Taking the ‘Thug’ Out of Security Forces: What Women Can Do

   •    April 22, 2013


This article was originally published by United States Institute of Peace.

The daunting process of transforming police and other security forces after the fall of an authoritarian regime often is missing a key ingredient that would make the endeavor more effective – the perspectives and involvement of women, according to a panel of experts.

“A Women’s Guide to Security Sector Reform,” published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the Institute for Inclusive Security, aims to change that dynamic with advice on how women’s civil society organizations can get involved and help steer the transformation. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center of Innovation for Gender and Peacebuilding co-hosted a discussion April 10 on the issues and obstacles involved in increasing the role of women in security sector reform.

“Women, men, girls and boys have different views and different needs,” said Anja Ebnöther, assistant director of the Geneva Centre. “Not taking those differences into account when talking about security sector reform is leaving 50 percent behind.”

From establishing all-female police stations in Pakistan to cultivating local women in Afghanistan or struggling to connect women activists in Tunisia with their Ministry of the Interior, civil society groups often aren’t familiar with how a country’s security apparatus really works. Or they may be shut out by tradition from the cafes and other informal venues were the real decisions and negotiations typically occur.

But research indicates involving women’s civil society organization in reform of security institutions is more likely to result in lasting change, said Tobie Whitman, a senior adviser for policy and research at the Institute for Inclusive Security. She co-authored the guide with Megan Bastick, who works on the Geneva Centre’s gender and security projects.

In Tunisia, the primary purpose of security forces before the revolution had been to defend the regime of then-President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali rather than to serve the population. So one of the big challenges of Tunisia’s transition is reorienting the entire security apparatus, said Querine Hanlon, a senior fellow at USIP. She’s on sabbatical from her post as dean of academic affairs at the College of International Security Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University.

In the explosion of civic groups since the toppling of Ben Ali two years ago, women are extremely active, including leading many of the groups. And they’re talking articulately about “hard security” issues, Hanlon told the USIP audience.

But women civic leaders still aren’t connected with the Ministry of the Interior in a way that produces change in security institutions, which remain largely unchanged, she said.

Among the obstacles are traditional – and often well-founded – suspicions of security forces, and the difficulty of gaining entry to traditionally male bastions. Tunisian women in one international forum talked of the common phenomenon of decisions and negotiations occurring in coffee houses, “places where women, literally, cannot go,” Bastick said.

In Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, Rangina Hamidi recalls female Canadian soldiers seeking out ordinary Afghan women for advice and perspectives on the local conditions. The Canadians said they were told by the male local officials that it would be culturally unacceptable and unsafe and generally unfeasible, said Hamidi, who lives in Sterling, Virginia, but returns regularly to Afghanistan for a project to generate income for women. She also operates her own business, Kandahar Treasure.

To ensure Afghan women have input into development plans emanating from the Canadian-run base, Hamidi organized transportation to bring local women to the international coalition’s provincial reconstruction team for 12 focus group sessions. The Canadians came to view the women as a critical source of perspective on local issues from education to corruption, Hamidi said.

“In many contexts, we’ve seen that women have insights into the drivers of insecurity and know things about why groups aren’t reconciling, why groups are taking up arms, where there’s corruption,” Bastick said. Women also sometimes have a broader understanding of security, including factors such as the risks of unemployment or the needs of education, she said.

“Women know what the whole community needs and they speak with a different type of voice,” Bastick said.

Robert Perito, director of USIP’s Security Sector Governance Center of Innovation, said it’s “extremely important” to have women in the security forces as well. But even after more than a decade of working at it, the proportion of women police personnel even in U.N. peacekeeping missions was 8.7 percent as of 2010, according to the U.N., a figure that Perito said in a separate interview rose to 9.9 percent in 2012. Female representation among military personnel in such missions is even lower, according to the U.N. statistics.

Perito met female police officers in Pakistan a couple of months ago, some in uniform and others who work as undercover agents.

Because Pakistan remains a patriarchal society in many ways, an undercover officer especially wouldn’t have the opportunity to take on such a role without the support of a male supervisor, said Perito, who’s been involved in United Nations policing issues for more than 20 years.

“In societies where you have entrenched patriarchy and societies where men really still control things, the most meaningful” training and education for increasing the involvement of women in security reform requires programs that are also geared toward men, he said.

Equal participation of women in oversight bodies such as parliaments, the judiciary and ombudsmen’s offices also would ensure that the public’s concerns are taken into account and that abuses are prevented or at least punished, Ebernoth said.

Jacqueline O’Neill, director of the Institute for Inclusive Security, which aims to increase the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and implementation of resulting agreements, said progress is accelerating.

“We’re really starting to shift the perception away from women as exclusively victims of conflict who need protection by security forces to the notion that women are stakeholders in this reform process who have very important insights, information and contributions to make,” O’Neill said.

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