Women’s courage in times of conflict and crisis is a force for change: They are often at the forefront of the humanitarian responses, mobilizing communities, advocating for human rights and the restoration of peace. Yet, they are starkly absent from decision-making. Despite progress, their voices are still too often sidelined and their experience unrecognized.
In this article, we bring you the voices of women who challenge traditional gender roles in peace-building and peacekeeping on a daily basis. Their stories testify to their contribution to fostering positive change within peacekeeping operations and at the level of local communities, and demonstrate why we need more women in political processes and U.N. Peacekeeping.
1. Téné Maimouna Zoungrana (Burkina Faso)
Corrections officer and commander of the Rapid Response Team at the U.N. Mission Stabilization in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) Corrections Unit and winner of the 2021 Women Trailblazer of the Year Award
They used to maybe say, ‘No, I don’t want to be bossed around by a woman.’ But we are using means of communication, awareness-raising and training to try to get these men to leave a little room for the women in the framework of our activities and what is being done now.Téné Maimouna Zoungrana
Prison officer from Burkina Faso serving with the U.N. Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and winner of the United Nations Trailblazer Award, Téné Maimouna Zoungrana, leads the rapid intervention activities in the Ngaragba Prison in the Central African Republic. The largest in the country, this high-security detention center is located in the capital city of Bangui and hosts just over 1,300 inmates—all men.
As the main trainer and coordinator of rapid intervention activities, she supports national prison staff in incident and crisis management. Maimouna Téné is responsible for introducing rapid intervention training modules into the national curriculum for the prison administration.
Téne reveals what it is like to work in a traditionally male-dominated field and how she draws on her strengths to overcome challenges.
Can you tell us about your experiences working in a predominantly male-environment?
“As a woman in a male-dominated environment, it has never been easy. We are in an environment where there are different people and it is normal that some people can’t accept being commanded or led only by women. And that’s normal. But we use this management strategy to explain and raise awareness among those who may not agree. They used to maybe say, ‘No, I don’t want to be bossed around by a woman.’ But we are using means of communication, awareness-raising and training to try to get these men to leave a little room for the women in the framework of our activities and what is being done now.”
When facing challenges in your work, what are some of the strengths you draw on working as a woman in this field?
“In my intervention, security and training work, my strength is listening. I listen more to those around me, whether it’s women or men. This is what makes my collaborators and colleagues trust me more. And together, we manage to carry out joint actions and set up projects that have an impact on what we have as a mandate. “
“Women are able to respond to complex situations, to make an effective contribution that can solve and bring a positive impact and solve problems that some people find difficult. It is therefore of paramount importance that we be able to strengthen and bring in more women who can contribute to the maintenance of peace operations in the various countries.”
How can we increase women’s participation in male-dominated fields such as yours?
“Force has never succeeded in making things happen. We need a strategy that can involve everyone and that women can play their role fully as well. And in this context, I have also asked my female colleagues not to be reserved. We should not put ourselves aside. We must always persevere with the knowledge we have and show men that what they are capable of doing: We, as women, have the necessary skills to also play a full role in areas that have long been considered a male domain.”
2. Colonel Stephanie Tutton (USA)
Chief of policy and doctrine, United Nations Office of Military Affairs
Stephanie Tutton started her career as a U.S. military academy recruit and was soon commissioned as a field artillery lieutenant in 1991. At the time there were only 21 women in field artillery, one of the largest U.S. army branches. According to Tutton, breaking gender barriers has been difficult.
We asked her about her experiences and how she endeavors to help more women break gender barriers in the military.
You have broken many gender barriers throughout your career. How have you mentored other women who have come up against some of the challenges that you have faced yourself?
“So about 10 years, 11 years into my career, I actively tried to look at where I could open up space for women who were younger than me, or maybe a rank below me to help them gain the experience of talking in front of an entire group or the confidence that they were to be heard. And they were to be respected. It was not always easy. But there were some times when I said, ‘Excuse me, sir, didn’t you just repeat what my colleague over here just said?’”
Based on her own experience, Tutton also encouraged men to be more thoughtful and recognize the merits of women in the team.
Were there any instances in your career that you can think of, in terms of breaking through those barriers that were career shaping for you?
“As a woman, my voice is higher than men. And when I would call to the gun line, they knew there was a woman on the other end of the radio and the gun line didn’t fire. The funny thing was we actually hit the target. So there was a little bit of a change in my perspective to know that I had to figure out how to get my ideas across, even though I was a woman.”
However, ensuring gender parity in U.N. peacekeeping missions is not only a women’s job, Tutton emphasizes. We need male allies as well.
You work in a very male-dominated field. How can we encourage and support women to take on more non-traditional gender roles and break these gender barriers?
“I was the command group advisor out in MINUSMA. I was a direct report to the force commander and I thought he did a fantastic job deferring to me. And there is one rule in the military—well, there’s a lot of rules in the military—but there is one that we all inherently know: When the general speaks, the meeting is finished. And there were numerous times in MINUSMA when the force commander would speak, he would give his guidance and then he would look at me and say, ‘Have I missed anything?’ He was deferring to me because he trusted me, secondly, because I was his command group advisor. And the second order effect was that it was a woman he asked. It had no bearing on why he asked me, but it was a visual example.”
3. Anny Tengamendite Modi (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Youth advocate, African Women Leaders Network (AWLN) and executive director, Afia Mama (“women’s health”) organization
If you are not supported, if nobody believes you, if nobody listens to your voice, if you have an impression that the world has forgotten about your existence, this is what kills women and girls the most.Anny Tengamendite Modi
Peace-building is not only confined to peace talks that take place in big rooms, between senior officials, it also means working with communities to cultivate peace and healing.
Anny Tengamendite Modi runs a nonprofit organization based in the DRC that aims to eradicate stigma and discrimination towards survivors of gender-based violence named Afia Mama, meaning “women’s health.”
We spoke with Anny about her personal story and experiences. After her father died, Anny was displaced from her home in central DRC and fled to Goma in the east. Women in Goma have, and continue, to experience a high rate of sexual and gender-based violence. War broke out soon after Anny moved there.
Can you tell us a little bit about your story how your passion advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights issues in the DRC began?
“I went through the difficult situation of a little girl, a teen teenager who did not have access to pads and, who did not have quality information on her own sexual health. This exposed me to a situation where at 17 years old, I was already pregnant. I gave birth just two months after my 18th birthday and I became a teen mother still in a war zone.”
“When my daughter was born everything changed. I didn’t want her to go through what I went through. And then I had a new way of considering life. Because I wanted to give the best I could to the world to create a better world, not just for me, for my daughter, but for all girls in the world. So my way of considering life totally changed. But the Democratic Republic of the Congo was divided in two and we had to leave the war-torn eastern parts to try and reach the western part in Kinshasa.”
But Anny wasn’t safe in Kinshasa either. She faced discrimination for not looking or sounding Congolese. So she fled to South Africa with her daughter to seek asylum, where she lived as a refugee for over 10 years. Though she faced more challenges there, Anny promised herself she would become a voice for the voiceless.
“I think this is where I found my calling, and started to work from South Africa refugee centers. It’s moved from that to being a volunteer with a few NGOs. We decided to come together as a southern African young women’s movement to organize ourselves.”
Anny united with other women and women’s organizations and is now a board member of the Dynamic of Feminine Youth for the Promotion, Protection and Defense of Young Women’s Rights.
How have your experiences shaped you and your activism today? And what have you experienced yourself or in dealing with other women who had suffered conflict and maybe had suffered or survived from violence?
“If you are not supported, if nobody believes you, if nobody listens to your voice, if you have an impression that the world has forgotten about your existence, this is what kills women and girls the most.
“This is also why I vowed to become the voice of the voiceless because when women know that if someone is talking for them and making sure that their voices are heard, their needs are considered. The space is being created for them to contribute, to participate and to build a different environment. This gives them hope and actually accelerates the healing process. And this is the only thing that makes women go from survivor to agent of change.
Anny returned to live in the DRC in 2012, and now lives in Kinshasa. In the DRC, women have borne the brunt of the conflict but regardless of their trauma, they have continued to work relentlessly to transform their circumstances in a time of conflict.
“And the only way we can contribute in preventing more violence in the future is ensuring that we have more women in power, we have more women sitting around the table.”
To hear more about Anny Modi, Téné Maimouna Zoungrana, Colonel Stephanie Tutton and other inspiring peace-builders, listen to the Seeking Peace podcast series, a co-production of the U.N. Department of Peace Operations and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS), which sheds light on the formidable women peace-builders and peacekeepers who defy gender norms and strive for peace where there is none.
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