By the Book: Changing the Narrative of Female Integration in Armed Forces
Dawnieca Palma, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs
The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) is the largest UN peacekeeping mission. Overall, MONUSCO boasts over 15, 000 military personnel from 54 nations. It comes as no surprise that the mission also has the highest percentage of female military peacekeepers.
Yet, when Colonel (Col) Langelier arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lack of females occupying senior positions struck him. Deployed on Op CROCODILE, the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) contribution to MONUSCO, Col Langelier joined eight other CAF members.
“There was a lot of effort in giving women the opportunity of participating in UN operations, but I noticed these women were not necessarily in key roles. Leaders, at least on the military side, were still all men,” he noted.
The phenomenon puzzled him. These uniformed women were just as capable as their male counterparts.
“There were some great champions of women on the mission, and the women we have are solid and make things happen. It was just a question of perception everyone had and they weren’t given the opportunity to show how good or skilled they were,” he remarked.
The experience reminded him of a friendship he formed in the early 90s, during his first few years in the CAF with Sandra Perron. Being the first female infantry officer, Perron endured sexism, harassment, and countless macroaggressions from the male soldiers in her unit. Col Langelier was one of her few supporters at the time.
He recalls this part of his career, where he witnessed and stood up to their discrimination, “Sandra was fighting for equality in sex and gender, and I was fighting about age and being too young. We formed a natural bond early on over the things we went through, her more than me,” he said.
After leaving her legacy and paving the way for women in the CAF, Perron reflected on her experiences in her memoir, Out Standing in the Field. Her message, a testament to female strength, was perfect for the other accomplished women of MONUSCO.
Within weeks of his arrival, Col Langelier wrote to Perron and offered to buy copies of her book to give to the women of MONUSCO. She sent copies with no charge. To Col Langelier’s surprise, in addition to her memoir, she included personalised messages that introduced their friendship, and a stack of cards with an inspiring poem about women making a difference and changing the world.
Touched,Col Langelier presented copies of Perron’s memoir and cards of poems to hardworking women and male champions of women. He sums up this project with one simple intention, “I wanted to encourage change. I wanted to share Sandra’s fire, how she dealt with her experience and what she took away.”
Col Langelier has even hosted a discussion group with the women and men to discuss Perron’s book as well as efforts and challenges that women may face in their militaries.
The Canadian contingent was one of the smaller contingents on the mission and had no female members. This only gave Col Langelier more fuel, more motivation to offer his support. Being deployed on Op CROCODILE meant that he and his team were not only representing the CAF, they were representing Canada. Consequently, gender equality remained a necessary value for Col Langelier to share. This was especially true for operations, where a diversity of voices enhances strength.
“We deal with conflict-torn areas, it is complex in nature. In order to analyze, make an assessment on how to act or react, having gender equality integrated into Armed Forces offers additional perspective,” he explains, “We’d be more receptive to noticing variables and why would we negate the opportunity of having that added perspective on our operations?”
To thank Perron for copies of her book and her support, Col Langelier posts pictures of memoir-recipients on a Facebook page he created called “Vive les Femmes Fortes”. The profiles range from Madame Leila Zerrougi, representative of the Secretary-General for MONUSCO, to Anna Malers, a Swedish Police Officer, to its most recent profile, Lieutenant-Navy Angie Albarracin of the Peruvian Navy. Each profile is accompanied with a biography, where the recipients have included their milestones and accomplishments as women in their respective militaries. Col Langelier hopes the Facebook page becomes a platform of inspiration, discussion and, most importantly, change.
He has given away about forty copies of Perron’s memoir since the start of his deployment on Op CROCODILE in 2018. Nearing the end, there are still a few more copies to give out, but Col Langelier finds no shortage of potential among his mission members. “These strong women not only make the mission better,” he says, “they are critical to the success we have.”
He continues to support female integration in militaries, encouraging women to make an impact, change the narrative, and share their story.
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