country roads.

Image source, Xaume Olleros

The jihadists have actually been expanding their territory. Al-Qaeda militants in northern Mali have been joined by Islamic State in central Mali, making use of porous borders to escape into neighbouring countries, and tapping into sympathetic elements in the local population. The only way for the UN to stay ahead is through better intelligence, and this is precisely where more women could make the difference.

Jayci Jimenez, a US Air Force captain and intelligence adviser to the UN mission, says that in Gao, local women cannot be seen talking to men who are strangers for cultural reasons - but they might chat freely with a policewoman like Ugorji and let slip some information about unusual movements in their neighbourhood.

Yet despite the obvious value of women on patrol, there is still significant internal opposition to the not-very-secretly codenamed "Operation Female Outreach".

One Senegalese commander was hesitant to allow one of the few women serving in his unit to go on patrol, Jimenez says. "Imagine the negative publicity if something were to happen to them outside the wire," he told her, especially after he himself had pushed so hard to have women recruited in the first place.

Image source, Xaume Olleros
Image caption,
Cambodian troops wait for the arrival of the force commander at the supercamp in Gao

Mali's peacekeeping operation is not unusually male-dominated, either. According to UN figures, about 4% of military staff and 10% of police personnel in UN peacekeeping missions around the world are women.

Death or injury are not the only risks they face. At the Gao base, I witness an awkward moment.

"You are beautiful, like a rose," a Burkinabe soldier says to a female civilian staff member, while she looks at the floor with an air of discomfort. At night, the walk to the shared bathroom is pitch dark, and alcohol flows freely at the on-site bar.

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A scandal broke this year at the UN when several female staff who reported sexual harassment or assault in 10 different countries told the media they had been forced out of their jobs or threatened with the termination of their contracts.

Their alleged harassers and abusers remained in place. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pledged zero tolerance of harassment, and has hammered home the need for more women in the ranks.

But this isn't universally accepted in Gao.

"I think there's no difference between women and men in capacity but unfortunately we have a narrow-minded mindset here," says Capt Ahlem Douzi, a Tunisian army engineer who spends her days promoting gender equality on the base.

Any change in the numbers of women would also require national armies and police forces, which feed into peacekeeping missions, to recruit a critical mass of women with enough training to join a UN unit, she points out.

But the prevalence of outdated attitudes won't stop Catherine Ugorji from attending to the task in hand.

At the patrol desk, she is brewing another coffee for the long night ahead. "When the rest time comes I will rest, but now is working time," she says.

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