Engaging Women and Children

Pakistan deploys female military officers as U.N. peacekeeping troops


In early 2020, as the African sun blazed above the town of Adikivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 15 Pakistani women collected a distinguished honor.

As members of Pakistan’s first female engagement team on a United Nations peacekeeping mission, these military officers appeared in dress uniforms to receive medals for their unique service.

They were physicians, nurses, engineers, psychologists, lawyers and teachers: All deployed to the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). 

Their special focus was women and children, victims whose needs are too often overlooked with the cessation of hostilities in conflict zones.

Pakistan has been a major contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1962. But until recently it had not fielded an exclusively female engagement team. These teams provide services such as medical care, counseling, infrastructure and education for women and children in mostly traditional societies.

Maj. Saima Baig, a medical doctor attached to the unit in the DRC, described the feeling of pride as she and her sisters were honored by the U.N. for their service.

Pakistani peacekeepers hold a class to educate displaced people in Bijombo, DRC, about COVID-19. MONUSCO

“It is the beauty of the Pakistan Army that they equip their Soldiers to encounter all types of circumstances, where they can perform against all odds and in variable situations without any gender disparity,” Maj. Saima said after the ceremony.

Nearly 500 women from Pakistan have served abroad in peacekeeping missions, earning honors in places such as Darfur in the Sudan. In almost every case, these women were commissioned  as doctors and nurses to staff military hospitals and clinics. The female engagement teams broadened the role of female troops to include other professions whose services were badly needed in former war zones in Africa.

In a visit to the mission in 2020, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded Pakistan for championing the use of female peacekeepers. The secretary-general had announced a goal that 15% of peacekeeping personnel be women. Pakistani troops first departed for MONUSCO in 2004, and the arrival of the female engagement team in 2019 ensured Karachi met the U.N.’s gender diversification target.

“To gain the confidence of populations, to gain the confidence of communities, women peacekeepers, both military and police, are absolutely essential,” Guterres explained during his visit. “And they can do things that us men are not able to do, gaining them confidence and creating conditions for much more effective actions of our peacekeeping duties.”

Another Pakistani doctor engaged with MONUSCO, Maj. Fareeha Tanveer, described the mission to the DRC in personal terms as a working psychologist. Her team was part of the more than 1,900 Pakistani peacekeepers in the country as of early 2021.

A Pakistani peacekeeper attends a handicraft workshop with Congolese women. MONUSCO/Kevin Jordan

She arrived to find women and children suffering from undiagnosed psychological ailments from the stresses of wartime abetted by chronic poverty and malnutrition. Many of these women were victims of sexual violence from roaming bands of soldiers. 

“Women have to struggle very hard in order to secure a place in business, politics and economy in a country like DRC that has faced armed conflict for decades,” Maj. Fareeha told the Pakistani military magazine Hilal. “Women and children, being the soft targets, have faced physical victimization for ages.”

Maj. Fareeha and her team not only provided emotional support but supplied basic skills to encourage self-sufficiency. To reduce infant mortality, Pakistani troops taught Congolese women more about nutrition, hygiene and first aid. They received instruction in the English language, handicrafts and basic computing.

“It is gratifying to serve the Congolese community at large and women in particular,” the major said. “Being a woman myself, I feel my contribution towards U.N. peacekeeping and the Pakistan Army is never-ending and ever-enduring.”

Pakistan has long been among the top contributors to U.N. peacekeeping forces. Over nearly six decades, its troops have deployed to 28 countries on 46 different missions. As of March 2021, Pakistan had more than 4,700 peacekeepers stationed abroad. 

Its successes as peacekeepers have not been limited to the DRC. For example, Pakistani troops, including women, eased suffering during the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, Sudan, a peacekeeping mission called UNAMID. They have also served in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, or MINUSCA.

Maj. Asma Malik was the first female doctor to serve with a Pakistan Army infantry battalion in the field, wearing a bulletproof jacket and helmet with the rest of the troops on short-range patrols in Darfur. 

A Pakistani female engagement team member teaches basic computing to Congolese students. MONUSCO/Kevin Jordan

“I was one of the pioneers and had the supreme honor to represent the Army Medical Corps at this level,” Maj. Asma recalled. “Serving with an infantry battalion was a rich experience in every way.”

Maj. Asma’s unit set up free mobile medical clinics for Sudanese who in many cases had never seen a doctor in their lives. Army doctors and nurses often processed more than 3,000 patients in a single day. Cases ranged from routine cuts and scrapes to scorpion and snake bites to life threatening emergencies.

One day, when a Sudanese mother arrived desperately ill and plunged into a coma, Dr. Asma’s skills ensured an accurate diagnosis of cerebral malaria, followed by life-saving treatment. She recounted this gratifying tale to Hilal as an inspiration to other Pakistani military women considering joining peacekeeping missions.

“The year I spent in Darfur, Sudan, as a medical officer with an infantry battalion was one of the most fulfilling times of my life,” she said.    Sources: Hilal, United Nations, Dawn, The Frontier Post

Comments are closed.