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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 January 2007, 11:36 GMT
Liberia gets all-female peacekeeping force
By Will Ross
BBC News, Liberia

Women Indian UN troops arriving in Liberia
The troops' presence could help reduce women's sexual exploitation

A unit of United Nations peacekeepers with a difference has arrived for work in Liberia - they are all women.

More than 100 female peacekeepers from India are there to work as an armed police unit to help stabilise Liberia which, after years of war, is trying to rebuild its own police force from scratch.

Stepping off the chartered plane in immaculate blue uniforms and berets, the 103 women were immediately on parade and probably bewildered by the media frenzy.

It is just a coincidence that the first all-female peacekeeping force is in Liberia, the first African country to elect a female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Crime is high especially in Monrovia and the war has left a degree of violence simmering just below the surface.

Terrible reputation

But having served in turbulent areas, including parts of northern India, the commander Seema Dhundiya says they are well prepared.

"These girls are experienced and have been trained. They have worked in areas of India where there was insurgency. They will do a good job and the Liberian ladies will get motivated and inspired to come forward and join the regular police."

map of Liberia

The UN mission in Liberia, which will cost around $750m this year, is helping rebuild the country's police force from scratch.

During the 14-year war, the police were involved in the fighting and were steeped in corruption. Having acquired a terrible reputation it is now hard to persuade women to consider the police as a career.

The aim is for 20% of the force to be women. But reaching 6% is currently a struggle, partly because of the police's image but also because of the low educational standards of many women.

The UN is now running a special educational programme for women wanting to join the force.

On the streets of Monrovia the arrival of the Indian women is popular. Patience Coleman has a job with an anti-poverty NGO and is not tempted to join the police but hopes the Indian women will encourage some Liberian women to consider it.

"It is important for us women to stand up and say we can do it. Women are more caring than men. They have a natural gift so you will get a more caring police force."

Sexual exploitation

Liberia has an alarming incidence of rape which goes unpunished. The deployment of more female police officers could encourage the women and young girls to report the crime.

In the past, the UN mission in Liberia has been tainted by accusations of sexual exploitation: food given to teenage refugees by UN peacekeepers in return for sex. But Joanna Foster, the gender adviser to the UN Mission says that there is less sexual exploitation when more women are employed.

Female Indian UN troops
Their experience in northern India will stand them in good stead

"It limits the sexual exploitation that our people get involved in. In the groups that have a lot more women we get very little reporting of sexual exploitation."

Joanna Foster is also keen to send a message to those training the new Liberian military.

"I understand they are not training the women for combat but with these women coming from India they are going to be a fantastic role model. So I am going to take all of them to the ministry of defence to show them you can train women in combat."

Being half-Ghanaian and half-Indian, Ms Foster has some idea of the cultural challenge facing the Indian peacekeepers.

"Being pretty is a disadvantage here. Indian women are pretty so they are going to be whistled at and all sorts of things but they will have to take it in their stride."

But don't be deceived by the looks.

I saw an enthusiastic salute by one of the Indian peacekeepers almost knock a journalist's microphone half-way to Mumbai. Stand back - these women are serious.

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