Peacekeepers in Malakal give girls a “fighting chance” to defend themselves
Save for the chatter of a group of United Nations policewomen, human rights specialists and gender affairs officers seated at the back, the atmosphere at the gym at the United Kingdom Engineering Taskforce base is quiet.
The eight women seated on the benches are all aged between 18 and 30 years. They are here to learn about conflict-related sexual violence. It is as hot as ever in the tent-like structure, but today’s learning experience comes with a twist.
“We won’t just teach you about sexual violence and everything related to it,” says women protection advisor Tara Sadasivan. “We want to empower you by teaching you skills that will improve your confidence, self-esteem and quality of life.”
When trainer Captain Euan Irvine asks the women to identify areas of the body that are sensitive to pain, and that they could target to defend themselves in the event of being attacked by a man, at first there’s silence. When he prods further, one girl speaks out boldly in Arabic. Her response causes human rights officers and our translator for the day, Tipo Kwachkwan, to bend over while the rest of the girls break out in laughter.
And with that, we know, that class has begun.
Sexual violence and other forms of gender-based physical aggressions are a major and all-too-common human rights violations in areas plagued by ongoing conflict. Sadly, incidents of such crimes tend to become even more frequent during post-conflict periods. South Sudan is currently going living such a phase, with the signing of last year’s revitalized peace agreement having largely ended armed combat in the country.
Here, both parties to the conflict stand accused of committing these atrocities. In Malakal, human rights officers, with the support of other UN peacekeeping mission components, have carried out various awareness raising and capacity building exercises for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.
“We are all aware of the risks associated with conflict-related sexual violence in places like South Sudan, and I feel a real sense of pride knowing that the training we are providing might actually make the difference in keeping someone safe,” adds Captain Irvine.
In the area covered by the peacekeeping mission’s Malakal field office, the absence of law enforcement authorities and functioning courts to hold law-breakers accountable are some of the factors that result in underreporting of cases of all sorts of gender-based violence. But there is also social stigma, and communities not being used to considering these incidences as serious crimes.
“I have been taught ways to avoid being targeted, such as walking in groups and changing my routine, but I have also learned how to help myself physically, to get away from someone in case I am attacked” says 21-year-old Nyirol Choul, one of the trainees.
“Our aim with this training is not to urge the women to fight back against an often unequally-matched assailant,” says Tara. “Our overarching intent is to empower women to become confident in vulnerable situations, and to enable them to make the right decision at the right time.”
Engineers serving with UN peacekeeping missions may not be the first one would associate with organising self-defense workshops, but in Malakal the contingent has volunteered its qualified and trained personnel to assist in coaching women on such matters.
“Engineering has always been our primary focus, but [before coming here] we were made aware that there would be many other and different aspects to this tour of duty,” says Captain Irvine. “Having said that, I never thought that I would be teaching self-defense classes to internally displaced persons. It gives you a real sense of perspective of how diverse the tasks of a UN mission actually are.”
In the first phase of this capacity building initiative, 24 young women staying at the UN protection site will learn feminist self -defense, helping them to identify risks, think about proportionate responses and, if necessary, defend themselves.
The sessions also incorporate how to handle assertiveness, verbal confrontation skills and other safety-enhancing strategies.
The learning process will be crowned by the participating women being appointed focal points for issues concerning physical aggressions towards women. Aptly enough, this reward ceremony is scheduled to take place on 19 June, the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.