An awareness-raising session about domestic violence and existing gender-based violence laws in Pakistan supported by UNOPS. Photo by: UNOPS

Mariacarmen Colitti’s first position at the United Nations was in Afghanistan. At 30 years old, she was hired to work in crime prevention and criminal justice for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Through her work in the country, Colitti saw first-hand the lack of opportunities women had to participate in bettering Afghan society.

“Women are an important part of local social structures and sustainable capacity development requires that they too be involved in change,” Colitti said.

Actively engaging with women in local projects is one of the most important lessons she learned while working in international development and for the past eight years with the U.N. Office for Project Services.

Colitti now works as a representative and senior partnerships advisor in UNOPS’ Brussels office. She began her career with the organization – an operational arm of the United Nations that works with partners to implement aid and development projects around the world – in Jordan in 2006. There, she worked as a rule of law and humans rights office, focusing primarily on Iraq and its justice system.

Then, at just 33, she moved to Senegal to become director of the UNOPS office in Dakar. With a $50 million portfolio, Colitti managed an office of 30 people with another 150 personnel around the region. Her projects ranged from Mauritania to São Tomé and included rehabilitating military barracks in Guinea-Bissau and handling the physical demarcation of the border between Cameroon and Nigeria.

Her former boss in Iraq was a professional mentor for Colitti; he demonstrated the importance of empowering others by giving them the autonomy to work. It is through these skills that she was able to manage such far-reaching projects and attract the right candidates.

UNOPS’ mission is to serve people in need. The organization works in many post-conflict areas in peacebuilding, humanitarian and development operations. Some projects have had difficulty attracting female applicants.

Plus, in some places where UNOPS works, women have not had the same access to education as men.

”The mine action unit in Afghanistan has always attracted more male applicants than females,” said Colitti, referring to one of largest and longest-running demining programs in the world, implemented by UNOPS in collaboration with the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan and the U.N. Mine Action Service. While a higher number of men than women apply for certain jobs, such as reforming prisons, building roads and schools, UNOPS has developed tools to ensure that women are involved in every step of their projects around the world.

UNOPS created an internal network of volunteers to advance gender equality throughout its offices and projects. To date, 26 volunteers are based in 23 UNOPS offices around the world. The organization is also developing its outreach to qualified female professionals to further improve gender balance in the field.

“You need to involve women at various levels of the project,” Colitti said. “Women from local communities have an intimate understanding of community social structures. Their input is crucial and helps tailor our projects. At the same time, women from outside can help bridge divides and empower local potential.”

UNOPS operates in areas listed by the United Nations as non-family duty stations. This has proven to be a barrier to attracting qualified female candidates from around the world.

”Some duty stations are not suitable for people with children,” Colitti acknowledged. “I started my career in Kabul before going to Iraq, but now I would not go to a non-family duty station, simply because I am in a different stage of my life.

“When UNOPS talks about sustainable infrastructure,” Colitti continued, “this means that women need to be involved from the beginning. Without their involvement, the project will not succeed.”

Colitti’s advice: Involve women when you create jobs and when you implement projects and programs, be it in infrastructure or anything else.

“The important thing is to bring women into the fold at every level,” Colitti said. “One of the major things I’ve learned throughout my career in development is that empowering people helps bridge differences and makes a real, lasting impact.”

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. She helped to build NationSwell, a media company and membership network. She reported on foreign affairs for World Politics Review and built the social media presence for a Middle East news site. A graduate of Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science and distinction as a Yale Journalism Scholar. Catherine has also worked for POLITICO and The Washington Post. She is an ambassador for the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.