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Peacekeeping and Gender Equality

Brigadier General Dr Coulibaly Kani Diabaté is a force of nature.  Not only is she the first female Brigadier General in the Malian army, but she is also a maxillofacial surgeon and serves as head of the National Commission to Fight Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons.During a recent visit to the Maison de la paix, she sat down with editors at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) to discuss her work and the pivotal role that women play in peacekeeping missions.

GCSP: It is such an honor to speak with you.  You are the first woman to hold the post of Brigadier General in Mali but you are also a surgeon. Both professions require such specialized and extensive training and are male dominated.  What have been the most challenging obstacles to overcome in order to get where you are in both professions?

General Diabaté:  I have been serving in the Malian army since 1974 and yes, I am also a maxillofacial surgeon. I also have served as Chief of Army Dental Center, so I can confirm that it has not been easy to attain the rank that I have now, but I have worked very hard. Much of my work has always involved the well-being of women and children.  Serving as a counselor to my country’s Defence Minister required even more medical and military training. Soon I became an expert on gender issues and as well as peacekeeping operations. I also served as Chief of the Malian-Canadian project on gender – helping to train military officers on issues concerning gender and peacekeeping operations. In that role, I also trained military officers on how to care for women and children before, during and after conflicts.  Now, I am an expert on small arms and light weapons.  The key to all advancement is hard work and constant training. 

GCSP: When it comes to the question of peacekeeping operations, gender and conflict, what is it about these topics that most people miss due to lack of understanding? 

General Diabaté: When discussing gender and peacekeeping operations, there are many things to consider and you must face many different situations on the ground. First, you face women on the ground, who have either witnessed or experienced very bad things, like rape or the abduction of children for child soldiering. These women often are quite vulnerable because they have lost husbands due to conflicts and now find themselves head of households and unprepared to care for their families financially. Second, you have to consider the women who are actually in the armed forces and working security as part of peacekeeping missions. On the ground, these women encounter many refugees – men, women, and children, but as a female peacekeeper, her role on the ground is a critical one because she is trusted by those most vulnerable. Third, women in civil society are quite important as well. Being on the ground, they can explain what’s happening and the challenges that the local communities are experiencing. 

GCSP: Are there any key issues regarding gender that are really specific to your home country or the region?  Or, are the issues and struggles regarding gender equality the universal?

You would think that all of the gender struggles are universal but in fact, sometimes there are specific challenges to specific countries. For example in some areas, I have encountered women who refuse to be labeled as victims because they believe in taking part in the justice process.

You see, you cannot develop any project without women. To me, women are the base of families.  Their involvement in the home extends to their communities, to states and finally nations.  So when you are trying to implement peacekeeping activities, peace support operations, or even development concepts, women are always a part of the building process.

So if you’re asking me what is the challenge that women face under these circumstances, it’s making sure that a woman knows what she has to know – she has to know how and where to complain, in private without retribution or fear. 

Another example that I can cite involves the fighting of small arms and light weapons.  Women on the ground play a huge role in this fight.  If you look at my country, terrorists sometimes enter the country with extreme violence from the start. However most of the time, they enter under the disguise of aiding the local population. So we have to work with the local women to better understand what happens not only in their communities but even in their individual households. They are the first line of defense again terrorists because they are the first to be made aware of someone unfamiliar to the community. 

GCSP: In being involved in gender equality issues, what advice do you pass on to both young woman and men?

To be successful at anything, young women must work very hard.  It’s not enough to be a woman. When you work hard, you earn respect from both men and women. Yes, I am a general, but I got my rank because I worked hard and those around me know that I am qualified.