Selvi Yurtalan, currently Chief Engineer in the UN Support Office in Somalia, served as a UN Volunteer in Somalia from 2003-2005.
Selvi Yurtalan, currently Chief Engineer in the UN Support Office in Somalia, served as a UN Volunteer in Somalia from 2003-2005.

Former UN Volunteer on advocating for gender equality in UN Peacekeeping efforts

Selvi Yurtalan is Chief Engineer with the UN Support Office in Somalia. She is also a former UN Volunteer Project Engineer with UN Peacekeeping and has served in five different UN missions over the years. In this blog, Selvi shares how she has been able to draw on her experience as a UN Volunteer in every stage of her career.

My work as UN staff member has been incredibly important in helping me develop new skills and qualities through peacekeeping missions, but the most valuable learning experiences came from my time as a UN Volunteer. This was challenging, inspiring, rewarding and demanding all at the same time and I’m sure will continue to influence my work for the rest of my life.

I served as a UN Volunteer Project Engineer in the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO, previously MONUC) from 2003 to 2005.  In this role, I worked towards the protection of civilians, humanitarian workers and human rights defenders. 

In every mission I served in, the UN Volunteers were the crown jewels of the mission. I met so many highly qualified, experienced volunteers who proved to be excellent team members. 

I’d always liked the idea of serving in peacekeeping missions. I had experience in the commercial sector, so transferring this to peacekeeping operations seemed very exciting. It was like finding a book of which I knew the characters but was yet to discover the twists and turns of the plot.

It was just by chance that I stumbled across the UN Volunteers website. The role sounded like something I could do, but of course it wasn’t without its apparent challenges. I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself to see what I can achieve, and this assignment was the perfect opportunity to test my capabilities whilst using the skills I’d built in my eight years of service in the commercial sector.

I was delighted to find out that I secured a volunteering assignment with MONUC, where I was to supervise some of the engineering field projects in Bukavu over two and a half years.

These projects had a large impact on the local community, especially when it came to recruitment to support field projects. In 2003, we recruited a high number of people who were then known as daily casual workers, but today are considered local individual contractors. The mission was constantly deploying both civilians and uniformed personnel, necessitating implementation of numerous field projects that had to be supported by local workers.

I saw that local females from the surrounding villages were very enthusiastic to be part of challenging field construction projects, and that gave me chance to prioritize selecting as many females as possible. I’ve always been an advocate for gender equality and having the authority to recruit personnel was a great opportunity for me to put this into practice.

I recruited females for traditionally male roles requiring technical skills, such as masonry, carpentry, electro-mechanic also for occupations not requiring special skills. In many countries, the female population provides such a vast resource that is left untapped. It was pleasing to see them working with such dedication out in the field, proving that it is not men alone who can do this work.

My experience, which I want to share with other women: enhance your education and skills, be brave, seize opportunities and embrace challenges. This is how you can make a difference.

We relied heavily on each other during our work and built strong bonds, learning every day and growing as people as well as within our tight-knit teams. We worked hand-in-hand for a long time, developed mutual trust and stood in for each other when things went tough, like in a deteriorating security situation or when faced with an extremely hectic work tempo, both of which are the usual conditions of the field missions. It was an unwavering, unquestioned commitment to each other and to the peacekeeping missions we were part of at the time. I carry these qualities with me in all the work I do now.

No doubt I still see myself as a UN Volunteer, the role is too special not to. That same spirit of making a difference and helping the world to be a better place is carried with me in every role I have. I learnt a lot, gained tremendous experience during those years and built resilience and self-confidence and not only in myself, but also learnt how to instil it in others.

My advice to others serving as UN Volunteers is to always keep your spirits high. You never know what’s around the corner; continue to live and work by example and you will reap the rewards. Your future is bright and you have so much potential – never stop exploring it!

Selvi Yurtalan holds a Master of Science in Structural Engineering and Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. She has also shared her professional path on the UN Careers website.

This blog was produced with the kind support of Online Volunteer Erin O’Neill.