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‘I felt I made an impact’: Major Suman Gawani

Poorvi Gupta | Updated on August 27, 2020 Published on August 27, 2020

Charging forth: Major Gawani’s work as a military observer helped the government of South Sudan combat conflict-related sexual violence   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MAJOR SUMAN GAWANI

Meet Major Suman Gawani — the first Indian peacekeeper to receive the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award

* After Major Gawani’s peacekeeping interventions, the government of South Sudan drafted an action plan to combat conflict-related sexual violence

In May this year, Major Suman Gawani was one among 17,000 peacekeepers in South Sudan to be awarded the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award 2019. The award, which she shared with Brazilian navy officer Commander Carla Monteiro de Castro Araujo, was conferred in an online ceremony because of Covid-19. The award highlights “how women peacekeepers are vital to peace and security everywhere,” the UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted.

Currently posted to New Delhi, 33-year old Major Gawani talks to BLink about her work in South Sudan in 2018-19 and how she sought to make a dent in a society pitted against its women.

Edited excerpts:

When was the first time you decided that you would join the forces?

I grew up in Uttarkashi, where I did my schooling and college, as my father, who was in the fire brigade, was posted there. The Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP) man the area. Watching those men in khaki and my father in uniform, the charm for a uniform developed in me too. When I was in Std XII, most of the boys in my class were applying for the National Defence Academy (NDA). Excitedly, I also got an NDA application form but I came to know that girls were not allowed to enter the Army through NDA. So after I got a bachelor’s degree in science, I applied for the Combined Defence Services (CDS).

I cleared that exam four times but the interview used to be really tough and I only succeeded in my fourth attempt in 2010. That’s when I joined the Officers Training Academy in Chennai.

Tell us about your work as a peacekeeper in South Sudan

Peacekeepers are largely divided into two categories — staff officers and military observers. I served as a military observer so I was responsible for collecting information through patrolling the villages and towns. We had to meet the locals, understand their issues and investigate cases that happen on the ground. The military observers are the eyes and ears of the peace mission.

There are over 82 indigenous tribes in South Sudan and the conflict persists because of the hunger for power. Another main reason for the conflict is cattle raiding, as cattle is a major source of livelihood there. Different tribes loot cattle from one another, which results in revenge-taking crimes.

Such revenge mostly leads to gender-based violence as women and children become the soft target (in conflicts). They do have a Central government but since it couldn’t control the conflict, it reached out to the United Nation and that’s how the peacekeeping mission began in South Sudan.

What does the UN Military Gender Advocate award mean to you ?

The award is a huge responsibility because as a gender advocate, this award is given yearly to only one officer across all the UN peacekeeping missions active in that year. In 2019, when I was a peacekeeper, there were 12 active missions and the UN asks every mission to nominate one person who has worked towards a gender cause during their time as a peacekeeper. Every mission has thousands of peacekeepers. My mission had over 17,000 peacekeepers out of whom I was nominated for the award, so I really feel proud about that.

The cause for which I have received this award is very dear to me. As part of my work around gender advocacy, we would hold several seminars and workshops for soldiers and government officials of South Sudan around conflict-related sexual violence and how they could eradicate the issue of crimes against women and help survivors overcome trauma. One of those seminars was held with women soldiers and entailed educating them about their rights as soldiers and how to tackle sexual exploitation.

After our interventions, the government of South Sudan drafted an action plan to combat conflict-related sexual violence. This included mandatory protocols such as the inclusion of women soldiers to interrogate survivors while investigating cases of sexual abuse, and so on.

Tell us about your interactions with the locals

Initially, it was difficult to interact with the people because of the language barrier. That’s why I took a six-month online course to learn Arabic. We had an interpreter with us but I wanted to establish warmth with the locals. After learning Arabic, I could greet them in their language and then the conversations became much more open.

Once I was talking to an old lady and I happened to ask her how many children she had. She had six kids and the family didn’t have enough money for their education. She said in her society, if she didn’t produce more children, she would be of no use to her family. And if she didn’t reproduce, then her husband would marry someone else. This conversation makes me feel despair even today when I think about it.

There was this other time when I was patrolling a village. We had to stop at checkposts to identify ourselves. During one such halt, a South Sudanese soldier greeted me and was very excited about the meeting as we had earlier interacted a couple of times. He said he wanted his wife and daughter to meet me too and ran towards his hut to call them out. He told me that he wanted his two-year-old daughter to become an army officer like me. I felt like I’d made an impact on someone.

Poorvi Gupta is an independent journalist based in New Delhi

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Published on August 27, 2020
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