Woman to woman, we can make lasting differences in Congolese communities

Oct 30, 2020

By Josefine Ulbrich

Last year, 1,054 cases of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) were recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by the UN’s Mission (MONUSCO), affecting 1,048 women and 6 men. But reported cases are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Of the 5.5 million internally displaced people in the DRC, 51 per cent are women and girls. In order to engage the most affected populations in conflict-ridden areas of the DRC, MONUSCO’s 15 Female Engagement Teams (FET) are a critical tool to prevent and reduce violence as part of the wider protection efforts of both civilian and uniformed components in the Mission. Deployed by nine Troop-Contributing Countries across Eastern DRC, their patrols and activities in communities allow local women and girls to share their protection concerns, including incidents of sexual violence, which in turn inform the Mission’s security plans to improve protection on the ground.

The Bangladeshi FET sensitizes local women on sexual violence, COVID-19 and remedial measures in Kombokabo, Irumu Territory, Ituri Province.

In this joint interview, two FET commanders*, Lieutenant Colonel Najat Sellamitou of Morocco and Captain Sabrina Binte Solaiman of Bangladesh, share their experiences on how they help respond to the needs of local communities and champion the role of women and girls.

What does a regular day of work as FET Commander look like for you?

Lieutenant-Colonel Najat Sellamitou: Our FET helps secure peace around Kiwanja, Nyamilima, Butembo and Kitchanga; four sites covered by the Moroccan Rapid Deployable Battalion. Every day, we participate in the Battalion’s activities, including motorized patrols, day and night patrols, aerial reconnaissance, long-range missions or standing combat deployments.We also contribute to the planning of these activities and to the local security assessments.

Often, we will engage in conversations with local women on these patrols, hearing about their concerns and recording instances of CRSV. The information gathered from these conversations helps us assess the security situation over time, determine patterns and identify needs. We also pass on information on sexual violence to the relevant MONUSCO field offices’ women protection advisers and human rights officers. Through these direct interactions with local communities, we can establish a real connection with the women and deepen our understanding of their situation.

Captain Sabrina Binte Solaiman: No day is quite like the other in peacekeeping. The Bangladeshi FET members participate in patrolling — either solely as FET or as part of a mixed patrol with male contingent members, or jointly with community representatives and national security forces. We also ensure our camp’s parameter security, and we join response teams if we have critical incidents in the area. If there has been an attack, we reach out to women in the community and support with the evacuation of women and girls or assist those who have experienced sexual violence. We come in when women are needed for women. We also regularly organize awareness programmes for women and children, for instance on CRSV or, currently, on COVID-19.

In your daily work, you speak to women and girls who have experienced attacks by armed groups on their communities and on their own bodies. How do build trust with the women, so that they open up to you about these experiences?

NS:A very effective enabler of trust is presence — we patrol localities as often as we can, so that the local women and girls get used to seeing us. Reassuring them that we are there to protect and listen to them opens up a channel of communication.

Based on the information gathered, we plan joint patrols in communities at risk, which demonstrates to the women that we take their concerns seriously and reinforces their trust. They really appreciate our support and want us to be around as much as possible. It’s true that establishing contact for the first time is not easy, but we are persistent and the women value that.

SBS: Indeed, we usually spent some time just sitting and chatting with them and their children, to create a sense of normalcy and a space of trust. From there, we can address some of the more challenging issues. And we always deploy with a doctor who is a member of our FET; she is an expert on gynecology and psychosocial support. And all of our FET members are trained in basic psychosocial support skills.

The Moroccan FET interacts with children during a patrol.

What special contribution can women in uniform bring to community engagement and to peacekeeping overall?

NS: The presence of women in peacekeeping missions is of paramount importance. In conflict-affected Eastern DRC, local women and girls will feel much more comfortable approaching us as compared to our male counterparts. And we add a new facet to the perception of gender, as women from different nations and continents and through our very profession. For my own FET, I am always available to chat with my female colleagues, as they often have to manage a personal life that continues back in Morocco in parallel to their mission here, which often puts a strain on them. I intimately understand these diverging demands and offer my support; it is also crucial to the effectiveness of our operations.

SBS:The contribution of uniformed women also improves community outreach and brings a completely new dimension to the Mission. Women in uniform here have led to a significant increase in the acceptance and understanding of the Mission’s mandate by local communities, and for communicating with and integrating the concerns and needs of women and girls, FETs have been a game-changer.

In the context of COVID-19, we specifically target women as primary caregivers and de facto heads of households in our awareness-raising sessions, so that they can teach their families and our efforts will have a ripple effect. One day, a local woman asked us how she would know that she had washed her hands long enough to ensure the virus would not spread. We came up with this idea where she sang a popular local song while washing her hands, while I was using a stopwatch to time her.She could from then on sing this song whenever she washed her hands to guide her. It is many small moments like these that show the impact of FETs on communities and trigger small, but long-term changes.

Captain Solaiman conducts a workshop on awareness on COVID-19 in Soleniama, Ituri Province.

What has been your proudest moment in your assignment?

SBS: Earlier this year, we organized an art competition for school students on International Women’s Day, for which we asked them to draw a picture that to them symbolizes women’s empowerment. Many of them drew women in uniform: this is the concrete impact we have, presenting them with an image of how to be an empowered woman. We always stress in our activities that women need to be a meaningful part in society — not just a part, whether in society, political processes or within their families. And we strive to help them feel stronger, including in case of an armed group’s attack, by organizing self-defense workshops for the local women.

The Bangladeshi FET organizes a course on self-defense as part of their awareness-raising programme on sexual violence in Komanda, Ituri Province.

NS: Every night my FET members spend among vulnerable women in threatened villages is both a pride and a challenge. During a visit to Nyamilima, I brought together a local women’s association, women from the community and the FET to raise awareness on UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) and on the effect of sexual violence on survivors and families. Despite the trauma some of these women had incurred, they were so grateful for being able to share their stories. This environment of open exchange and support deeply moved me.

The Moroccan FET organized a workshop to raise awareness on how to combat conflict-related sexual violence.

*Lieutenant Colonel Najat Sellamitou has been deployed in Kiwanja, North Kivu, since January 2020, and is the Commander of the 25-strong FET of the Moroccan Rapidly Deployable Battalion (RDB). Captain Sabrina Binte Solaiman has joined the Mission in February 2020, to serve as a Logistics Officer and Captain of the 10-strong FET of the Bangladeshi Rapidly Deployable Battalion in the Bunia area, Ituri Province. Josefine Ulbrich is MONUSCO’s Policy and Best Practices Officer.

Woman to woman, we can make lasting differences in Congolese communities was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.