Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world

Mar 11, 2021

More women occupying leadership roles within the United Nations Police leads to more impactful policing. Beyond strengthening overall operational effectiveness, women police can be a bridge to vulnerable populations, serve as inspiring role models in societies affected by conflict, and can advocate for gender-sensitive initiatives across peace and security processes.

The year 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security — a milestone reaffirming the role of women in achieving international peace and security. And although the COVID-19 pandemic has posed innumerable challenges to peace operations, it has further exposed the critical urgency of women’s full and meaningful participation within police efforts. In response to this, the United Nations Police strives to cultivate an environment that addresses unconscious biases, enforces zero-tolerance policies for discrimination and eliminates the barriers inhibiting the recruitment and promotion of women police officers.

Empowering women with the tools to reach senior positions has been a top priority for the UN Police. In accordance with the Declaration of Shared Commitments on Peacekeeping (A4P), the UN Police Division engages with Member States to facilitate the meaningful inclusion and representation of women throughout all stages of the peace process. Today, seven women serve as Heads of UN Police or Deputy Heads in UNISFA, UNFICYP, UNMISS, MONUSCO, MINUSMA, the UN Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA), and the Standing Police Capacity in Brindisi.

As part of these efforts, the UN Police Division has additionally launched Senior Women Police Officer Command Development Courses, implemented an all-women Senior Police Leadership Roster for senior posts, and has established the Woman Police Command Cadre as a talent pipeline to increase the nominations of women police officers in leadership positions.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we encouraged women police leaders to reflect on the pandemic’s impact on their work, the challenges they’ve faced as women police officers , and how their presence has made a difference within the communities they serve.

What kind of obstacles have you faced, or known others still face, that challenge women to access leadership positions? What can be done today to enable more women to lead tomorrow?

UN Police Commissioner Unaisi Vuniwaqa of Fiji, United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS): I am of the view that in most police organizations, the access to opportunities to enable women to have a breakthrough in their careers is still the biggest challenge. The myth that men can do the job better because it has been the historical trend is still well entrenched in many decision-making systems. We must give women the opportunities and provide them with the necessary support through mentoring to succeed. More success stories of women in leadership at various levels of police organizations will help debunk this myth and empower women to apply for leadership positions, as well as boost the confidence to appoint women to senior positions.

UN Police Liaison Officer Suzen Katantamalundu of Zambia, United Nations Office at the African Union (UNOAU), and a graduate of the United Nations Woman Police Command Cadre: As a woman police officer, I have more often been tasked to undertake assignments that do not involve operations. However, I have challenged my male commanders to explain why this is the case. To prove my capabilities, I always do more preparation by being methodical and ensuring that everything I do aligns with the organization’s policies and guidelines. Further, I strive to enhance my required skillsets to exhibit greater professionalism in my work. As a female commander, I have assigned not only women as gender focal points but also men. This has helped men better appreciate the importance of both men and women working together on issues that disproportionately impact women. I would encourage girls to undertake assignments perceived to be difficult, further their education, and always be confident and assertive.

Do you have specific examples of women making a difference because they could access a leadership position, despite the hurdles?

Unaisi Vuniwaqa: When I first joined UNMISS, there were no female officers in its leadership cadre. I was appointed as Deputy Police Commissioner and later as Police Commissioner. As of now, we have women leaders in professional positions and Individual Police Officers in leadership positions. This has contributed immensely to both operational effectiveness and coordination and the overall morale of the police component. During the re-designation of three Protection of Civilians sites to conventional internally displaced person camps in UNMISS, all the UN Police officers in these Field Offices were headed by women. If given the right support and mentoring, women can perform as well as their men counterparts, or even better.

Why should women take an interest in policing, and what are some of the reason(s) women should be at the decision-making tables in this area?

Unaisi Vuniwaqa: I feel that the edge women bring to the job is compassion and empathy, especially in policing. It’s not a weakness but a strength. This quality in leadership shines brightly during this COVID-19 time. Women are the greatest advocates for women and children, which comes naturally to many of us. Hence, the most vulnerable in society need that voice at the decision-making tables in police organizations.

Suzen Katantamalundu: Women, if included in decision-making, help enhance public confidence in police organizations. We bring a unique interface between the public and the police by better understanding the challenges and sensitivities women face when dealing with the police.

What are the pandemic’s unique challenges in addressing sexual and gender-based violence and domestic violence cases, and how have you overcome these barriers?

Unaisi Vuniwaqa: The problem is exacerbated by the confinement due to lockdowns and non-access to help outside of the four walls of one’s homes — helplines and other tools for reporting assist in some way. Increasing outreach via radio broadcasts against SGBV and domestic violence also helps.

Suzen Katantamalundu: During the recent assessment of the Nigeria Formed Police Unit scheduled to deploy to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), I encouraged officers to mentor the host-state police on how to prevent SGBV through community-oriented policing programs.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted men and women police officers in your daily work?

Unaisi Vuniwaqa: At the start of the pandemic, women officers who were mothers felt more anxious for their children and families, particularly those from countries that were worst hit by the pandemic. However, the longer we have dealt with COVID19, officers have been better able to adjust to the new normal.

Suzen Katantamalundu: In-person communication with the African Union (AU) Police has been a challenge. The positive aspect of the current situation is that we have reviewed draft AU Police guidelines and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) through the Police Strategic Support Group network. A total of ten virtual technical and planning workshops have been held so far.

Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.