UNITED NATIONS – After finishing university, Ghanaian Cecilia Erzuah was torn between two opposing careers. The week he was supposed to start military training, his teacher offered him a teaching position.
Erzuah used to work as a teacher and thought she was good at it. He has also participated in youth cadet programs in Ghana during his studies. But I never saw the military as a viable career.
“I will join the army,” Erzuah decided. He remembers telling his teacher that he could continue teaching, even while on duty.
Somehow, it did. Years later, Erzuah will organize debates about sexual violence and gender equality as the commander of a platoon intervention in Ghana of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (Unisfa), an area of 10,000 square kilometers disputed by Sudan and South Sudan. and now operates with special administrative status.
For her service, the 33-year-old captain was honored with the 2023 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year award.
The United Nations Police Division aims to increase the number of women serving in military contingents to 15% by 2028, from 10% last year in 2016.
Ghana is the country that contributes the most female peacekeepers, but Erzuah is the first recipient of the award, reports the United Nations (UN).
Beyond the disputed area of Abyei, Sudan is experiencing a situation of internal violence that is “getting worse,” according to the former UN special envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, who submitted his resignation in September 13. .
On his last day in the role, September 28, Perthes warned that the “conflict between rival military leaders in Sudan ‘could escalate into a full-blown civil war.'”
According to Edem Worsornu, Director of Operations and Promotion of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), millions of Sudanese are at risk of starvation. Meanwhile, cases of sexual violence have reached “depressing levels.”
Captain Erzuah’s experiences working with local communities in the region are a reminder of the daily lives of people who continue to depend on aid.
When villages are attacked, “you see mothers breastfeeding (and) fathers carrying their children in one hand trying to save the little clothes they have and running for their lives,” he said. The peacekeepers helped these internally displaced people to safety.
“The most precious thing in life is our life, and then the peace that we enjoy, because how much can you take with you when you run for your life?” Erzuah asked.
In Abyei, Erzuah is responsible for maintaining contact with local leaders and organizations as a liaison between his battalion and the community.
“If you don’t involve the community as a peacemaker, you do things they shouldn’t do,” Erzuah said. “You will use your energy to the left,” he added. Local people also share basic knowledge. For example, they can help UN staff predict when and where attacks will occur, he shared.
The Unisfa member acknowledged that it is not easy to open up to members of the community.
Many women do not trust men, whom they see perpetrating crimes around them, Erzuah explained. Over time, however, Erzuah’s platoon, made up of equal parts men and women, gained the trust of the people they served.
They have a special effect on women, who feel inspired by the presence of other women in an industry that is often dominated by men.
“When a woman smiles, you can feel that she is more genuine than a man,” joked Erzuah. Many women have joined community protection committees thanks to the platoon’s outreach efforts.
“On all fronts, Captain Erzuah’s work has led the way in ensuring that the needs and concerns of women are reflected in all our peacekeeping operations,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at his award ceremony.
“The mixed patrols…increase the confidence of community members to carry out their daily activities safely,” said Deng Paul Mankuol, traditional head of a community in Abyei, Majbong.
Erzuah smiled as she recalled learning a lot about her physiology with local women during a breast cancer awareness event last year. “You realize that we are different but the same,” he said.
However, being a woman in the military is not easy. All peacekeeping forces must adapt to unfamiliar environments and remain alert at all times. Erzuah says women also have to adapt to long patrols in areas that lack infrastructure to support their unique needs, such as access to menstrual products.
In the end, Erzuah chooses her path because she is not afraid of challenges. Growing up, Erzuah wanted to achieve something that she needed to be extraordinary. Now she relishes the chance to show that women can be equally capable: “You feel you have the greatest impact when you see the admiration on people’s faces.”
When people ask her if she’s scared, Erzuah says they just want to know what drives her. He sees the questions as an opportunity to explain that he fought to get where he is today, but if he does it, so can they.
In his spare time, the captain designs almost all his clothes himself, when he is not in uniform. He may be just an “amateur fashion designer,” but he believes that if he wants to become a professional in that sector, he can do it. In fact, he is convinced that a person can succeed in any field they want.