"I know what it means to lose your house, to be looted. To look a child in the eye and say, 'If they come for me, you need to run'," said the newly appointed United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. "I know what it means to give testimony and to investigate the documents."
These words came from Zainab Hawa Bangura, former health minister of Sierra Leone and a survivor of that country's civil war, who has just completed six months in office and is determined to get governments to take the lead in combatting rape and sexual violence in their territories.
It is estimated that up to seven in ten women globally will be beaten, raped, abused, oPreventing violence against women is important because this violence undermines key elements of successful post-conflict peacebuilding, such as social stability, economic recovery, effective State authority, and overall development.r mutilated in their lifetimes. Violence against women is universal, and is prevalent in all countries and all settings. A gross human rights violation, it fractures families and communities and hampers development.
Against this backdrop, the Commission on the Status of Women is focusing its current session (4-15 March) at UN Headquarters in New York on the theme "Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls." The session is being billed as the largest international meeting on ending violence against women.
Among those on the front lines of battling this scourge are the men and women who serve with UN peacekeeping operations in conflict and post-conflict settings. The strong link between women and peace and security was recognized in 2000 when the Security Council adopted resolution 1325 - the first resolution to address the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women. Through 1325 and subsequent resolutions, peacekeeping missions have been increasingly mandated to address violence against women, particularly sexual violence.
While host governments are ultimately responsible for the protection of their civilian population, UN peacekeepers are playing an increasing role in helping to tackle violence against women, thanks to specific mandates to address the problem, tailored training and a growing cadre of female peacekeepers who bring their unique skills.
"Preventing violence against women is important because this violence undermines key elements of successful post-conflict peacebuilding, such as social stability, economic recovery, effective State authority, and overall development," the Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), Michelle Bachelet, told the Commission as it began its session.
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) works closely with a number of partners within the UN family to carry out this mandate, having learned lessons from experiences over the years in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Department is an active member of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, an inter-agency coordination network - chaired by Ms. Bangura - that streamlines and amplifies UN efforts to combat conflict-related sexual violence.
Among other measures, DPKO and its partners conduct scenario-based trainings for military peacekeepers before they are deployed. The trainings are based on the Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice on Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, which was published in 2010 and prepared with input from a former UN commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert.
"This basically was a publication that highlighted some of the ways that peacekeeping troops, in particular military, had incorporated their mandate and come up with innovative solutions to dealing with sexual violence in conflict," Sarah Douglas of UN Women's Peace and Security Section said of the Inventory.
One of these innovative solutions was re-routing patrols to assess certain areas where women and girls were being raped, such as was the case in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region. Information suggests that women are often at risk of sexual violence when carrying out tasks such as collecting firewood or water, or when walking in certain areas at night.
"The peacekeeping troops re-organized their patrol so that they would be passing by these areas at certain times to provide additional protection to women and girls," said Ms. Douglas. "This is just one example but it was a very important piece of work in terms of pulling together all the resources, but also showing peacekeeping missions and peacebuilding missions what they could do within the mandate."
It was after the publication of the Inventory that UN Women and DPKO developed specific pre-deployment training for military personnel. "There was a recognition that most peacekeeping troops are on the ground for 6 to 12 months. The amount of time they have to absorb any capacity building in-country is quite limited," Ms. Douglas noted.
"Also, a lot of times when we've developed training for military in the past, it's really spoken from and to a civilian audience, and the military has a very distinct language and distinct culture and way of learning and communicating information," she added.
"These are scenario-based training materials for the prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict and they were developed by an ex-general, in partnership with UN Women and DPKO, where we brought the sort of gender expertise to marry with his expertise as somebody who had been a commander in a peacekeeping operation."
The UN has conducted this training in several major troop-contributing countries, and partnered with peacekeeping training institutes led by Member States to have the training integrated into their curriculum. Through multimedia, interactive sessions, training participants are asked to formulate appropriate responses to scenarios based on conflict-related violence, based on their mission mandate and rules of engagement.
Peacekeepers have said the training has been "a real eye-opener," according to Nadine Puechguirbal, Senior Gender Adviser for DPKO and the Department of Field Support (DFS), who noted that the fact that the training is based on real scenarios in actual countries where peacekeepers serve has been extremely useful.
Very often, she said, when peacekeepers are faced with a situation on the ground, they do not know what to do, and adopt "a minimum interpretation of the mandate" because they are unsure of what the consequences will be if they get involved or whether the rules of engagement allow them to intervene.
"There is always something you can do, even if it's only to comfort the victim, to ensure that she will have access to services and then to report the case," stated Ms. Puechguirbal.
Sgt. Mercedes Saniña, Military Police Officer, photographed with her team at Sector East Headquarters near the town of Marjayoun, South Lebanon. October 2012. Photo: UNIFIL/Pasqual Gorriz
Cpl. Natascha Vestermayer, Firefighter, serving with UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Photo: UNIFIL/Pasqual Gorriz
Cpt. Dr. Barsha Bajracharya photographed with two of her team mates at UN Post 8-30, near the town of Shakra, South Lebanon. October 2012. Photo: UNIFIL/Pasqual Gorriz
The UN in Afghanistan has joined forces with national and international partners to expand and complement existing programmes to strengthen the capacity of women police, and improve access to justice for women and children. Photo: UNAMA/Fardin Waezi
In December 2012, women in Darfur's Zam Zam camp for internally displaced persons work on recommendations during a forum organized to raise awareness of issues related to gender-based violence. Photo: UNAMID/Sojoud Elgarrai
In December 2012, UNAMID policewomen march to celebrate the launching of the Sudanese Police Women Network in El Fasher, North Darfur. The network, sponsored by the joint UN-AU mission, will help address issues related to women and children and provide a platform for exchanging of ideas and strategies. Photo: UNAMID/Sojoud Elgarrai
In September 2012 in Malha, North Darfur, women attend an Open Day workshop to discuss the principles and progress related to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Photo: UNAMID/Sojoud Elgarrai
UNAMID peacekeeper Lieutenant Colonel Yenni Windarti, of Indonesia's civilian police, interacts with women at a water point in Abu Shouk camp for internally displaced persons in North Darfur during a patrol. August, 2012. Photo: UNAMID/Albert Gonzalez Farran
UNAMID peacekeeper Zikhona Ntwagge of South Africa inside an armoured personnel carrier (APC) on night patrol to Kassab camp for internal displaced persons in Kutum, North Darfur. Night patrols contribute to boosting confidence in local communities.March 2012. Photo: UNAMID/Albert Gonzalez Farran
A woman takes part in skills training at a reintegration centre for victims of sexual violence, Goma, DR Congo. August 2012. Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti
On the ground, peacekeepers carry out a range of activities to both protect civilians directly, as well as help strengthen frail state institutions such as the national police and judiciary to deal with violence against women. Their efforts range from helping to change discriminatory laws and training national police on responding to gender-based violence to providing 'safe corridors' for women to go to market and electricity in some villages so women can move around without fear of being assaulted when it is dark.
In Haiti, the UN Police (UNPOL) helped to implement protection measures in the camps for those displaced by the 2010 earthquake, and has a Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) Team that supports the Haitian National Police. A gender curriculum for national police cadets, and training on SGBV for police investigators have also been developed.
The UN missions in Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and DRC are also working to enhance the capacity of national security institutions to respond to gender-based violence, including rape. Prior to winding up its presence in Timor-Leste last December, the UN mission there played a vital role in setting up vulnerable persons units - safe places where people could come to report domestic violence - as well as to getting them incorporated into the Criminal Investigation Service.
A major role is played on the ground by Gender Advisers, whose work includes supporting local women to participate in peace processes, protecting women and girls from sexual violence and engaging women's voices in legal and judicial procedures. Currently there are eight senior gender advisers in peacekeeping operations.
More recently, Women Protection Advisers have started being deployed with a specific mandate to address conflict-related sexual violence, with the first ones already working with the UN mission in South Sudan. DPKO and its partners are also working on an early warning mechanism to stave off attacks before they happen.
A vital component to tackling violence against women in the mission areas is having more females serving in UN operations. Deployed in all areas - police, military and civilian - women have increasingly become part of the UN peacekeeping family.
In 1993, women made up 1 per cent of deployed uniformed personnel. In 2012, out of approximately 125,000 peacekeepers, women constitute 3 per cent of military personnel and 10 per cent of police personnel. They also constitute around 30 per cent of the 7,500 of the international civilians working in peacekeeping and special political missions.
According to the Analytical Inventory, it is clear that female peacekeeping personnel add "distinctive" skills, serving not only to facilitate outreach to women and girls, but also providing "striking" role models.
"Women often feel more comfortable reporting sexual violence to other women," said Ms. Bangura, adding that female peacekeepers generally have more access to places where such conversations can safely and confidentially take place. "This is particularly true in cultures where it is considered inappropriate for a woman to directly interact or be seen in public with men other than her husband or other close relatives," she noted.
She pointed out that when females are involved in peacekeeping, the gender perspective they bring can help formulate appropriate action against all forms of violence against women, including conflict-related sexual violence.
"When survivors feel safe to report incidents of violence, protection mechanisms can be implemented or adjusted as needed; and human rights monitoring, early warning systems and prevention mechanisms function more effectively," she stated. "All of these elements contribute to the wider battle against conflict-related sexual violence and other forms of violence against women."
Ms. Puechguirbal concurred that female peacekeepers can be more effective in reaching out to victims of sexual violence - a topic that is not discussed in a lot of countries.
"Even if we have very committed and dedicated male peacekeepers, women who have been victims of sexual violence committed by male perpetrators may not want to talk about this to another man, even if he's wearing a blue helmet," she said.
The underrepresentation of female police officers presents a challenge when it comes to tackling violence against women in the field, according to Cameron Sigley of the UN Police Division, who noted that one of the core components of an effective police force is being representative of the community you serve.
"If you're not, that really puts up all sorts of roadblocks and barriers to truly effective policing and genuinely addressing the issues, the concerns - be they criminal or social - that your community has," he said.
In addition to developing a toolkit for UNPOL on tackling sexual and gender-based violence, the Police Division has made a major push to recruit more female police officers for UN missions through an initiative known as the Global Effort. Launched in 2009, the initiative seeks to have women represent at least 20 per cent of the UN police force by the end of 2014.
The impact of deploying female police officers has already been seen in Liberia, where, following the arrival of an all-female police unit (FPU) from India, women not only felt more empowered to report abuses but also queued up to join their own police force. There are currently two other all-female FPUs, both from Bangladesh, serving with the UN missions in Haiti and DRC.
Ms. Bachelet also stressed the importance of having more women, both in the ranks of peacekeeping missions and in decision-making positions within countries. "One thing is certain: We need more women police, peacekeepers and judges. Studies show that women report rape more when there are women police officers.
"It is very simple - we need to give women the confidence, the trust that they will be treated fairly, justly! Women serving on the front lines of justice strengthen justice for women."
Even with the range of actions that are being taken, there is always more that can be done to protect women and girls, as Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hervé Ladsous acknowledged to the Security Council last year when it met to discuss women, peace and security.
"In too many cases, we remain unsatisfied with the protection offered to women in places where we are deployed. Host countries must do more, and peacekeepers must do more, to redress the threats faced by women in our mission areas."
"You can't be everywhere," Ms. Puechguirbal stated, highlighting a well-known challenge faced by UN peacekeepers. "We have good practices, but I think we should develop more practices on how we can involve the community in the search for solutions because once peacekeepers leave, who's going to continue the patrols, who's going to seal off the market so women can do their business in safety, who's going to provide the lighting in some villages so women can be safe?"