Female Rwandan police officers empower women, children in UN protection site in South Sudan

Female Rwandan police officers during a patrol in South Sudan. Courtesy.

Wearing heavy black vests and padding, the female members of the Rwandan Formed Police Unit swelter under the hot Juba sun, as they prepare for their entry to the nearby United Nations Protection site.

The female officers belong to a unit of 160 police officers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. Fifty per cent of this unit are women.

The officers are a reassuring presence for vulnerable women who make up the majority of the internally displaced population that has sought sanctuary at the protection site.  

Mary Agok has lived in the camp for five years. Today, she is sitting on a colourful mat in the shade of a tent with other women and their children, seeking shelter from the midday heat.

She says life in the protection site is difficult but at least they are safe from the conflict. Mary is inspired by the sight of the female police officers patrolling the camp.

“We have to have female police officers. It is very good. It will help us because they are women. It is good to understand ourselves as women,” she says.

The female officers also inspire local women to reach their full potential.

“I see the presence of female police in Formed Police Units as very important and very necessary because it starts building confidence in these vulnerable women in the POC,” says the Assistant Commissioner of Police and commander of the Rwanda FPU 3, Teddy Ruyenzi.

“But also I think that, with time, it will also build confidence for women here to become female police officers in South Sudan in the future.”

On this patrol, the unit is accompanying fellow UN police officers who specialize in supporting vulnerable women and children. First stop is the home of a woman with complicated health issues who has recently given birth.

They are checking that both have the physical and emotional support they need.

“The main problem here in the protection site is women suffering from domestic violence, so we work with them to make sure they’re safe and that they can report what has happened to them,” says Beena Thaker from the UNMISS Police Gender, Child and Vulnerable People protection team.

“We also work to sensitize the men so that they understand what they’re doing is wrong.”

Next stop for the officers is the home of a woman suffering from domestic abuse. She isn’t in her tent, but officers speak to her neighbour to make sure she is okay.

“Sometimes the survivors of domestic violence commit suicide,” says Beena Thaker. “The lady we visited today tried to commit suicide, but she survived. So we give her counselling and meet with her so that she is okay and won’t try to do it again.”

The officers also visit a medical facility to check if any cases of sexual violence have been reported. They meet with new mothers, including the proud mum of two-day old Yual.

This experience reminds them how much they miss their own families back home.

“It is very hard, but we have to do it,” says FPU3 commanding officer Teddy Ruyenzi. “We have to do it because it is an issue of empowerment, progress, we have to show that, as women, we can do any task that we have been given.”

She is urging women in the protection site to take leadership roles within the camp but also to act as champions for peace.

“I am very proud and to be a commander – an FPU commander – it is another thing that shows that, when a woman is given space and an opportunity, she can handle everything, she can handle anything.”

Given their own experience with conflict in Rwanda, the female officers can empathize with the experience of the people of South Sudan after five years of civil war.

They hope that their presence will enable other women to speak out and be empowered to achieve their own dreams.