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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 09:45 GMT 10:45 UK
All female UN squad a success
By Shabnam Grewal
Producer, This World: UN Girl Squad

Indian female peacekeeping force
The UN mission in Liberia has cost around $750m (325m) this year
The world's first all-female unit of United Nations peacekeepers has been deemed a success, and has had its mission extended for another six months.

A 105-strong paramilitary police unit of women from India has been based in Liberia since January, working to help keep the peace in a country which is still recovering from 14 years of civil war.

Initially deployed for six months as a trial by the UN, no-one knew if they would be up to the job.

But a UN spokesman said they were impressed by the unit: "They are very committed, disciplined and well trained."

Instead of returning to India in June, the women will now remain in Liberia until the end of the year.

Missing home

Commander Seema Dhundia, the women's leader, says the unit knew that they were good at their jobs, but were surprised when their mission was extended.

"Initially we were not mentally prepared to stay, but now it's settled and we are happy to do what our orders say to the best of our ability."

But it is still hard being thousands of miles away from their families.

Many of the women have left behind children, some as young four years old.

Seema, who has a ten-year-old daughter, Stuti, and a 15-year-old son, Ripu, uses a laptop to keep in touch with her children.

"I'm missing my kids. Stuti is a very emotional kid of girl. She speaks from her heart, whatever she feels she says it. So is my son but he is a bit shy. I do miss them and get emotional, but it's not good for police to get emotional is it?"

The women had been expecting to return home this month, but instead have 21 days leave to visit their families before they return to Liberia for another six months.

Seema said initially her family did not react well to the news. Her husband is also a soldier and has been looking after the children.

"They didn't feel very good about it but now they have got used to it."

Fragile peace

The women are part of India's Central Reserve Police Force, and were hand picked from across the country for this mission.

They are experts in crowd control and veterans of many conflicts in India, including Kashmir and fighting in the north-east of India.

For most of the women, the peacekeeping mission took them outside of their "motherland" for the first time.

Indian female peacekeeping force
The 105-strong paramilitary police unit patrols the streets of Monrovia
For the last six months, the unit has patrolled the capital, Monrovia, 24 hours a day. They have kept guard at public buildings such as the foreign ministry and protected the unarmed, recently-trained Liberian National Police officers as they gained "on the job" experience.

According to the Indian women, there is little interaction between themselves and the Liberians. Part of the reason is a difference in culture, part a deliberate strategy.

"They try hard to be friends with us, but we don't want to. We just do what the job requires, that's all," one of the peacekeepers said.

When out of uniform the women keep to themselves. Except for going to church or the temple, they are not allowed off the base.

Tanushree, one of the peacekeepers, says they do not mind.

UN peacekeeper holding a gun
The Indian paramilitaries specialise in crowd and riot control
"For us, the way we live together is like a family, it's a very good relationship. It's like a family where there are mother, father, sister, brother. It is just not possible that at some point I would be bored with them, absolutely not."

But Tanushree likes being out on patrol.

"We really like it here, because everything is a lot like India, the trees and plants and the food even, we can get Indian fruits," said another peacekeeper.

Sexual exploitation

The UN is experimenting with all female units because female soldiers are seen as less threatening and more approachable in post-conflict situations, where populations are recovering from years of violence and fear.

In Liberia this is of particular importance because the country has experienced an epidemic of sexual violence against women.

Lucia Williams, a midwife who works at a free medical centre with Medecines Sans Frontiers in Monrovia, says rape is on the increase and "has become a sport."

As part of the ongoing campaign to end sexual violence, it is hoped the visible presence of female soldiers will empower local Liberian women and encourage them to join the police force.

The Indian women have also given talks to Liberia's female police cadets. Poonam Gupta, the contingent's second-in-command, says it seems to make a difference.

"There has been a significant boost in the police, so I think this could be one of the defining moments for the ladies. Once they try their hands at things and are successful, they will become role models for the other women."

Not afraid

But the Indian women are not just good at the softer, more people orientated work; they have also been on drugs raids and supported law enforcement officers responding to crimes.

"Men can have more distractions, liquor, women, all sorts of things. But women, I find them more disciplined, more task-oriented and more dedicated," said Poonam, who has commanded both men and women.

So far the women have mostly worked in Monrovia but the UN could send them anywhere in the country, including the east and the borders with Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire.

There things are much more volatile than Monrovia, but these well-trained, fully-armed women are unafraid.

"Casualties can happen any time. If something has to happen it has to happen. I could have got killed say, two years back. I'm alive today because God wants me to be alive" said Poonam, a practising Hindu. "We are ready to die, we are soldiers."

This World: "UN Girl Squad" will be broadcast on Thursday 21 June 2007 at 1900 BST on BBC Two.



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