A police officer serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia is giving a voice not only to women who have suffered from sexual violence, but also to the West African country's deaf people, thanks to her sign language skills.
Doreen Malambo, the police gender adviser for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), happened to be “at the right place at the right time” at a police station when a deaf woman who had been assaulted came forward to report the crime.
It was a situation “where no police officer could understand the language to take a statement from this person,” she told the UN News Centre.
Ms. Malambo, who was trained in sign language in her native Zambia, was able to help interpret the statement of the woman, who had been accompanied to the police station by several deaf friends.
“They were so happy and they went and they broke the news to their counterparts,” she said.
The experience, the police officer added, “felt so good” because she was able to assist a marginalized group within Liberia, which was torn apart by civil war from 1989 until 2003.
It also gave her the chance to repeat the success she had in Zambia to bridge the gap between the police and the deaf community.
In some cases, Ms. Malambo said, people would commit crimes in front of deaf people because “they know that they won't go anywhere, they won't say anything,” stressing the importance of having police officers who can communicate in sign language to document criminal evidence.
Since arriving in Liberia in 2008, Ms. Malambo – who is now helping to set up a proposal to incorporate sign language skills into the training of the Liberian National Police (LNP) – has utilized her skills to sensitize students in schools for the deaf.
“They have a lot of problems just like any other person,” she said, but “sometimes they just used to keep quiet, dying with their own problems” because they could not communicate with police.
Ms. Malambo, 34, also noted that the presence of female police officers in Liberia has helped to increase the reporting of cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Previously, many believed “it was a family issue to be settled outside the police,” but due to UNMIL's efforts, the increased presence of female LNP officers and mentoring by the UN has helped more women come forward, she said.
“It is not very easy for a woman to [discuss] sexual violence issues with a male officer,” she pointed out, but they “feel free to bring out their cases” with female police officers.
She said that the percentage of women in the LNP has increased in recent years, currently standing at nearly 17 per cent.
When Liberian women see female UN police officers carrying out tasks, such as guarding Government sites, “which they feel are supposed to be performed by males, it has given a change of an image for the organization,” she noted.
“They now know that policing is not for males alone, but for everybody,” added Ms. Malambo, a mother of three, serving to encourage more women to join the LNP's ranks.
In schools where she conducts awareness-raising sessions, “when they see a female peacekeeper standing in the front talking about these policing issues, they feel very good and they want to emulate you.”
Not only have female UN police officers “set the image of police as role models,” but they have also helped to increase the reporting of cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Ms. Malambo stressed that the LNP has come a long way since its 14-year civil war, when the police force was not an organized structure.
“We're trying to ensure that these people have the trust of their own local police,” she said, adding that a “positive impact” has been made.
UNMIL, set up by the Security Council in 2003, now numbers over 11,500 uniformed personnel, including more than 1,300 police officers, and has played a major role in restoring stability and democratic government after the civil war.