India's decision to send 125 female police officers - one complete specialised unit - to assist UN peacekeeping operations in Liberia in October has been hailed by the United Nations.
It is an "unprecedented" move that sends a message not only to other post-conflict countries about the importance of having women officers, but also to police contributing nations, senior UN officials said on Friday.
"This is an unprecedented move by India to deploy these female officers in policing and we applaud it and think that it is extremely timely and extremely relevant to the policing needs in the years ahead," Police Adviser Mark Kroeker said.
"We think it's a breakthrough that India has expressed its willingness and it's also good for our Liberia mission because it brings to that police operation these officers who are trained, who are capable, who are women and who can bring the best of what the UN police is to the component there."
The 125 officers, currently undergoing the final stages of their training in India, will make up a specialised unit, known as a Formed Police Unit (FPU). The UN has had increasing success with such units over the past few years as a means of bridging the gap between regular and lightly armed police and fully armed blue helmets.
Details of what exact role the all-female FPU will play as part of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) are being worked out, said Noor Gabow, acting mission management coordinator at the UN Police Division.
However, he added that these special units have traditionally been employed as a rapid reaction force, trained in crowd control and better armed than regular police, as well as playing a strong training role for local officers.
"This Indian women's contingent is made up solely of volunteers who have decided that they'd like to be a part of peace operations and that they can play an effective, credible role which we know they can," said Gabow.
India currently contributes almost 400 police officers to UN missions worldwide, one of the top 10 police-contributing countries, but only 15 of these personnel are female officers.
The introduction of the 125 women officers in October will dramatically change this and will also send a powerful message to other contributing countries, UN officials say.
"This decision is extremely timely because as we look at our deployment of women in UN police components around the world, we still retain an unacceptably small number of three or four per cent, compared to up to 25 per cent of women officers in an acceptable police organization," said Kroeker, a former Los Angeles police officer for over 30 years.
"It enhances our access to vulnerable populations by having women in UN missions and also sends a message to the post-conflict societies where we work that women officers can have any position and play any role in a police organisation, including that of commissioner, or deputy commissioner or chief of regions or whatever."
The all-female Indian unit will join other FPUs currently serving in Liberia, where the concept was first tried out although its success there and in other operations has led to calls for increasing deployment.
UN officials also highlight that FPUs are cheaper to deploy than regular military units, noting that it costs around $5 million to set up a specialized police formation while a military battalion can cost up $30 million.
In addition, the deployment of FPUs sends a message to the populations of post-conflict countries that the UN is demilitarising, while maintaining a credible force that at the same time is helping build local police capacity.