JUBA, South Sudan – On what started off as a sunny morning, Major Bettina Stelzer drove through the muddy and narrow roads to Nakitun village, near the United Nations’ compound on the outskirts of Juba.
The weather quickly changed from sunny to cloudy before the rain began pouring down on the thatched roofs of Nakitun. It was Stelzer’s last routine visit to the village before heading back to her home country of Australia. But the heavy downpour didn’t stop the major from searching for an older woman with sore eyes, whom she had met on a previous visit to the village.
She carried eyewash for her, as well as other basic medical essentials for women and children in the community.
After half an hour, she finally located the woman, who welcomed Stelzer into her home. With one of her eyes half-shut due to what appeared to be an infection, the woman explained her situation and listened to instructions, with the help of an interpreter, on how to use the eyewash.
Then, Stelzer continued her way around Nakitun village, meeting and greeting women who shared stories of their daily struggles, including health problems and lack of money.
For the past six months, Stelzer has been serving as military gender adviser to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). She says women like herself have a crucial role to play in peacekeeping missions.
“Women bring a different perspective to peacekeeping operations. If we have women on patrol, we are able to access different areas of the communities and gather different information,” Stelzer said.
“We gain a different perspective on what the requirements are – different security concerns for women that may not be of concern to men.”
UNMISS has been present in South Sudan since it won independence from Sudan in 2011. Two years later, civil war erupted in the new country due to political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. A peace agreement was signed in August 2015 that saw Machar return to Juba to share power with Kiir. However, the deal collapsed less than three months later.
The ongoing conflict has displaced some 4 million people. Neighboring Uganda currently hosts about one million South Sudanese refugees, while more than 330,000 have fled to Ethiopia. UNMISS has a specific mandate to protect civilians, monitor and investigate human rights violations, create the conditions necessary for delivery of humanitarian assistance and support the implementation of an agreement to cease hostilities.
The women that UNMISS peacekeepers meet in their daily work sometimes prefer to speak to female peacekeepers, says Kasumi Nishigaya, a Japanese civilian who serves as UNMISS’s senior gender adviser. In some of the more conservative communities in South Sudan, it can be considered inappropriate for women to speak to men they do not know.
Since the start of South Sudan’s civil war, there has been a massive increase in all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, allegedly carried out by both government and opposition forces. UNMISS was blamed for what many saw as a failure to protect civilians during the July 2016 crisis in the capital Juba, during which many women were raped, including foreign aid workers.
In this context, female peacekeepers are assisting the South Sudanese police all over the country to record and investigate cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
“What we are trying to do in South Sudan is to empower local authorities and train them to make them more aware of things they can do to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in their communities,” said Lt. Col. Natalie Leaver, an Australian who replaced Stelzer after she left.
“We encourage local authorities to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes rather than blaming the victims.”
Peacekeepers also coordinate with NGOs and various programs of the United Nations such as UNAIDS, UNICEF and U.N. Women to provide help to survivors of abuse.
Meanwhile, within camps for internally displaced people located on U.N. bases, peacekeepers carry out their own investigations into allegations of abuse.
“A team from [the U.N.’s police force, UNPOL] visits the sites every morning and interacts with a community watch groups that include women leaders. If there is a case of sexual abuse, the community leaders are able to tell the team about it,” said Lt. Cynthia Anderson from Ghana, who works for UNPOL.
Despite their crucial role, there are few women peacekeepers serving in conflict situations. Worldwide, women only represent about 3 percent of military personnel, 10 percent of police personnel and 22 percent of civilian personnel in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
The numbers are slightly higher in South Sudan: At the moment, women make up 4 percent of UNMISS’ military forces, 14 percent of its police personnel and 26 percent of its civilian personnel.
These women’s interaction with their local counterparts has also served as motivation for South Sudanese women to be more involved in traditionally male-dominated careers like the police force, says Anderson, who trains local police officers as part of her duties.
“I see myself as a mentor or a role model to the women who took part in our integrated police training program,” she says. Out of the 1,230 recruits who underwent training for eight months and graduated in June, 241 were women, she explained.
“When I look at them, I see the satisfaction and encouragement that they get from us, and that motivates me because I know I am at least contributing meaningfully in their lives.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Major Bettina Stelzer’s name.