Recently, I spent a few days in Gao and Timbuktu in Mali holding focus groups with female international staff working in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This research contributed to the development of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity, a comprehensive policy initiative to enable and require gender parity for international staffing in UN peace operations “well before” 2030.
During these discussions, I listened carefully. One of my main take-aways is that women peacekeeping staff in Gao and Timbuktu are highly motivated and love their jobs. They are challenged and motivated by the fact that their work improves the lives of the war-affected Malian population. They see real results in real time. They are also working on issues that they care about -- protection of women and children, disarmament and reintegration of armed groups, building bridges with the local community, ensuring safety and security of staff, and finding solutions to complex logistical and supply chain problems. The sense of challenge in an ever changing and volatile environment is a constant source of motivation to them. Finally, they like the fast-paced environment and are never bored.
These women in Gao and Timbuktu were also highly resilient. They didn’t wait for someone else to tell them how to stay healthy; they took matters into their own hands. One fantastic staff talked about how she decorated her container accommodation to make it feel homey. She also identified yoga and maintaining friendships as important stress management tools. Another senior woman explained that she had challenges as a mother of elementary school aged children, but that the four week rest and recuperation allowance schedule ensured she was home (to a location in nearby West Africa) regularly and consistently.
Another woman working in logistics explained that it’s hard to be “the only” woman working in logistics. As a former military officer, she’s used to being in the minority and has adjusted to a male-dominated environment. However, she explained, it is tiresome. She explained that having a critical mass of women in logistics would change dynamics for the better and would help the UN logistics team deliver better. Of course, I jumped on the opportunity to tell her that the UN Secretary-General’s gender parity initiative applied to all areas of work, even traditionally male-dominated areas like logistics, security, and IT.
The women living and working in Gao and Timbuktu were keen to recognize that MINUSMA had improved their living conditions tremendously since the mission was created a few years ago. Women have internal bathrooms in their containers, a PX or commissary style store in the camp, and a gym they can use to stay fit. When thinking of improvements to their living conditions, they requested having a kitchenette in their accommodation so that they could cook their own food rather than eat in the cafeteria. They also pointed to the importance of having women’s health services (e.g. gynecology) available in the mission.
I went to Gao and Timbuktu to have a better understanding of the challenges of women working in the deep field in peacekeeping. I came away with a deeper understanding and sense of admiration for their work and their resilience. We owe it to them, and the people we serve, to shift the balance more toward gender parity so these women are the norm rather than the exception.
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The senior women talent pipeline (SWTP) is one innovative initiative to bring more Director-Level (D1-D2) female talent to UN Peace Operations. If you are senior woman professional with experience working in or on conflict countries in the areas of political affairs, civil affairs, rule of law and security institutions, public information, or mission support/administration, I hope you will visit www.impactpool.org/un-peace-operations/swtp to learn more and apply.
Remember, the Pipeline is open to candidates who have never worked for the United Nations or women already serving with the United Nations.
About the author:
Ms. Kristina Koch has twenty years of experience working in conflict-affected countries or for organizations backstopping field-based organizations. Her expertise and experience spans humanitarian operations, post-conflict development and peacebuilding, and peacekeeping. She’s worked in the former Yugoslavia, West Africa, and Central Africa for United Nations peacekeeping, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, USAID, the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the International Rescue Committee. At United Nations headquarters, she’s worked for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Peacebuilding Support Office, and the Department of Field Support. She most recently spent 18 months starting-up the youngest UN peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic: MINUSCA. There, she was the lead planner for the transition team and, subsequently, senior political advisor to the Head of Mission. Her technical expertise is focused on post-war peacebuilding and reintegration of war-affected populations, multidimensional strategic planning for peace operations, and operations support. She’s been the Chief of the Recruitment Section for UN Peace Operations since 2012. She speaks English (mother tongue), French, Spanish, and Serbo-Croatian. She’s a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS) and Grinnell College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her two children.