Women peacekeepers in the Middle East

March 21, 2013

From VOA Learning English, welcome back to AS IT IS. I’m Mario Ritter.

Women are half the world’s population. But they can face barriers to economic independence and security. Today we hear about a program aimed at providing low cost loans to women in India. We hear about a shocking rape in South Africa. But first, we learn about women peacekeepers in the Middle East.

Along the border of Israel and Lebanon, female peacekeeping troops are active in the United Nations force that guards the area. Avi Arditti tells us more.

“I think there is a little sprain of the knee.”

Captain Annie is examining Gomo, a working security dog that lives at a base of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

The captain is a medical specialist and one of about 30 women who live on this French base of 700 peacekeepers. They help to keep the border secure and assist the Lebanese government.

French soldiers do not use their last names. Captain Annie says she does not consider herself a ‘female’ peacekeeper, but a member of the UN force. But she says being a woman does sometimes help.

“The secret is to keep the smile and never raise the voice and a little bit of softness and communication and patience is always good.”

UNIFIL has a peacekeeping force of more than 11,000 troops in southern Lebanon. They come from 37 countries. In recent years, the United Nations has begun deploying women in greater numbers.

Major Akriti Sharma is from Jammu and Kashmir.

“As we all know, women are known for their compassion for their warmth, for their understanding. Being women in uniform it adds on to these factors obviously, and apart from this, we can have better access to the women and they feel more comfortable with us, we can act as a role model.”

Women in UNIFIL serve on both the civilian and military forces, from helping with military planning to teaching French to Lebanese school children. Male and female peacekeepers live together, work together and play sports together. Force commander Eric of the French battalion says women help to bring security to an insecure area.

“Here in South Lebanon they have a more important place than in other missions. Women have always been peacemakers, or have been able to bring some peace, some calm, some serenity, and in this mission that’s an important quality.”

In southern Lebanon, many people hold conservative ideas about the roles of the sexes. But, UNIFIL’s female peacekeepers say they get along well with the local community --men and women alike. I’m Avi Arditti.

India has struggled with microfinance, small business loans aimed at fighting poverty. In 2010, a number of borrowers took their own life in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The suicides led to protests against microlenders and the government. Now, Faith Lapidus tells about a microfinance program that has had good results for Indian women.

It all started eight years ago, with a 1,000 dollar loan to buy buffaloes. Shahnaz Begum of Haryana state had never been employed. But with buffaloes, she suddenly had a source of earnings. It gave her a way to educate her children and a sense of power.

“I have confidence now that, being a woman, I can do something.”

In India, only 26 percent of women are employed. Villages in the area where Shahnaz Begum lives most women do not start businesses. In fact, they rarely leave their homes.

T.K. Matthew established Deepalaya in 1971.

At first the aim was to help educated children in extremely poor neighborhoods of New Delhi. He says years of work made him realize that the community’s economic health is strongly tied to women.

“We said, all right, if you empower the mother, the children will be safe. So from that point of view, we started interacting with the mothers and we realize they are a great strength. They have faculties, but this is not being utilized.”

Deepalaya means “House of Light.” It only provides loans to groups of women who must first combine their savings to add to the loan. Mr. Matthew says Deepalaya’s borrowers are charged lower interest rates and given 20 months to repay the loan. He says, so far, there have been no payment failures among the nine-hundred borrowing groups in three states.

In 10 years, 13,000 women have started 7,000 businesses. The payments add to a $2 million dollar fund that provides new loans.

One woman was able to provide her husband with continuous employment after buying a horse-pulled vehicle with a microfinance loan. She now sees a difference in the way she is treated at home.

“He used to fight with me, now he respects me. Now he talks nicely to me and keeps me happy.”

The Indian women say they also see a different future for their daughters. It involves education and employment.

A recent group rape and killing of a 17-year-old girl in South Africa has shocked that nation. Comparisons are being made to this deadly sexual attack and one of a girl in New Delhi, India.  A South African official says he hopes South Africa will take action against this kind of violence as India has. Steve Ember has more.

Anene Booysen was discovered at a building project in the Western Cape Saturday. A doctor reported she had been raped and cut from the stomach down. He said it appeared the attackers had pulled out some organs with their hands.

The girl’s injuries were so severe that hospital workers sought mental health counseling after treating her.

Ms. Booysen died at the hospital a few days after the February attack. Before she died, the girl told police one of her attackers was her 22-year-old former-boyfriend. Three others have been arrested.

A study released in 2010 found that more than 25% of South African men have admitted to rape. One in seven men admitted to taking part in a group rape.

Geer rights activist Dumisani Rebombo is one of those men. Today, he leads the “One Man Can” project. The group educates people in rural areas about rape. Mr. Rebombo says the lack of equality between women and men is a big reason for the high number of rapes.

President Jacob Zuma has called for severe punishment for the attackers. Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said he hopes for effective changes.

“Maybe, in a perverse way, this is something that will trigger a reaction where the entire community, with society as a whole, government, police, the courts and the communities working together, will act in concert to stamp out this scourge in our society.

For “As It Is,” I’m Steve Ember.

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