In one of the world’s most fragile and violent settings, Lieut. Comdr. Marcia Braga, a 45-year-old Brazilian naval officer, arrived in April 2018 as the third military gender adviser for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. She ended her yearlong stint there bestowed with the UN’s annual Military Gender Advocate award and called her time in the country “the most rewarding experience she has ever had.”
For a naval officer working in the Central African Republic, a landlocked nation known as CAR, the challenges for Braga couldn’t have been more arduous. Born in Rio de Janeiro to a nonmilitary family, Braga joined the Navy in 2001 and specialized in maritime security; she is married to a police officer and has no children. When asked why she wanted to become a blue helmet, or UN peacekeeper, Braga said, “I have always wanted to make myself useful.”
In an interview at the UN in New York this summer, Braga highlighted her most important contribution to the peacekeeping mission, Minusca: to carry out the mandate of protecting civilians. She did so her own way: creating a countrywide network of UN military gender focal points to monitor and report on the status of women and girls. While describing her work as the gender adviser, Braga also shared how the UN can better put the women, peace and security agenda — requiring women’s participation in peace talks and other gender equality practices — into action. (Currently, there are only 10 Brazilian peacekeepers working for Minusca.)
Indeed, it was only in February 2019 when the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups signed the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, intended to establish a new, more inclusive government and helping to stabilize a county that has been in the grips of a vicious crisis for six years. With about 15,000 UN peacekeepers in the country, peace may be possible now.
Here is how Braga described her year in Africa, including experiencing a riot followed by a car crash in her first month. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. Where were you originally deployed in the Central African Republic in April 2018? What were your first impressions?
A. I was deployed in Bangui, the capital, where Minusca headquarters are located. My first impression was that the situation in Bangui was relatively calm. However, during my first month there, popular protests erupted, and I suffered an attack that led me to the hospital. A colleague and I were driving a UN car and some civilians started throwing stones and bricks against us. Our car eventually crashed against a tree and I got my hip injured.
I was discharged from the hospital the following day, but when I got out, the government had imposed restrictions around Bangui, which made it impossible for me to get to my home. So I had to move in with a UN civilian staff member, a Spanish colleague who worked on protection of civilians. She was very kind to have me in, and her support was paramount while I was undergoing medical treatment. I developed a tumor in my hip, a swelling due to internal bleeding. I had to go back to the hospital and have surgery. The tumor was removed, but it returned in the same place several times. The Serbian doctor [part of Minusca] who was responsible for my treatment was already saying he would have to repatriate me if I didn’t get better soon. But I really wanted to stay and was determined to get better. I was really happy when I finally showed up at Minusca’s HQ for the first time on May 22, 2018, to start working.
Q. That’s definitely not how you would expect to hit the ground running! So after you finally started working for Minusca, what were your routines and your main duties?
A. When I assumed my post, there were no established work routines; no specific directives from superiors or any information on violations against women. The only thing I was told was that I was expected to produce a one-year action plan to guide my work as the gender adviser. The lack of organizational memory was a challenge at the beginning, but it also gave me the chance to improvise and create. The most important thing was setting up a mechanism that would allow me to collect information from populations in all parts of the country. For instance, in a specific area, are there women and children at risk or in vulnerable situations? Are there reports of conflict-related sexual violence or gender-based violence or any other violations against women and children?
To get this information, we needed a network of military gender focal points selected among officers already deployed in each union and battalion in the mission. Their main role would be to understand the life of men, women, boys and girls in a community and dialogue with the population, particularly with local women leaders. This way, they could get information on how the conflict affected the local population and to advise their commanders on how to address possible violations.
Q. The plan to establish a network of gender focal points nationwide seems straightforward. Did you get the support you needed to implement it?
A. By June 2018, I had my plan ready and I started by writing to the DPO [Department of Peace Operations] in New York and to the units’ and battalions’ commanders in the field [in CAR], requesting focal points. Some of them [commanders] answered but many did not. I then brought my ideas to the deputy force commander [of Minusca]. His first impression was that my plan was too ambitious. I remember that he asked me, How many years do you think you will stay here? Nonetheless, he saw the merits of my ideas and ended up supporting them. His approval and that of the force commander gave me the leverage I needed for getting support from every unit of Minusca.
The first gender focal point was finally nominated by the commander of the battalion in Bria, a city in the east that hosts the country’s largest refugee and IDP [internally displaced persons] camp, with more than 50,000 people. I decided to travel there and meet her in person. When I saw their reality, I realized that for my plan to work, I would have to maintain a close relationship with the focal points and colleagues in the field. As the military gender adviser in headquarters, I had a responsibility to create awareness in the field about gender issues, to bring light to the violations that Minusca was expected to prevent and suggest ways to better identify and address them. For instance, it was important that women peacekeepers could always participate in patrols in areas where there were a lot of women in the population and that those patrols didn’t stay restricted to the main roads.
With this conviction, I started traveling throughout the country to visit and train every new gender focal point and talk to colleagues in the field about Minusca’s mandate on the protection of civilians. During the visits, I always requested meetings with the local leadership and representatives of the civilian and police components [of Minusca]. The focal points attended the meetings with me. This also improved the communication within units. In many places, civilians and military did not used to talk. It was especially fruitful to exchange information with heads of offices, human rights, civil affairs, women protection advisers, child protection advisers, UNPOL [UN Police] and military observers.
Q. You must have developed a good assessment of the needs of the local populations from your visits. How was your personal contact with the people in these areas?
A. Wherever I went to a new area, I always participated in day and night patrols and talked to the people. I had numerous meetings with women leaders all over the country; in every small village I visited, every women’s group had a leader. In a community you could find different groups of women living together, such as widows or goat shepherdesses. In those groups, they often had different religions but lived together peacefully. Minusca’s civilian gender cell had already established contact with most of those leaders, and I took advantage of that structure. I would wear my UN uniform, approach them talking in French and simply say that my goal was to improve their safety. In comparison with the men in their communities, the women I met were more committed to peace, especially because they were more concerned for the well-being of their families. In many communities, the men were responsible for raising cattle, whereas women were the household’s main providers.
Q. What did you learn from your contacts with local women leaders in the Central African Republic? What were their most frequent demands?
A. Local women leaders often provided us with information concerning the activities of illegal armed groups in their area. For instance, they would report on the arrival of a new armed group or on the establishment of illegal checkpoints even before the mission was aware of it. They also shared valuable information on their own daily routines. For instance, many of them felt especially vulnerable to sexual assaults when they were walking long distances (10 to 20 kilometers) to reach their plantations every day. Sometimes, armed groups established illegal checkpoints in those areas and women had to pass through them while they were walking from home to work.
They also often asked for our assistance for basic needs, like scarce supplies of water and firewood. They asked us to provide them with French courses or to teach them professional skills that could lead to their economic empowerment.
Q. Did you deal with many cases of sexual violence in CAR?
A. Yes, sexual violence was reported more often in some communities than others. Some shepherd communities [often from the Fulani ethnic group] practiced transhumance [moving livestock around] during the dry season, because they periodically needed to lead their cattle to new areas. They often establish ties with armed groups, which demand participation in the lucrative cattle business in exchange for providing “security for the routes.” The shepherds and armed groups often crossed paths with women from local communities, and this is when most cases of sexual assaults were reported. Most of the rapes took place on roads, near shrubs and plantations, when women were on their way to plantations or to fetch water. In Kaga Bandoro, for example, we had 100 cases of sexual violence reported in two months during transhumance. Before the establishment of the gender focal points and my visits, we hadn’t had access to this kind of information in Bangui.
Another factor to consider is that sexual violence is underreported. Many communities don’t treat rape as a serious crime when it doesn’t lead to the death of the victim. Victims do not always report cases of sexual violence to the UN military and police, because it takes time and effort for people to trust in UN troops. Whenever a feeling of shame or fear of impunity was predominant, it prevented victims from reporting and getting access to psychological support or a health treatment against sexually transmitted diseases, which must happen within 72 hours of the crime. It is of paramount importance to have more female military and police officers in the patrols, which helps build trust and closer ties between the UN force and women in the communities and encourages them to report violations.
Q. Among all the communities you visited in CAR, which were particularly inspiring?
A. I had a great experience in the village of Birao, on the border with Sudan, where I saw the greatest engagement of the Minusca staff with the community. The battalion there is from Zambia, and they have the best female-engagement rate of Minusca. They have an all-female patrol — even the driver is a woman. And I was so thrilled that they welcomed me with an all-female honor guard! It is my assessment that they are a success because the battalion got really involved in various projects in the community. They participated in starting a community garden so that women don’t always have to walk long distances to get food. They also helped build a solar panel and a water pump. They had only one case of sexual violence in a one-year period. They resolve their daily disputes peacefully, and the blue helmets [peacekeepers] even get involved with working in hospitals and schools, organizing hygiene campaigns and advocating for more girls in schools. In Birao, armed groups no longer see much sense in continuing the cycle of violence, since everybody is working together for the welfare of the community.
Q. What is your legacy in the mission and to the people of CAR?
A. My greatest legacy was to create the framework for the gender advisers and to have left everything well documented. The other legacy was the women’s-engagement teams: battalions with a fair number of female blue helmets who began to engage more with the local people. Still, my feeling is that I did not finish my work there. There is not much conversation about the situation in CAR, but the people there, even if they look hopeless and are desperate, they ask for neither money nor food but only for the means to work with dignity. Without support from the international community, they will stay stuck, unable to overcome their fragility. If CAR is the least-developed country in the world, I believe that is precisely where the UN needs to be the most.
Q. What’s next for you now that you will return to Rio?
A. I want to continue to protect civilians. Today I cannot see myself doing anything else. Never before in my entire life did I feel as happy and useful as in CAR. Although my family was not there, I did not feel alone. Now I’m back in Rio de Janeiro, where I am in charge of the Naval Peace Operations Training Center for Brazilian Navy military personnel, which will be deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. When my time in the Navy is up, I want to continue working as a civilian at the UN.