The power of a blue beret: a glimpse into the work of a female peacekeeper

Ragini Kumari conducts a foot patrol of a protection of civilians site while accompanied by a community elder.

13 Dec 2019

The power of a blue beret: a glimpse into the work of a female peacekeeper

Jessica Piccinini

Ragini Kumari has many appellations.

She is a devoted wife and mother of two, an avid practitioner of yoga and an aficionado of music.

She is also a police officer. Following her tenure with India’s ministry of home affairs, she joined United Nations Police (UNPOL) to serve with the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where she has been stationed for close to a year now. 

Many stand firmly by the saying that their jobs should not define their lives, but that may be because they have not yet met Ragini.

“It’s so rewarding to work as a peacekeeper.  It’s a dream come true for me,” she said.

At first glance, her job description may not seem like a dream come true. Her day normally starts around 5:30 am, when she rises to virtually see her kids off to school via video chat, and features many of the same typical worker bee tasks: answer emails, sit through briefings, file paperwork, sip coffee, repeat.

Ragini is part of UNPOL’s assessment team, which means she collects information on human rights violations and other crimes committed within the peacekeeping mission’s two protection of civilian sites in the capital city Juba, where close to 30,000 individuals internally displaced by inter-ethnic conflict in 2013 and 2016 reside.

“Whenever we hear about a violation, we go to the sites to investigate.  The community elders within them are integral to what we do, but we also support them in resolving their issues on their own. Sometimes we have to refer the cases to corrections, depending on their seriousness,” she explained.

With this new layer of detail, Ragini’s vocation becomes much more intriguing. But it is not until one sets foot inside a protection site to see her in action that one thing becomes clear: her work is anything but humdrum.

“In a post-conflict setting where there is a high culture of violence like in South Sudan, sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), usually against women and children, are our main concerns,” she continued.

On December 10, the sixth edition of the UN's international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign to end violence against women concluded, but statistics shows that GBV is far from being a thing of the past.

According to the most recent numbers crunched by the UN, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner or non-partner in their lives. In South Sudan, that percentage jumps to nearly 65 by an intimate partner and 51 by a non-partner. 

One hot and dusty afternoon earlier this month, Ragini was called into the smaller of the two protection sites to bear witness to this reality after community elders referred a case involving a 24-year-old woman who had been physically assaulted by a male resident late November. She had been so severely beaten that she had fallen unconscious and could not walk or talk for three days after being discharged from the on-site clinic. More horrifyingly, she was around six months pregnant at the time. 

Upon arriving at the woman’s residence, Ragini found her in a solemn state, sitting on the floor bent into a crescent shape, draped in black.  Her left eye was swollen, and a hematoma could be seen protruding from the back of her shaved head.  Although understandably reluctant at first, she eventually opened up to Ragini, all the while clutching her feet timidly as she described her ordeal in the local Dinka language to a translator. 

“It is important to have female UNPOL officers because female victims will feel more comfortable talking with someone of the same sex.  We give them a sense of security and assurance,” she underscored.

More often than not, victims of GBV choose not to speak out or take legal recourse against their assailants for fear of stigma or rebuke.  This is especially evident in places where society members are bound to each other by deeply-entrenched tribal ties like South Sudan.  As a result, a vicious cycle of impunity is perpetuated and GBV becomes further normalized.

But with a little bit of coaxing from a dedicated and softspoken peacekeeper, the woman would muster the courage to break this cycle and file a case against her attacker.

This brief event illustrates to us yet another one of Ragini’s appellations: a beacon of hope.

She is not only so for female victims of abuse, but also for boisterous children who run circles around her as she walks through the protection site, or for the spunky teenage boys donning stylish sunglasses who stop to say hello and shake her hand.  In a world where justice seldom touches upon the most vulnerable, Ragini attempts to shatter the status quo.      

“It gives me immense satisfaction when I see the smile on the faces of these people. They need our support and presence. At the same time, we can be a role model for them and motivate them.  Maybe one day they, too, can proudly wear the blue beret of a peacekeeper,” she concluded with a smile.   

Increasing the number of women working to secure international peace and security is a key goal of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, and an inspiration for police officers like Ragini who are protecting civilians and building durable peace in South Sudan.