By Lea Angela Biason and Claire Errington
Last year, Superintendent of Police Phyllis Osei from Ghana — serving with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) — was awarded the United Nations Female Police Peacekeeper of the Year Award. Her contributions enhancing the protection of women and girls, as well as her initiatives to promote women rights in the host state police, embody the spirit of the Award and embrace the values of international policing. Here is an interview conducted by the United Nations.
What sparked your interest in serving in a UN mission?
I listened with keen interest to the stories about the impact of war on women and children shared by my fellow Ghanaian peacekeepers who served in peacekeeping missions. These stories had a direct link with what I do daily as a gender officer in Ghana, so I wanted to experience it firsthand and contribute to protecting the world’s most vulnerable persons.
Can you tell us about your work in UNSOM?
I was deployed to Kismayo, Jubaland, Somalia in February 2018. One of my core functions is to provide strategic advice to the Somali Police and the local authorities on police reform, transition planning and the implementation of the Somali New Policing Model. One of my mandates is to help build the capacity of the Somali Police to promote and protect human rights and women’s empowerment. In addition, I am guided by the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which recognizes the different impact of conflict on women and men, and the fact that women have critical roles to play to contribute to peace and security. The resolution motivated me to see what could be done to improve the lives of women and children in my working environment. I am also inspired by the renowned Ghanaian scholar Kwegyir Aggrey who said: “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a whole nation.”
What skills and insight acquired from your time as a peacekeeper will you take back to your police service in Ghana?
Engaging with other non-security actors (civilians) in the mission exposed me to some key realities of understanding and solving complex issues, especially on gender-based violence (GBV). As a UN Gender Focal point for Kismayo, I had to intervene in the case of a non-citizen GBV survivor who needed immediate evacuation to her country of origin, Ethiopia. This required funding, it had to be done quickly to prevent further stigmatization and reprisal from the community and it needed to be coordinated with the police and other humanitarian actors. Though I had worked on GBV in the past, my experience in the mission opened my eyes to gaps in the system. Therefore, when I go back home to Ghana I intend to advocate for a well-coordinated response structure that can swiftly take care of the many needs of survivors of GBV. These go beyond the four main areas of GBV services — namely, medical care, counselling, safety and security, and legal and justice services — and may include livelihood support and skills training to address some of the root causes.
The Adult Literacy Program is an initiative to educate the women police officers in Somalia. This program provides the officers the opportunity to improve their language skills and increase their career opportunities. What led you to establish the Adult Literacy Program for women police in Somalia?
I noticed that most Somali women police officers are in junior positions as privates or constables, with only a limited number (10 out of 60) able to read and write the Somali language and none in decision-making capacities. I felt obliged to help them overcome this challenge and to encourage them to further their education and career development for a better future.
After reaching out to my leadership and my counterparts in AMISOM, we decided to start an adult literacy training program with the support of the Jubaland Police Chief. Upon my recommendation, UNSOM and AMISOM jointly assessed the situation and found out we had three Language Assistants, including one woman who spoke English and Somali. We met with the Somali women police officers and agreed on a timetable. The classes ran from June to December 2018, with 49 police officers participating. Officers who passed an assessment test advanced to the next level, where they received assistance to improve their Somali language proficiency. This phase was facilitated in partnership with the Ministries of Gender and Education of Jubaland State.
Though the progress has been slow, a significant number of officers in the program can now identify letters and simple words in Somali. Seeing these women improve day by day was a source of joy and encouragement for me. As a long-term solution, the New Policing Model adopted by the Somali people must highlight that literacy is a basic requirement for entry into the police service, which I have encouraged to the hierarchy.
What has the impact of this project for women in Somalia?
The UNSOM Police through my initiative has incorporated the literacy programme into its Gender Action Plan to continue bridging the literacy gap and create more opportunities for future promotions for women officers, thus enabling them to be equal partners in rebuilding a sustainable peace and security for Somalia. The benefits that will accrue from such an investment in our police women are that if the officers become literate, they can teach their children at home, which will in the long term provide more job opportunities for their children, thereby reducing their vulnerability and equipping them with critical skills for the future. Further, my initiative has demonstrated that with a little funding and resources, determined officers can improve the situation of women in countries where we are deployed.
You should be proud of what you have been able to achieve. How has this experience affected you both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I feel I have been able to contribute to women’s empowerment in a new context. For example, I worked as a gender officer in Ghana for over six years, but the context and environment in Somalia is different. I am very happy that the work I did with my colleagues in AMISOM and the Jubaland State Police has been recognized by the international community. Personally, I am also proud that my work on women’s empowerment has been appreciated. My personal experience as a peacekeeper has shown me that the little things you do with a warm touch and a kind heart can make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable people we are mandated to serve.
Do you have any advice for other women police who may be interested in serving as a UN peacekeeper?
For my fellow women who may be interested in serving as UN peacekeepers, I want to assure you that there is joy in bringing smiles to the faces of women and children in post-conflict environments. Women in post-conflict environments feel safer with their fellow women, and you can make a difference. Also, there is a reward in working hard, so I encourage even those already deployed not to do peacekeeping as ‘business as usual’. Lastly, explore different ways of solving your own local problems, try new ideas and have the courage to implement them despite obvious challenges. Challenges will always be part of our work but give your ideas and vision a try and together with other actors in the mission you may be surprised by the outcome.
The authors are personnel of the United Nations Police Division within the Department of Peace Operations.