First woman peacekeeper from Azerbaijan proud to serve for peace in South Sudan

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Meet Major Latifa Rustamova, the first woman from Azerbaijan to be deployed as a military observer with UNMISS. Photo by Yakudu Moses/UNMISS.

28 Nov 2023

First woman peacekeeper from Azerbaijan proud to serve for peace in South Sudan

Moses Yakudu/Priyanka Chowdhury

EASTERN EQUATORIA – Meeting Major Latifa Rustamova for the first time is illuminating. The first woman from Azerbaijan to be deployed as a military observer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), she exudes quiet confidence.

After graduating from military school in 2004, Latifa began working as an officer in 2008.

“Wearing the Azerbaijan military uniform and serving my country, protecting my people was what motivated me to join the army,” she reveals with a smile.

“I also wanted women and girls in my country to understand that there’s plenty of space within the Azerbaijan Armed Forces for men and women to work together,” she adds emphatically.

Specializing in infantry, Latifa’s dedication made her stand out and she soon became a staff officer.

Today, from defending the territorial integrity of her own country, Latifa is helping build durable peace in the world’s youngest nation, and she says it’s been quite a journey so far.

“When I heard the news that I had been selected to serve with UNMISS, it felt surreal. I was excited but I also knew that it was a tremendous responsibility. I was the first woman from my country to wear a Blue Helmet and serve in a UN Peacekeeping mission. I can’t say I didn’t feel the pressure but there was also a sense of tremendous pride,” she recounts with a smile.

Now that she’s on the ground in Eastern Equatoria for the past eight months, working shoulder-to-shoulder with counterparts from different countries, she’s conscious that this once-in-a-lifetime experience brings with it great expectations.

“Breaking barriers and being a trailblazer in a traditionally male-dominated field has been empowering. However, the weight of being a symbol of progress and representing women in the military can be immense,” she states candidly, warning that people often expect more from women peacekeepers than is feasible, given the tough conditions they work in.

“By demonstrating competence, professionalism, and dedication to the mission, I believe I can inspire other women to join and thrive in similar roles,” says Latifa. “And to be honest, I love the work I do. It’s incredibly meaningful.”

Latifa’s typical workday involves a combination of fieldwork, reporting, coordination, and information analysis.

“I’m often the first one to go on patrols and meet the communities we are here to serve. It’s such a vital part of being a military observer because you can’t depend on secondhand information when it comes to saving lives and protecting those who are most at risk of being impacted by conflict,” she states passionately.

But constant patrolling has another, equally important dimension.

“I’ve grown to know and love the people of South Sudan. They have shared their culture, their cuisine, their challenges, their hopes and dreams with me. It’s enriched me beyond measure,” Latifa narrates.

She has a similar opinion about working in a diverse, multicultural workplace.

“As peacekeepers and representatives of different armies across the world, it’s been a fascinating exchange of ideas and learning. But vitally we are united with one aim: To protect the people we serve,” she opines. “You have to adapt quickly and learn to work together despite differences in approach.”

Latifa’s biggest achievements?

“I think where I’ve contributed the most is building relationships and trust with local communities through patrols and conversations. This engagement helps foster cooperation, encourages local ownership of peacebuilding processes, and promotes a people-centered approach to peacekeeping,” she avers.

But what stands out for Latifa are her impressions of South Sudan. “Where I am stationed, cattle raids and child abductions abound. But despite the circumstances, the resilience and determination of the people astounds me. There is so much potential and will for an enduring peace here that it moves me.”

For this dedicated Blue Helmet, partnerships are key for peace.

“If I had a message for all young girls who want to be peacekeepers, it would be—embrace your strengths and know that your voice and actions matter. Believe in yourself and there is nothing you cannot achieve.”