What's up, Europe? Gender, media and European integration. The story of a a young Dane exploring the continent.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

UN's first all-female peacekeeping force

Check out this interview with Seema Dhundia, commander of the UN's first all-female peacekeeping force. The force consists in 105 police officers from India that are currently stationed in Liberia.

Now that your unit has been in the field for a few months, how would you say the presence of a female UN peacekeeping contingent is enabling Liberia to get on the path to rebuilding?

I think that for the first time the Liberian people are seeing a fully trained contingent of female officers out on streets. Their own women are getting inspired and motivated and now they are coming forward. Seeing my girls performing their duties is inspiring young Liberian women to join the regular forces -- in this way we are sort of role models for the young Liberian ladies. They are seeing our girls and are now coming forward and joining the regular forces. Their numbers have considerably increased after our arrival here

The people are watching us here in Liberia. They are seeing the all-female contingent -- which has come all the way from India for the peacekeeping mission -- and they are getting inspired. They might start their own female force.

Have you faced any specific challenges being an all-women's unit?

There is no specific challenge as such. The situation is still volatile –the undercurrents of the conflict are still there, though the politics seem to be calm and quiet. Sometimes, though, it does get out of hand. But since the troops are prepared and they are professionally competent, we are able to cope with the pressures of any kind of situation.

Have you encountered any situations where being an all female unit has enabled you to accomplish things where a mixed gender unit would not have been able to?

No. Whether it's a mixed unit or a female unit or a male unit the point is that everybody has to be professionally competent. Even if it is a fully formed female contingent, even in that case, the female officers are supposed to be professionally competent and trained enough to tackle any kind of situation in that manner. Whether it is a mixed unit or a female unit or a male unit the point is the officers are to be properly sensitized. Irrespective of what you call it, they are to be properly trained and they have to be aware of what is going in their deployment area.

And would you say that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's presidency has it had any impact on operating as an all-female unit. Has it made things easier or more difficult?

I can't be very specific about it since she is the President. But she does provide a platform for all of us to perform. As far as our duties are concerned we are preparing the same kind of duties that the other peacekeepers are doing so there is no discrimination as such.

What are the primary goals -- if you wouldn't mind giving some background for our readers -- the primary goals of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and how do those filter down into your day to day duties in as a policing unit?

The primary goals of the UN mission here are to establish peace and implement all kinds of humanitarian assistance programs. They call this a post-conflict scenario. The infrastructure of the country had to be repaired from scratch. The primary goal is to establish normalcy -- establish peace and to ensure that state infrastructure is functioning. I think that this is the main goal of the UN mission here in Liberia.

As far as our contribution is concerned, we are here to advise and mentor the Liberian national police and we are provide backup support to the police in their day to day work. We are the only people who carry weapons with us, so we provide a security cover -- a backup to the Liberian national police in their day to day job. We also are providing a great deal of on-the-spot training to the Liberian national police officers, advising them on how to react to a particular situation.

Why did you become a UN peacekeeper?

I was commandant of an all-female contingent in India. Coming all the way from India to a place called Liberia and using my expertise and skills in performing my day to day duties was a good challenge. And obviously, if there is a challenge for a police officer it has to be taken in a positive way. It definitely leads to our own development. We are gaining excellent experience from being here. We have learned many new things, including the function of the UN. And it has provided a good platform for all of us. I think that is why all of us volunteered for this mission. Based on your experience thus far, how long do you think the UN will have a presence in Liberia?

I am not the right person or the right authority to say on this matter but I think it will take some time to bring in a little bit of normalcy. It will take some time -- how much time is difficult to judge, but obviously it will take a few years.

Via feministing.com (generally a very recommendable feminist reader!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Help Rose

This blog supports the online petition to stop the expel of Rose, a Nigerian woman who was trafficked to Denmark. Rose has helped the Danish police uncover the trafficking network that brought her here.

According to the Danish immigration authorities and the Minister of Immigration Rose has nothing to fear with respect to her return to Nigeria - something which is seriously questioned by a thorough Norwegian report and the Norwegian Embassy in Nigeria.

Sign the petition here.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Imagine all the people

Some time ago I wrote a bit about Yoko Ono and how her importance as a gender-conscious artist has been neglected in favour of a portrayal as the witch that killed the Beatles. In the light of my previous post I found this cartoon by the Danish duo Wulffmorgenthaler rather amusing.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The war on symbols and the denial of abuse

The debate about the headwear of Muslim women has risen again in Denmark. This time it is fuelled by the case of a child minder who, according to some, wears a burka during working hours.

First of all, I think we should set things straight with respect to religious head wear. As far as I understand this is a burka and this is a niqab. The latter is what the child minder in Odense wears. Secondly, she puts on the niqab when she goes outside. In her home she wears a headscarf tied under the chin; allowing the children to see her face and expressions.

In the Danish debate a major argument for a ban against headscarves is that they are, supposedly, symbols of the oppression of women. In the case of symbols (please pay special attention to the word!) Danish politicians seem very willing to take action. Since the Danish Minister of Family Affairs recognized the municipality of Odense’s right to forbid their employees to wear religious clothing, there has been no end to the political announcements. A spokesperson from the Danish Liberal Party, one of the parties in government, describes it as a ‘freedom right’ that the Danish municipalities are allowed to ban religious clothing to their likening. Next to Odense several other municipalities have declared that they will make use of this freedom. In the case of symbols there is a lot of political goodwill when it comes to using regulation as a tool to, supposedly, improve women’s conditions.

Let us turn away from religious clothing for a moment and look at case that, to me and many others, is an unambiguous expression of the suppression of women. Some call it the oldest profession in the world. Others call it exploitation of women’s bodies. I am talking about prostitution. An estimate is at least 4,730 (the far majority being women) are selling their bodies in Denmark. There is a serious lack of knowledge about prostitution in my home country, but here are some European facts:

- Data provided by the British Medical Journal on the experience of client violence against women prostitutes indicates that 93 % of women had an experience of client violence (British Medical Journal: Do you want the latest evidence? “Personal characteristics, drug use, and experience of client violence by prostitutes working indoors or outdoors”, downloaded 17/2/2003)

- Around 80 % of women in prostitution have been sexually abused in their childhood (Fact sheet on Human Rights Violations, Prostitution Research & Education, Melissa Farley, http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/)

- The average age of women entering into prostitution is 13 or 14; there is no evidence to suggest that this age is decreasing (La prostitution un métier comme un autre?”, Yolande Geadah ; VLB éditeur, 2001, p. 137)

Data is compiled by womenlobby.org

As Reden, a drop-in centre for women in the prostitution environment in Copenhagen, explains on its web page:

“Prostitution – to sell you own body via prostitution and pornography – will always be the extreme sale and a situation that can be compared to nothing else. There are situations where people think they only have their body left to trade with, or situations where the body is the only demanded commodity. […] It often has long-term and destructive consequences when a woman has to let her body invade by thousands of men she does not herself desire. To survive she will have to switch off her emotions and ability to feel. The price can be that it will become ever more difficult to turn on her feelings again. The woman risks developing insensitivity towards other people, depression and the lack of ability to feel herself and her own needs.” (my translation from Danish)

Talking about offense against women’s rights prostitution is an obvious case. Still, myths of “the happy prostitute” and “prostitution is a woman’s personal choice” are alive and well in Denmark (and many other countries for that sake). Unlike the war against headscarves, supposedly symbols of suppression of women, there is not much political goodwill when it comes to prostitution. In the case of symbols politicians are more than willing to make rules and regulations. In the case of physical exploitation of women it is almost a taboo to talk about criminalizing the buyer. Sweden and Norway, two countries we normally compare ourselves to, have already passed laws. Still, there is very little discussion about banning the purchase of sex in Denmark. Maybe the symbolic value is not high enough?

Or perhaps is the suppression of women not really on the agenda of Danish politicians? Many of them seem to regard symbols as a much more grave manifestation of offense than actual physical abuse. At the end of the day the fight against symbols is unrelated to women’s rights. It appears to be just another expression of hostility towards Muslim culture and Muslims.

A selection of the (scarce) resources available on prostitution in Denmark (Danish-language):
Publications from 'Theme Prostitution' ('Theme Prostitution' is an activity under a government agency)
The extent of prostitution in Denmark
Facts about prostitution compiled by the Danish Socialist People's Party

Friday, May 04, 2007

The oldest profession in the world

If anyone should still suffer from convictions such as "prostitution is a woman's own choice" and "the sex industry is fun" this video from the European Women's Lobby is worth watching.

Among some of the video's statistics are:

- 92-95 % of prostituted women wants to get out of prostitution
- In large European cities between 67 and 90 % of prostitutes are foreigners
- In my home country Denmark there is about 7000 victims of trafficking. In Sweden (where it is illegal to buy sex) the number is more than ten times lower; 400 to 600.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Breasts should be respected the way they are

An artist initiates debate about breast enlargements in China. Watch the report here.