Indian Army officer and woman peacekeeper Major Suman Gawani received the United Nations’ Military Gender Advocate of the Year award on Friday, 29 May, making her the first Indian to be given the honor.
The award is a recognition of her "outstanding contribution" to peacekeeping efforts during her stint in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
‘Women Understand Women’
Speaking to The Quint, Major Gawani who, was posted as a Military Observer in South Sudan, said that women peacekeepers play an "enormous" role in conflict-related sexual violence.
“Women peacekeepers play an enormous role in addressing and aiding survivors of sexual violence in conflict areas – especially those related to the conflict itself. A survivor is more likely to open to women peacekeepers. A male member might instigate the fear the survivor had for her perpetrator.”Major Suman Gawani, Indian Army
"Women understand women better," said Major Gawani, adding that peacekeepers like her will support survivors to open up and help them in their path to justice.
New accounts of conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls in the South Sudan conflict have been emerging often, since 2014. The UN itself has maintained that the atrocities against women is one of the worst in the world.
Major Gawani's time in South Sudan – between November 2018 and December 2019 – came with its own set of challenges.
As a military observer, Major Gawani's day began early and ended late at night. She would report to her office at 8 am before she set off to patrol and observe along with her 'buddy officer’.
“We would drive to the assigned area, patrol and observe. Also, as military observers, we were not allowed to carry weapons. This makes the locals believe that we are more approachable and friendly. They would come to us with their problems. If they chose to report it, we would aid with investigation,” said Gawani, adding that beating the language barrier became a huge challenge.
How Major Gawani Beat the Language Barrier?
"Most people could converse in English in the city limits. But in the village areas, women, children and elderly did not know the language. Even if I have an interpreter, breaking the ice is a little difficult especially if you are an outsider. For them, I was an outsider," she narrated.
She wrote to the UN training branch and sought permission to learn Arabic. She then got a license to learn Arabic online as there was no facility to learn the language offline.
“Slowly, I started conversing with the locals. Then, I started noticing the difference. When I started greeting people in their own language, that barrier was broken. It was then very easy for me to communicate. And they would be very happy to see me and greet me. That became easy. However, I am not fluent in Arabic. I could use only basic words and phrases but it was still useful.”Major Suman Gawani, Indian Army
Learning the language also helped her connect better with the locals, even when it was not duty-related. Like the time she was approached by a local girl who "just wanted to talk."
"I once met a girl who just wanted to talk. She narrated how she was allegedly raped several times by her uncle. And that when she wanted to complain to the cops, they also allegedly sexually abused her. She did not want to report the case. But the incident moved me a lot and made me think about the many untold stories," Major Gawani said.
‘Indians Most-Wanted in UN Peacekeeping’
When asked if India should send more women peacekeepers to the UN, Gawani said that the number of women sent on missions is only increasing every year.
“Indians are the most-wanted officers in UN Peacekeeping. Everyone wants people from the Indian Army in their team as they hold the highest of standards. There are also so many Indians in each mission that you never feel homesick,” Gawani chuckles.
India is the second largest troops contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and has lost 168 people in these missions.
Instituted in 2016, the award honours the dedication and effort of individual military peacekeepers in promoting the UN principles on Women, Peace and Security in peace operations as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of peace operations. Gawani will be receiving the award along with Brazilian Naval Officer Commander Carla Monteiro de Castro Araujo.