Efforts must be made to significantly increase the number of uniformed women personnel in the UN peacekeeping missions, an Indian woman commander stationed in Congo has said, underlining that they serve as role models for girls and women everywhere.
Women represent only four per cent of the total UN military peacekeepers, Captain Preeti Sharma, Commander of the Indian Female Engagement Team (FET) with the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), told PTI in a video interview from Sake town.
"Currently, there are very less female peacekeepers in the UN. If you have to address 50 per cent of the world's population, then it is very important that the number of women uniformed peacekeepers is increased to enable UN peacekeeping missions to effectively address challenges faced by women and girls," she said.
"A bird cannot fly with a single wing. If women are not empowered and uplifted, it is not possible for any society to progress," Preeti Sharma said.
The FET from India comprises 22 women peacekeepers and it began its deployment with MONUSCO, considered one of the most challenging peacekeeping missions under the UN flag, in June last year.
Preeti Sharma said this is the first time that a woman engagement team from India was sent to a UN mission.
The FET "is not a police unit but an attachment with the Army. We are doing the same job which the Army performs" in remote areas, she said.
India is the fifth-largest contributor of uniformed personnel to the UN Peacekeeping. It currently contributes more than 5,400 military and police personnel to peacekeeping operations in Abyei, Cyprus, the DRC, Lebanon, the Middle East, Sudan, South Sudan, and Western Sahara as well as one expert to the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia.
India has the distinction of providing the first-ever Female Formed Police Unit for the UN in Liberia, beginning in 2007.
The Indian women peacekeepers in Liberia were hailed by the UN for their leadership for being an inspiration for the Liberian women to join the police force.
Preeti Sharma, who is due to finish her tenure with MONUSCO next month, said that a nation cannot progress and develop if half of its population is left behind and not empowered.
Increasing the participation of women in the UN peacekeeping is crucial in addressing challenges faced by women and girls such as security concerns, medical and educational issues in nations where the missions are serving.
"It will also help address and remove the leadership crunch. When women lead from the front, young girls and children view them as role models and take inspiration from them to achieve their own dreams and aspirations," she said, ahead of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, observed every year on May 29.
India's deployment of the FET is in line with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres'' priority and initiative to ensure increased participation of women peacekeepers in the UN.
Preeti Sharma and her contingent are from the Sashastra Seema Bal, one of India''s Central Armed Police Forces. Their duties and responsibilities with MONUSCO entail area domination patrols, quick reaction force, escort missions and long-range patrolling.
Preeti Sharma said the FET works alongside the male contingent and performs every task that the male peacekeepers do.
The team also goes to remote areas and outskirts of the towns and villages for patrolling and provides on-ground assistance as well as medical services, she said, adding that they specially take note of problems being faced by women and children and report those to the concerned authorities.
Preeti Sharma said that her team has undertaken several initiatives such as self-defence programs, language training, skill development, computer programs to help the local communities, especially the woman population.
As she began her deployment last year, Preeti Sharma realised that security concerns curtailed the movement of women and girls.
The women and girls were not able to fulfil their aspirations and dreams due to security issues. We started a self-defence program for local females in schools and villages and it was very enthusiastically received.
"When I lead, girls and women get inspired. Seeing women in uniform motivates them. They come up and ask how they too can join the police and military and serve their nation," Preeti Sharma said, adding that seeing women in leadership roles inspires young girls to dream big and fulfil their aspirations.
"If women and girls are able to uplift themselves with the help of our motivation, it will be a great contribution by us to this society," she said, emphasising that women bring a unique value and perspective to the peacekeeping operations.
As Preeti Sharma readies to head back to India after the completion of her tenure, she said that she has gained tremendously from the experience.
"It is said that people should strive to be better today than what they were yesterday. This experience has made me a better person today from what I was yesterday," she said, adding that her message to the local community is that women should come forward and lead for the tremendous benefit of the country and the world.
Preeti Sharma said that being a uniformed officer has given her the opportunity to serve not just her nation but humanity.
"There are challenges everywhere, these are the challenges that take you to the next attribute which is courage, whether it is moral courage or physical courage," she added.