Advisor raises consciousness of Mission personnel on gender | Maria Nakabiito, Gender Advisor
The role of a gender advisor is to promote and support gender-sensitive approaches to the implementation of the Mission’s mandate, drawing on the provisions of the Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. The Gender Advisor coordinates gender mainstreaming, analysis and reporting in the substantive work of the Mission, while supporting efforts to promote the participation of women in all of UNMIL’s mandated activities. She also works with UNMIL components and the United Nations Country Team to analyze, monitor and report on the integration of gender in critical reform processes and to inform UNMIL’s good offices activities to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
Gender Advisor Maria Nakabiito had extended experience in gender issues in the Government of Uganda and in UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations and offices before arriving in UNMIL to head the Gender Advisory Unit.
Could you describe your background and what sort of experience you’ve had in this area to take on some of the challenges for a gender advisor here in Liberia?
A demographer by training, I have multiple skills required to address gender issues, which are multi-sectoral. You need knowledge of policy analysis and interpretation, training and capacity-building skills, and understanding of issues such as rule of law, protection and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). And you need advocacy skills. In terms of work, I was part of a team that pioneered the first Ministry of Women and Development in Africa, in 1988, in Uganda. Then I worked for the UN around the world including East Timor, Darfur, South Sudan, and Italy (for the Libya mission). In peacekeeping, I was part of the startup team in East Timor, and opened the gender offices in Darfur and South Sudan. I have also served in the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund.
What were your initial impressions when you first got to Liberia and started working for UNMIL?
The concept of gender in peacekeeping missions is about mainstreaming and empowering staff members, before they go out to work in the society and the community.
My initial impression was that everyone in UNMIL considered themselves gender experts and while they were supportive of gender work, sometimes this confidence clouded the need to listen to the Gender Advisor. The concept of gender in peacekeeping missions is about mainstreaming and empowering staff members, before they go out to work in the society and the community. We had a mandate to oversee gender work within the Mission. As it was challenging within the Mission to advise people senior to myself, there was always an escape route going out to the community, because that is easier to do, and there I was just seen as a UN international staff member. Often it is easier to step outside of the mission and do what looks more like civil affairs than the primary work of gender advisor.
When you arrived how did you find the situation of the Gender Advisor?
The rule of law, and the security sector were very focused on taking up the responsibility of gender mainstreaming.
At the stage when I came, gender work had been diverted, taking place outside the Mission, because there was less resistance in the Government ministry and by civil society partners. Internally, the Mission and the UN in general needs to walk the talk. The UN is a pacesetter in the countries where we serve, so it would be significant if the Mission would lead by example. It should be 80 per cent of your job, to make sure people in the Mission undertake gender responsibilities. And I will give credit to some sections: The rule of law, and the security sector were very focused on taking up the responsibility of gender mainstreaming. So there was room for improvement had there been more time, to give more focus to what the Mission should do in terms of gender.
Is it fair to say that gender is the most cross-cutting issue in the UN?
Gender is cross-cutting yes because it affects and is affected by what other mission components do with the beneficiaries. It also addresses or should address parity issues within the organization. So the primary role of a gender unit should be to ensure that within the mission, every functional unit has their hand on addressing gender issues within their mandate. It requires a clear understanding of the role of every staff member in the delivery of gender requirements. More important it requires support from mission leadership.
At least for the time that I’ve been here, we have had the support from the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) and the deputy SRSGs. For every function that we’ve call them to, for everything that we’ve called their attention to, they’ve given their full support.
Is some of your work involved in trying to make those relationships more clear?
Absolutely. The policy guidelines are very clear. It takes skill, resilience, and support to make this work. The Gender Advisory Unit with support from Mission management broadcasts regular flash messages to keep gender on the minds of all staff. This complemented the regular gender training which is given periodically to staff members. For some staff who have been on one mission for years, the training can lead to fatigue with the issue. So you have to find creative ways of making it work. I brought in the issue of HIV-AIDS to liven up the discussion. The factors that affect the transmission of HIV-AIDS are similar to the factors that cause gender disparity. So if you make that part of part of their training, it works.
Are there a few achievements in UNMIL that you thought were significant in impacting your work?
most significant has been the integration of gender in the Liberian rule of law organs and the security sectors: the police, bureau of immigration, and the army.
One of the most significant has been the integration of gender in the Liberian rule of law organs and the security sectors: the police, bureau of immigration, and the army. The UNMIL Gender Advisory Unit was able to establish functional gender advisory desks within those units. And because of that, much attention has been given to gender within the security sector. The national gender policy was developed with the support of the Mission, in addition to gender guidelines and codes of conducts for the public officials and employees of the Government.
When the Mission brought in female police units that also gave great visibility to the gender unit. The fact that peacekeeping can be done by women and men has been proven here as Liberia has been able to send female peacekeepers to other countries. The security sector institutions are one area that has been very successful.
Human Rights also incorporated gender in its protection work and support to prosecution of sexual and gender based violence (SGVB) crimes.
There is a Special Court for prosecuting SGBV cases. That is something different in this country that you may not find elsewhere. They have trained judges and prosecutors for handling SGBV cases. The Government also has a victims support office and an SGBV crimes unit, both in the Ministry of Justice.
On basic issues, what’s your sense of the situation for women’s rights and fundamental freedoms?
In terms of policy legislation, we are half way there. Legislative reform in relation to women’s rights and their fundamental freedoms, and the implementation of existing legislation still face many challenges. Above all, what is really lacking is political commitment to transform policy into action rooted in a society where patriarchal attitudes and harmful gender stereotyping still prevail at all levels.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by UNMIL, 83 per cent of respondents believed that women who were raped had some responsibility in the crime, for instance due to their clothing or social behavior. And although rape is one the most commonly reported serious crimes in Liberia, arrest and prosecution rates remain very low. There are many reasons, including financial and logistical constraints and capacity gaps in the law enforcement and relevant public institutions.
In addition, the domestic violence law passed in August 2017 omitted a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM). As one of her final acts in office, President Sirleaf issued a presidential executive order on 19 January 2018, banning the practice of FGM, for children under 18. But we will have to see how this is enforced.
Even if the laws are not perfect, at least they exist. But they don’t seem to function. One reason they are not functioning is that there are no consequences in the communities for breaking them. If am a politician and I am not speaking up against SGVB, and I can still be elected over and over again, that means there are no consequences. No one is asking me, if this kind of bill came to the Senate, why did I not stand on the side of women? There is a need to strengthen the advocacy by civil society, because no one is calling out anybody. The awareness is there; the laws are there; so what is the reason they are not being implemented? The reason is that no one is actually demanding accountability. No one is asking why the Government says this will be done, but it hasn’t been done. Why is it that five years down the road as Government, so many rapes have happened, so many appointments made and nobody has been held to account for the things that have not been delivered. You committed to laws and yet there is no implementation. There needs to be somebody to ask questions, and there is nobody asking.
Without a civil society group holding Government accountable, you don’t anticipate that needed changes will happen?
Why is it that five years down the road as Government, so many rapes have happened, so many appointments made and nobody has been held to account for the things that have not been delivered.
If I promised you something and I am not delivering on it and you are not asking for it, then I am comfortable not delivering it. That is what has happened. In fact, having elected the first female President, there was a lot of expectation for Liberia, but you can see that we have just come through an election with only 9 women out of 73 seats in the House of Representatives. Why is that? The women have not come out as a block to threaten or intimidate or even to lobby. They aren’t saying to political parties, these are our demands as the women of Liberia, and if you promise to deliver on these demands, we will fly your flag, campaign for you and follow you up once you are in office. We will ask the women to vote as a block, and you will have our vote. It is interesting that there is no unified stand as one would have expected. At this point, we would expect women’s voices to be profound and loud. But they are silent.
What about the issue of nationhood: is there no clear sense belonging together?
The Gender Advisory Unit hosted six consciousness-building gatherings to contribute to strengthening the spirit of “Liberianism,” together with Kvina Till Kvina, a Swedish NGO aiming to strengthen women’s political and economic rights, and the Rural Women of Liberia, a network of women from local communities. The idea is that women and men should stand as one people and one Liberia, and rebuild the nation as a people.
At this point, we would expect women’s voices to be profound and loud. But they are silent.
The idea of persons aspiring to leave for other countries needs to be discouraged.
Are there silent achievements that haven’t generated headlines in the rule of law or justice institutions?
Back to the elections: for the first time in Liberia, there was a mini situation room during voter registration, to help support the inclusion of marginalized persons like the Mandingos, cross-border people who might have been excluded from registering. So because such issues were raised early enough, more people were able to come out and vote.
The other achievement has been in assisting healing from SGBV. Sexual and gender based violence is profound in this country. A local organization in Monrovia, Duport Road Community HIV/AIDS Care and Support, has been working with communities of survivors. They get them to talk about what they went through, so that they may be able to overcome the stigmatization and move forward. They support survivors further by helping them use village loan schemes and training to start small enterprises. This specific group is making headway peoples’ lives, supporting themselves and managing their livelihoods. UNMIL helped with a quick-impact project.
And what will sustain the project’s funding once UNMIL closes?
The concept for sustainability is interesting. Participants actually practice bottle agriculture. For example if you have land, that is where you plant your crops. Survivors and participants instead plant crops and vegetables in plastic water or coke bottles. People make a living out of it, even here where the cost of living is quite high. In a tiny space, people make US$20-30 on a weekly basis.
|Market women prepare their food products at a produce stall in a local market in Kakata, Margibi County. Photo: UNMIL | 1 Nov 16|
The survivors team up in groups, save money and initiate village loan schemes, which in itself serves as a form of micro-finance. Members then borrow to grow their business. Survivors join up and form small groups in different counties to create more village loan schemes. We have supported their journey to healing so that they can move out of the humiliation phase, and move from feeling victims to survivors.
Then there are the Peace Huts. Liberia has about 16, and UN Women funded the construction. They are instrumental in mitigating conflict in communities. Women of the project liaise with national authorities, sometimes supporting them with evidence gathering in rape cases.
UNMIL also helped facilitate the Talking Bus, a community mobilization tool that contributes to issues pertinent to governance and political participation, with a focus on women. Its intent is to build a critical mass of diverse actors and other citizens and elevate the voices of ordinary Liberian women and men, to promote inclusive public debates. The riders on the bus discuss issues of governance, and accountability.
What are some of the challenges you have faced here?
One of the challenges has been harmful social cultural norms that affect sexual and gender-based violence which is epidemic here. The Mission has tracked it and initiated programs for prevention and response and collaborated with the Ministry of Gender. But now the Ministry is aware that the Mission is leaving. The challenge is to keep them committed. One of the gaps and the challenges is the referral pathway of SGBV. The Ministry committed itself to a coordination mechanism and also to one-stop centres for responding to SGBV. Some of these are only nascent.
They seem to be stuck in a stage that was immediately after the conflict. Once a major donor or player who had demanded responsibility pulls out or relaxes, the Government doesn’t really step up. So SGBV seems an unending issue, one step forward and two steps back. At this point, the one-stop centres should be fully functional; the referral pathways should be working, and we should have an inventory of care and support.
At this point, if a woman needs psychosocial treatment, she should know where to go at the snap of a finger, but this is not working very well.
There is a UN and Government joint programme on SGBV/HTP, but funding has been scarce. Only Sweden has fully committed funds—of at least US$1 million per year for five years. We are concerned that SGBV will still be a major issue once the Mission leaves. Also, the Mission patrols were a measure of confidence-building which will now have to be done by the community, which becomes difficult.
There is a need for more than lip service here on gender, and most of the organizations do not have real gender capacity. Some just pick any person—usually a woman--and make her responsible for gender, whether she has the skills or not. The Government has what they call county gender coordinators who have not really trained as gender specialists, so there is a gap in expertise. This could affect the gains that have been made because the level of expertise might go down once the Mission ends. It will be important for them to find skilled gender people. UN Women could fill the gap, but their presence in Liberia is very small.
What do you think the Mission could have done differently to make a greater impact in this area?
From the onset, and through the lifecycle of the Mission, gender needed to be part of the culture.
From the onset, and through the lifecycle of the Mission, gender needed to be part of the culture. The Mission has had two female Heads, but the UN as an organization needs to move beyond tokenism. To have one woman is not addressing the issue. It is not adequate. They used the excuse that women are not experienced enough.
UN as an organization needs to move beyond tokenism.
But you would be surprised how many inexperienced men are given a chance to learn on the job. The Mission could also have done more to support the peace consolidation section of Civil Affairs to build the capacity of civil society, because in Liberian, the same people seem to be recycling through the civil society organizations. Why are there no younger people in the civil society organizations? There is a big gap: something is missing. So maybe efforts should have been made to support the build-up of new and upcoming civil society organizations. And the Mission should have held the feet of the Government more to the fire with regards to gender.
Why are there no younger people in the civil society organizations?
Can you tell me what you mean by that?
When a female President was elected, then everyone seemed to be satisfied that Liberia had moved ahead in terms of gender. But this may have actually worked against the women of Liberia, because women may be told ‘Oh you are already holding a high office.’ A female executive should have been held to a very high standard to deliver on the gender mandate.
The expectation that a female President would fully serve and deliver on the gender mandate contributed to reducing the attention that should have been given to gender issues.
There is a long way to go, but also gender issues seem to be cyclic. One issue gets addressed and another crops up. Women’s empowerment is a priority, then the issue of violence against women is raised, because empowerment is seen as distorting the social order. I would say there is a long way to go in terms of addressing inequality, patriarchy, access to justice, etc.
The expectation that a female President would fully serve and deliver on the gender mandate contributed to reducing the attention that should have been given to gender issues.
With all of these challenges you’ve identified, how confident are you in the future of this country?
I am confident because there are two transitions taking place, a new Government and a more empowered Country Team. The presence of the Mission may have clouded the functions of the Country Team, which with its development mandate, will be standing on its own with more resources to support planning with the Government. The role of the Mission was advisory. Now the agencies, on the other hand, do things that are agreed upon with the Government. So maybe in that context they will find common ground as to where they want to see the county go, and what should be priorities of funding and areas of concentration. So they can then move forward with that. I am hopeful that Liberia will see a brighter light.
What message then would you send to Liberians?
To the women and men of Liberia, I would urge you to champion issues that affect women because the women are not the other: they are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your wives and above all they are human beings that deserve to be treated with dignity. Gender issues are not women’s issues: they are pertinent development issues that affect families, communities and the nation at large. A nation is only as strong as its weakest link. If women are left behind, Liberia is left behind. If your wife, your mother and your sister are empowered, then you are proud.
And for the women of Liberia, I would say, the young ones should really stand up and join the advocacy for empowerment. Do not to leave it to a generation that has done much, but is more a passing generation than a future one. So looking futuristically, I would encourage the younger persons in Liberia who are a big proportion of the population to really stand up to improve the plight of women and do what needs to be done.
And what message would you give to the internationals who will continue beyond UNMIL’s closure?
To be champions of what the United Nations stands for and that is gender equality and empowerment.
Would you have recommendations for other gender advisors in future peacekeeping operations?
They should try as much as possible to integrate the work they are doing with as many players as possible, especially within the mission. Once you gather enough support, there is a ripple effect. Because if every mission unit is interfacing with their interlocutors outside the mission with a gender lens, then the work of the gender advisors would be easier because there will be other players. As gender advisors we need allies. I would also encourage missions to find gender spokespersons, and gender intermediaries, because an advisor alone in the mission speaking on gender becomes kind of monotonous and perhaps irrelevant. Get a higher-level person to lobby and do advocacy on specific issues.
Do you see hope for the UN in making real change to the kind of equality that are promoted by UN policies?
I see hope if the UN would implement its policy guidelines for recruitment and for retention of women. There is a need for affirmative action without compromising standards. I have faith that the Organization can step beyond policy guidelines. Otherwise gender equality just seems to be a moving target, a mirage than can hardly be reached.