From Norway to South Sudan, UN Police Commissioner, Christine Fossen, speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj for International Women’s Day about her experience in policing as part of a series exploring women in international affairs.
Christine Fossen, you began your career in 1990 in Norway as a prosecutor for the police in Moss, before becoming deputy police commissioner in 1995 in Vadsø. In 1998, you became the youngest police commissioner in the country. What was it like for you as a woman working your way up through the police force at the time and how far do you think this has changed for women today?
When I started in the police force in Moss, they told me that my responsibility would be for all of the gender-based violence cases. When I look back on it today, these are among the most important cases, but when I started with the police force in 1990, it was given to me as the youngest one in the team because nobody thought it was important.
In fact, I had four male colleagues at the time who were dealing with cases related to drugs and murder, which were thought of as the most serious crimes at the time. But this has changed in many countries from Norway to South Sudan. We are much more focused on the damage gender-based violence cases do and that is, in part, because we’ve had women, including mothers, who have joined the police force which has pushed forward the need to work on these issues.
Police commissioner Fossen trains local communities on crime prevention in South Sudan. UN Photo/UNMISS
Nevertheless, it has taken time, and when I became deputy police commissioner in Vadsø in 1998, there were very few women in policing.
But I do think it might have been easier for me as a woman in the police compared to other sectors because you are part of a chain of command. So long as you do your job as a police officer then the chain of command has to be followed. So, in many ways, I was not challenged as much. But, of course, many of my male colleagues in the police force would say comments to me at times but, although I faced some problems, overall, it was not very challenging [for me].
Today, in Norway, women and girls are about 50 per cent of the students at the police academy so we’re becoming more equal in the percentage of women in the police force. We have almost 50 per cent of women as police commissioners in Norway too. The national director is a woman as well so it has become much more accepted.
But, of course, the challenges for several of us that remain would be when we are balancing work with our families. When I was a police commissioner from 2002 until 2013, me and my colleague, who was in a neighbouring district, both had children, and that was something that was unheard of at the time because most of the police commissioners were men. When we were in the same meetings, we would have to say: ‘I have to leave at 4 o’clock because I have to pick up my children.’ This has changed in recent times insofar as it’s much more accepted that you can have a family.
I was also the first police commissioner at the age of 41 to have a child — my third son — who had to take one year of maternity leave. They didn’t have any uniforms that were suitable for me at the time so I said to them: ‘I’m not sick. I’m just pregnant. I need a uniform that fits in order to do my job as a police commissioner.’ So they found a dress for me — sort of a big tent — which worked but small things like that nobody had thought about before.
It’s much more common today with women being in leading positions in policing than it was 20 years ago but I’ve been one of those who has been in the police for a long time in Norway, pushing, pushing and pushing the glass ceiling for other women. This has been a significant change in the police force over the years and I think this is largely a result of having more mothers — and also fathers — in the police force.
Between 2013 to 2015, you were appointed to lead an international mission by six countries, led by Norway, in the disputed city of Hebron in Palestine. What was it like for you taking the step from the domestic stage to the international stage?
In the beginning, one of the reasons why I continued to work in the police force is because I got divorced in 1996, and so, I suddenly found myself alone with two children, who had been born in 1992 and 1994 respectively, and a job that supported me and my family.
I was approached by law firms to work with them but I said no because I felt it was safe working for the government as a single mother with two children because I knew I was going to be paid every month without having to work around the clock.
Then, of course, I liked the meaningfulness of being in the police too. I met my new husband and then I found myself applying for a new job as a police commissioner in a new district. Sometimes I was so tired but, together with my husband, we managed, which helped me to become one of the few police commissioners to take responsibility for gender issues across the country.
But then, after 12 years, my time as a commissioner in the district I was serving in was over, and so, I thought about what I should do. Soon, a position came up on the West Bank, and my husband, who had worked there as a police officer previously, said: ‘I think you should apply.’ I said I couldn’t leave him alone with our youngest son, who was 10 years old at the time, but he said: ‘Yes you can.’ I then got the post as head of the mission in the West Bank.
I enjoyed my job in the West Bank because I loved the cultural aspect of working with other nationalities. Many have said to me: ‘How could you leave your children [to take up this role]?’ I then ask: ‘Would you have asked the same question if I had been a man?’ Probably not. But everybody has asked me because I am a woman.
We, as a family, made the most of it. My husband had worked there some years earlier so the local Palestinian staff remembered him and, when he and my son came down, they were so welcoming, so we had some wonderful vacations together, travelling to nearby Jordan and Israel too.
Last year, you became the second woman, after Unaisi Vuniwaqa, to be appointed UN police commissioner in South Sudan. With police officers from more than 50 countries working as part of the mission, what have you found have been the challenges, and opportunities, for you so far?
Coming here in the UN as a woman police commissioner I have not faced any challenges yet. There’s a lot of challenges but not because I’m a woman. Diversity is so developed in the thinking today both in many of the national police forces and in the UN.
It was made clear to me too when I got the job that I was selected because I was the best one for the job. Not because I was a woman or for political reasons because I was from Norway. This gave me a lot of confidence.
Christine Fossen serving as a police commissioner in South Sudan. UN Photo/UNMISS
It has been more of a challenge to come here because the place is new to me, but the job itself, in many ways, is much like being a police commissioner in Norway. I have staff in 10 different states in South Sudan. The difference in Norway is that I could drive to them all with my car which would mean reaching them in five hours at the most. Here, we’re dependent on aircraft, and I’m working with people from at least 48 nationalities. We have police officers from Kiribati, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Russia, China, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil and all over the world. There is so much diversity and that’s the beauty of working with the UN.
The UN Police supports communities and countries on their path from conflict to peace with Rwanda, Senegal, Bangladesh, Nepal and Egypt among the top five countries contributing women to the force. What is the importance of having women as peacekeepers, including as leaders, in conflict and post-conflict settings?
Women as leaders is just as important in the UN as it is in all other sectors of society. It is important to have both men and women, as well as a diversity of race and age, because it makes for the best leadership.
In peacekeeping, as it is in in the police, it’s very important to have women because they can reach out to the women and girls who are often the most vulnerable ones in a conflict and post-conflict setting.
Indeed, women are often victims of sexual abuse, including by soldiers, because many of the women are left behind when the men go to fight so women’s participation in policing is so important because we are the ones reaching out to the local community on a daily basis while training the local police force.
We’ve tried to build trust between the police and the local community which has involved talking to women to understand the issues they are dealing with. Many of these women don’t trust men for many reasons and they only want to talk to a woman so it’s important to therefore have women as police officers.
When I was in Hebron, we reached out to Palestinian women, since many of them were not allowed to talk to men, so that was important. If you have a conservative Muslim society, you have to reach out to the women by using women peacekeepers, which is partly the situation here in South Sudan too.
Of course, many men are also great at reaching out to the local community too, but as women peacekeepers, you have the advantage of seeing the problems that women face in a different way. For example, seeing the need to get sanitary pads for women and girls. It is our women peacekeepers who are the ones that take the initiative to help other women on the ground.
Police commissioner Fossen honors a peacekeeper from Liberia in South Sudan. UN Photo/UNMISS
Ultimately, the world consists of 50 per cent women so women should be equally treated to men. We have female police commissioners and male police commissioners and we have female and male peacekeepers. In fact, in Rwanda, they have women comprising 50 per cent of some of their armed units and, indeed, Rwanda is great in sending these women to work for the UN.
Gender-responsive policing has been a goal of the UN Police with the missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan helping to address the surge in conflict-related gender-based violence since the COVID-19 pandemic. With global challenges exacerbating gender disparities around the world, what is the significance for peacekeeping to be more gender-responsive?
I think it’s extremely important because it’s what I experienced when I came into the police in 1990 which is that we need to bring these issues to the table.
In a young state like South Sudan, where women are among the most vulnerable, they are facing a lot of challenges in refugee camps and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
Gender-based violence is often used in conflict so having women who understand this helps to push this issue forward. Of course both men and women can push it forward but, on a daily basis, you would have to talk to the women and girls on the ground, because we can understand the stigmatization of a woman — or even a man — who has been raped.
Police officers, all over the world, do their work by talking to the local community. This involves addressing the needs of women and girls who are often, as I mentioned, the most in need. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. It’s stated in UN Resolution 1325 which is what I see every day on the ground in South Sudan.
I’m so impressed by some of my female staff here. I have some women from Rwanda who know what Rwanda has been through and so they want to bring a change for their sisters here in South Sudan too.
There are also women from Liberia, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and many more coming from conflict and post-conflict areas. They are so proud to be peacekeepers helping one of their neighbouring countries in Africa. It touches me to see sometimes how deeply this drive is in some of them. They want to make a difference.
In 1993, women made up just one per cent of UN peacekeepers deployed around the world, while, in 2021, this increased to almost eight per cent, including 14 per cent in the police force. On the 22nd anniversary of UN Resolution 1325, which inaugurated the Women in Peace and Security agenda, what do you make of the progress of women’s participation in peace and security globally today?
We have made progress on achieving gender equality in many countries but we still have some way to go. I visited Cyprus recently as part of a bilateral project between Norway and Cyprus and it is a place where you think of going on holiday but it has a peacekeeping mission. I was so surprised when I sat down with my female colleagues from the police force and they were still struggling to move the Women in Peace and Security agenda forward.
But then, as I’ve mentioned, there are many countries across Africa that I am impressed with what they have managed to do. They see the importance of giving women the right to decide for themselves if they want to inherit money, study at university, run for parliament or choose the one they want to marry.
We still have a long way to go in many countries for all of these things but I think it’s important with UN Resolution 1325 that we have a guiding document which supports those that are pushing this agenda forward. You will never have peace if you don’t bring all parties to the table.
Women and girls represent half of the world’s population yet no country has achieved gender equality so far. It may take another 286 years to ensure women and girls have the same rights as men. In light of your almost 30 years working in policing nationally and internationally, what would you say to women and girls around the world thinking about working in policing today?
Working in the police is a wonderful place to be. Just as when I was a prosecutor, it made sense for me to go to court, because I believed in promoting justice. The same way I feel that I’m part of something meaningful at the UN promoting justice. We’re part of something that’s bigger than ourselves.
Sometimes when I walk around the UN camp, I see all of the UN cars, and I become proud. This is why I’m here. Many times, young women have said to me: ‘I’m not sure I’m able to do this.’ But I say to them: ‘Yes you can.’
I’ve learned from being here in South Sudan how important it is for girls to start by having an education so that they can follow their dreams. Coming from Norway, where everyone goes to school, we don’t even think about it as a human right, but here, I suddenly see, very clearly, the importance of making sure every child — boy and girl — has the opportunity to go to school to learn how to read and write because then they can go on to become a police officer or a doctor or a lawyer. Democracies rely on people knowing how to read and write and not only how to fight.
I never had a dream of becoming a police commissioner but I have always been challenging myself because I like challenges. I like being able to use my influence to make things move a little bit forward. I hope I can leave this mission one day with it being in a little bit better shape than when I came.
If I have been a role model for young policewomen then I would say that you can become a police commissioner without having to sacrifice your family. Of course I’ve been home less than many mothers but I have three children and now I have a grandson too. But you do have to make sure you have time for your family because that’s, at the end of the day, the most important thing you have.