In the words of Major Cleo Bigwood: “Many of us are working tirelessly to make things better for you.”


Major Cleo Bigwood. Photo: Lt Cdr R F Abbey RN.
Major Cleo Bigwood. Photo: Lt Cdr R F Abbey RN.

Major Cleo Bigwood is the Force Gender and Child Protection Officer at the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). She participated at a UN Women training on ‘Mainstreaming gender in UN Peacekeeping to End Conflict Related Sexual Violence’, which took place in New Delhi in February 2018, funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. The course trained 41 military and police officers and humanitarian actors from ten Member States on strategic, operational and tactical approaches to end conflict-related sexual violence.


For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of working in the field of humanitarian action as a UN Peacekeeper. I joined the British Army in 2011 and today, I am doing my dream job by serving with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), protecting women and children, trying to strengthen their voice and agency.

I have always found it striking that there is so little meaningful engagement between protection officers, such as UN Peacekeepers, and members of the community in which they serve, especially with women in the community. I believe that in fragile societies there is an even greater need to build trust and strengthen communication between UN peacekeepers and members of the most vulnerable sections of the society. It is unrealistic to expect that this broad engagement can be achieved by male peacekeepers alone.

At present, only 4 per cent of UN peacekeeping troops are women. The primary challenge is to deploy more female peacekeepers with the ability and the skills to engage with community members and to develop responsive strategies.

Another key challenge is for governments to make their troops more aware about the massive limitations and risks that are prevalent in UN peacekeeping contexts. This can be achieved through thorough, systematic and repeated training on critical topics, such as prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, protection of civilians and how gender relations matter in all this. 

UN Women organized a course that I attended in New Delhi, which had three significant features.

First, it focused on the importance and integration of women’s voices, as well as their specific protection needs, into peacekeeping. It also provided knowledge and skills on critical gender issues such as conflict-related sexual violence and interaction with survivors of violence, which is particularly useful for me in my role as a Gender and Protection Advisor. The course created a space where members of the military, police and humanitarian agencies from major troop contributing countries could meet, engage with and learn from each other. The training showed us what a UN Peacekeeping mission should be like. As a result, I felt better prepared to return to MONUSCO and continue to serve my mission.

I strongly feel that governments have a critical role to play here. By supporting the United Nations, by deploying more women and financing relevant training for peacekeepers, they can achieve much more.

We may come from different cultures, but all of us at UN Peacekeeping have the same goal that we must strive for—to end crimes against humanity, advance gender equality and contribute towards lasting peace. To all the women and girls in fragile contexts, I want to say, please know that there are many of us working tirelessly to make things better for you.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of UN Women