By Annika Kovar
“Men often think that they play the role of the protector and that women need protection. But we can be just as effective at providing security”, explains Victorine Mana, corrections officer from Cameroon, calmly but firmly. She is one of 250 uniformed corrections government-provided personnel (GPP) who work to strengthen the prison systems of post-conflict countries in eight United Nations peace operations. As the first woman team leader and GPP coordinator at the largest, and most notorious, prison in the Central African Republic, Ngaragba Central Prison, she has shattered gender stereotypes and preconceived notions of what the role of women should be in the security sector.
In September 2015, hundreds of prisoners took control of Ngaragba Prison and escaped, including some high-profile detainees accused of having committed war crimes, in a severe setback to the fight against impunity in CAR. Some members of the CAR military, in charge of providing security at the prison, aided the escape. Since then, MINUSCA corrections officers like Victorine have helped to de-militarize the CAR prison sector by building the country’s first professional, civilian prison service. 300 new recruits have been brought on board and are being trained with the support of MINUSCA. In case of any prison security breaches, Victorine and her fellow GPP are ready to step in, side-by-side with their Central African counterparts.
Victorine is passionate about the role of women peacekeepers. “Women peacekeepers in leadership positions are such important role models for the national services we work with”. She is speaking to the members of the United Nations Women Corrections Officers Network, an online platform established to raise women officers’ awareness of deployment opportunities with the United Nations, thereby creating a push from the bottom up to increase the number of women officers nominated for service by their governments. Launched in May, the Network already counts 700 members from 25 countries, and continues to grow. It also serves as a platform for current, former and aspiring women GPP to connect and exchange experiences. To this end, the Department of Peace Operations has kickstarted the “Empowerment Talks” online event series on 29 June with “Stories from Women GPP”, showcasing women corrections leaders such as Victorine and their personal and professional journeys.
Women now make up 37% of deployed GPP in United Nations peace operations, up from 25% in 2018. This shows that real progress towards gender parity among uniformed personnel is indeed possible. Gender parity, however, is more than just numbers. It means the full and equal participation of women in all areas of peacekeeping. Women corrections officers, as many of their uniformed peers, however, often have to navigate structures that are set up for men. For instance, 40% of women GPP in a recent survey reported that their national uniforms do not comfortably fit their bodies, as it is male bodies that often continue to be considered the norm. Only 36% felt that they are always treated as an equal by their male peers, highlighting the continued need to address gender stereotypes, including by empowering uniformed women to take on leadership positions.
Doing so is essential to ensure maximum effectiveness of United Nations peacekeepers. Diversity of perspectives and backgrounds is key to helping peace operations deliver on their mandates. The better peacekeepers represent host country populations, the better will they be able to protect and empower the populations they are deployed to serve. And sometimes, just seeing a woman in uniform, perhaps for the first time, might be enough to inspire girls and boys in conflict settings to imagine a new reality. One where they can be whatever they want.
It’s a Man’s World? The Women Corrections Officers Challenging Gender Stereotypes was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.