“It’s not a job for the faint-hearted” – Hazel De Wet, Chief, Civil Affairs, on serving for peace in South Sudan
Hazel de Wet has had a long career with the United Nations.
One of the few women who have served with both the humanitarian and peacekeeping arms of the Organization, Hazel’s commitment to the displaced, the marginalized and the conflict-affected started with her professional exposure in her own country, Namibia.
“As a diplomat, I did a lot of work related to human rights with a special focus on gender issues. Being a woman myself, I firmly believed that all of us need to have a voice in the issues that impact us directly,” she reveals. “As I voiced the need to protect the rights and dignity of women, it struck me that across the world, women and young girls have consistently been shadow actors in the political and peacebuilding spheres.”
“However, the immense contribution all of us make to the home, to the family unit, to our communities has often been overlooked,” Hazel reminisces. “This is what spurred my interest in international affairs and multilateralism actually,” she continues.
Hazel decided that the best way she could lend her expertise to furthering the cause of inclusive peace was to join the UN. “I started working for UNICEF in New York where I dealt with critical issues faced by children caught in the maelstrom of conflict and then went on to UN AIDS. HIV/AIDS was a critical health and safety issue which started in the 80s and in the early 2000s, the entire world was united in its efforts to control the virus.”
“It was after the World AIDS Summit in 2000 that I joined UN Peacekeeping. And here I am today, in South Sudan, with the world held hostage by another virus – this time it’s COVID-19,” laughs Hazel.
Hazel’s first role in peacekeeping operations was as the Head of Child Protection in Khartoum, in then undivided Sudan. She then moved to Juba where she was one of the first women to hold the position of Head of Office for the Jonglei region.
“It was a steep learning curve in Juba, especially when it came to issues related to women’s rights. At the time, political conflict with northern Sudan was at its peak and many women and young girls were massively affected by it,” she recalls.
In time, Hazel’s adept handling of the political and peacekeeping-related dynamics in Jonglei made her the perfect candidate to head up the UNMISS field office in Malakal, which was a hotspot in terms of conflict and displacement.
Recently, she’s embarked on yet another new role—the Chief of Civil Affairs for UNMISS. “This position sort of yokes together all my experiences so far and allows me to lead peace and reconciliation efforts in the world’s newest country as it attempts to rebuild itself following the devastation caused by the civil war in 2013,” states Hazel.
One of her key takeaways from her varied peacekeeping interventions? “I’ve realized that when you’re in a leadership position in a field mission, there’s no such thing as a regular day. This isn’t the 9-5 job that many people in stable societies hold. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. Any small thing can raise tensions, any small thing can lead to innocent civilians being killed,” she says.
“You’ve got to be clocked in all the time, night or day. It can be exhausting and heartbreaking, but also supremely rewarding. In my opinion, there’s no greater calling than to serve people who need your help the most,” she continues.
As one of the few, albeit steadily increasing, women holding a high position within the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, Hazel smiles when asked about the proverbial glass ceiling. “My gender has never limited me from what I want to achieve in life at all. Never,” she states emphatically.
“I didn’t grow up in an environment that taught me that I couldn’t do this or that because I’m a woman. And none of my bosses have ever told me that I couldn’t do what I want, if I was qualified for it,” she adds. “Let me be frank though—we don’t have enough women in key positions across the UN system.”
“I’m aware that systemic changes need to take place and they need to take place quickly. Women are equal members of any society we work in. We cannot be totally fit-for-purpose as an organization unless we reflect the populations we serve—that means encouraging more qualified women, more young women to consider serving for peace. We constitute half the world, after all,” she says.
When it comes to a peaceful, prosperous future for South Sudan, Hazel is candid: “For too long, women and girls here have been completely excluded from the political sphere. Making sure that women are equally represented in politics and peacebuilding across South Sudan is a necessity, an obligation and a responsibility.”
“Men and women have different needs. Both, therefore, deserve equal consideration. It’s only when women have a seat at the table that decides, executes and implements policies can truly inclusive and representative solutions be found,” she continues passionately.
The biggest challenge faced by women and girls in South Sudan, according to Hazel, is the inherent patriarchy that devalues them. “South Sudanese women need education, livelihood training and health facilities for them to be truly a part of nation-building and democracy,” she avers.
“The women of South Sudan are strong, resilient and natural leaders. My message to them, as a fellow African woman, is never give up and never give in.”