Meet One Of The World’s Only All-Women Peacekeeping Units

Photo Courtesy of SOC Films
In 2010, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti. Death toll estimates vary widely but at least 100,000 people lost their lives, much of the infrastructure in the capital of Port-au-Prince was leveled. This ultimately left the government and economy of the region's poorest country severely incapacitated. Among the thousands who flew to the island to provide assistance was a rare but inspiring group: a unit of United Nations Peacekeepers comprised entirely of Muslim women from Bangladesh — one of just three all-female crews in the UN's more than 100,000-person peacekeeping force. Peacekeepers are the blue-helmeted forces that the United Nations deploys to the sites of conflict zones and natural disasters around the world. They support democratic elections, work to restore law and order in the aftermath of calamities, re-integrate combatants and more, currently in sixteen countries around the world. Yet they haven't always been a force for unadulterated good; accusations of sexual assault and misconduct have plagued the agency for decades — including in Haiti, where a report last year alleged that hundreds of peacekeepers had leveraged basic necessities for sex with poor women. Accusations like these are just one of the many reasons why the Peacekeepers need women. The UN has acknowledged this and has been working to increase the number of women in its ranks — with modest progress (the uniformed forces are 3% women currently, up from 1% twenty years ago). Last weekend, a documentary following those women premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Called Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, the film follows 140 women peacekeepers from on their third deployment to Haiti from June 2013 to July 2014. We spoke to Geeta Gandbhir, the Emmy Award-winning co-director and producer of Peacekeepers about the film and the Bangladeshi women who left their their families and their conservative upbringings behind to help restore peace in Haiti.

Interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo Courtesy of SOC Films

How did you decide to tell these women's stories?
"We were really interested in telling a story that challenges stereotypes of South Asian women and particularly Muslim women. When I read a story in the papers about women being sent out on peacekeeping missions from India, it really struck me. I don’t often imagine women in my own community doing service work, being out in the field. All female units too! "What you see in the film is that these Bangladeshi women are the breadwinners. They go out from their traditional communities to leave the men at home with the children. It’s a role for women in that region that we haven’t heard much about and these women do it effectively. It's important for everyone to see that."

What's the value of an all-female unit?
"There have been issues in the UN with male peacekeepers in the field doing extremely inappropriate things in Haiti and in a lot of places where there’s conflict. [Hundreds of men were accused of trading sex for aid in Haiti earlier this year.] "Women and children in conflict zones are an an extremely vulnerable population — they need to be patrolled and protected and the presence of women can help ensure that. Also, women tend to feel safe when they talk to other women about issues they might be having, particularly if there’s any sort of sexual abuse in their community or from anywhere."

"Women and children in conflict zones are an extremely vulnerable population — they need to be protected.

Tell us a bit about the women the film focuses on?
"Yes, there were three. Farida Parveen is a woman who's faced some really difficult tragedies in her own life — she decided to go on mission because her older son lost his father and she wanted to be an inspiration to him." Mousumi Sultana is a woman who faced a lot of abuse in her own family growing up. She joined the police because she really wanted to fight back against domestic violence and violence against women in general in her society. Her relationship with her husband is very egalitarian. He is very progressive but she really wanted to serve her country and she says, “My family and my country, I see them as equals and I feel that I can move us forward as women if I go on this mission." "The youngest of them is Rehana Parvin. She is very much a free spirit. We just couldn’t resist her! What’s interesting is that she lives in one of the most conservative communities in Bangladesh. Her son, who is 12 or 13 and an Islamic scholar, basically doesn’t want her to work. Her husband doesn’t have an issue with it but her son think's it’s sinful."

"I feel that I can move us forward as women if I go on this mission."

How do the missions work?
"Most of the women were in the police force in Bangladesh. They're there to work with UN police officers and back up the Haitian national police. They have to work as a unit; they’re the muscle of the mission. And, the missions are long: they go overseas for a year and most of the women do not go home at all during that time, because it's not financially viable for them. They could take time off but they don’t get paid. "But for many, it's also a route to self-empowerment. The women make two to three times [more] as a peacekeeper compared to what they make as a police officer in Bangladesh, so it’s very appealing for a lot of them."

What kind of impact did you see with all-female peacekeeping units in Haiti?
"Local people responded to them in very different ways than male troops. They did not feel threatened by them and were more comfortable in approaching them. When the female peacekeepers would patrol the camp, women and children felt more comfortable to come out and talk, and often times walk with them. "I found that the women themselves were more interested in community policing than a zero tolerance policy or aggressive, forceful tactics and methods of maintaining public safety. There were a couple of incidents where young men would come and throw stones at them. A lot of the other police officers told the women to arrest them. The women’s attitudes were that they were just harmless kids, playing around and looking for food." Watch the film's trailer here:

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