United Nations peacekeeping in South Sudan: A tale of non-uniformed civilians, not least women, as well
With the International Day of UN Peacekeepers just around the corner, one would be forgiven but in the wrong if “only” images of blue helmets - uniformed soldiers and police officers - spring to mind. Peacekeeping operations around the globe – and the one in South Sudan is certainly no exception - also consist of equally courageous and essential civilian personnel, some of whom are women.*
“My main ‘weapons’, as it were, are my words. I use them in the stories I write, in the radio reports I submit for broadcasting and in the remarks I deliver at various outreach events,” says Janet Adongo, a Kenyan public information officer and United Nations Volunteer serving in Malakal.
Much like Ms. Adongo, her South Sudanese public information colleagues affirm that they, too, are peacekeepers. They may not wear helmets or carry guns, but they contribute to the protection of civilians and the building of durable peace by using microphones, digital recorders, cameras and computers to provide the general public, in South Sudan and beyond, with accurate information on a variety of relevant topics.
And lest we forget: the facts and perceptions these public information officers and other civilian staff collect on the ground also guide the decisions made by the management of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
The same goes for the inputs provided by the many women occupying leadership posts that demand sound judgement and the confidence and the ability to make difficult but crucial decisions.
“As the peacekeeping mission’s Civil Affairs Department, our main task is to create a conducive environment for dialogue and peaceful co-existence between and among all communities in the country,” says Yousra El Ghorayeb, head of the department’s unit at the field office in Rumbek.
To successfully perform their plentiful duties, civil affairs officers rely heavily on cooperation with other specialized colleagues.
“The mission has set up an integrated system where uniformed and civilian personnel complement each other in peacekeeping processes. We advise the military component on civilian issues of liaison, monitoring, dialogue and facilitation of conflict management initiatives at the local level,” Ms. El Ghorayeb explains, adding that civilian staff, in turn, depend on the protective and other skills of uniformed personnel.
Peacekeepers of all dress codes rely on people like Sara Goerg, the Field Administration Officer in Rumbek, for their welfare and comfort.
“They leave their homes and families behind to spend months in remote areas in challenging living conditions, often with limited means of communication, to contribute to peace and stability in South Sudan. My job is to make their stay a bit more comfortable by ensuring that they have access to decent food, accommodation, transportation and anything else that could improve their overall wellbeing,” she says.
Apart from the challenges faced by all peacekeepers, some tend to be specific for women living in mostly male dominated environments.
“In a largely patriarchal society, I have to earn men’s trust and respect. I do not and cannot demand it. I gain it by being available and dependable. Secondly, working far away from home means being away from family, which in itself may be more difficult for women to accept. That can explain, in part, the relatively low but increasing number of females in peacekeeping,” reflects Janet Adongo, who is delighted to have “benefitted greatly” from working with the two “strong and experienced women” who are supervising her work.
A career in peacekeeping comes with a series of unique difficulties for men and women alike, but a sense of perspective and relativity goes a long way to take one through the direst of times. Add the many non-financial rewards one can reap from doing one’s best and making the tiniest of difference and the choice to face an unknown and sometimes dangerous reality sounds reasonable.
“When you visit local communities and observe all the basic things and services lacking in the lives of many people in war-torn South Sudan you realize how lucky you are to have grown up in a relatively privileged environment. It is at this point that one can’t help but commit to doing whatever you can to make a difference. When someone walks into my office saying things have improved… Well, the huge smile that gives me is what keeps me going and makes me work even harder,” Sara Goerg reveals.
Ms. Goerg’s sentiments are not only echoed but amplified by Janet Adongo in Malakal.
“The thought that my contribution, however little it seems, is part of a bigger story about positively changing the face of this young nation, that is what drives me. If it turns out that my time in South Sudan has changed the life of even one single individual, then it will all have been worth it.”
*On 11 February 2020, the number of civilian staff employed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan stood at 2,676, of which 594 (22.2 per cent) were women. The percentage of female employees is higher among international staff (27 per cent) and internationally recruited United Nations Volunteers (39 per cent) than among national staff (14 per cent).