The security sector: an awkward space for engagement

Alongside powerful arguments against militarism, we are hearing an increasingly significant voice from within the security sector, including women in uniform, working on ways to improve the security sector’s own understanding and response to issues of women’s rights and security. Jessica Horn reports on the debates at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference.

Jessica Horn
25 May 2011

The passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 marked more than the formal entry of women’s rights into the heart of international discussions on peace and security. It has also generated an unprecedented collaboration between women’s rights activists and the security sector itself, from national Ministries of Defence and militaries and police, to international peacekeeping. It is, admittedly, often an awkward space for engagement given the rigorous critique of militarism and the embracing of non-violence among many women’s rights activists working on peace and security, and the core mandate of the security sector to manage security in collaboration with militaries and police forces and using means that include violence. It makes for simultaneously fascinating and uncomfortable terrain to walk through in developing a strategy to end sexual violence against women in conflict with the range of actors gathered at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in Montebello, Canada.

Ending sexual violence = ending militarism?

The critique of militarism among women’s rights activists rests on a number of concerns. Among these is the proliferation of what activists have termed the “military-industrial complex” – the deep-rooted financial imperatives and lucrative business that underpins military expansion, the development of new weapons, and the exponential rise in the private security sector providing everything from mercenaries to consultancy support in building national armies. Closer to home, the implication is a disproportionate allocation of budgets to support defence in light of simultaneous under-resourcing of critical arenas such as health, education and civic infrastructure. At the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference, concerns regarding national defence expenditure have been raised by participants from countries as seemingly disparate as the United States of America- a nation whose military budget accounts for almost 43% of total global expenditure on defence and Burma, a country under military rule which allocates over a third of its national budget to the military. In addition, the culture and circulation of arms extends beyond state security services and into civil society, with a significant impact on women. Sarah Masters, who coordinates the Women’s Network of the International Action Network on Small Arms, points out that the majority of arms used in civilian gun violence (including domestic and sexual violence) are held by civilians or non-state actors (including armed groups) and private military security companies. According to the Small Arms Survey, 75% of guns are in civilian possession, compared to 25% held by the state security sector, including police and armed forces.

Another concern is the broader culture of militarism centred on the idea of the use of armed violence as a legitimate force for ‘peace’ and maintaining security. “Militarism is not simply a set of institutions, but also a mindset," argues Northern Irish peace activist and Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, “we have to find alternative ways of conflict resolution so that we can find our problems by killing other people.” The goal then is not to reform militaries or make them better by encouraging them to support the end of sexual violence. As peace activist Cora Weiss puts it. "we cannot pluck rape out of war and let the war go on. It is time to abolish war".  

Ending sexual violence = working with military and police?

Alongside this powerful argumentation against militarism, we are hearing an increasingly significant voice from within the security sector, including women in uniform, working on ways to improve the security sector’s own understanding and response to issues of women’s rights and security. As I reported in an earlier blog post, women such as Swedish army advisor Charlotte Isaksson argue against the blanket framing of armed forces as agents of violence. Instead they focus on the role that armed forces can play in maintaining peace including protecting of women from physical insecurity.  

Engaging with the idea of women’s active role in armed defence requires unsettling romantic narratives that we ourselves often subconsciously support – such as the idea of the benign ‘peace loving’ woman struggling against the predatory ‘war-hungry’ man. There is a certain dissonance between the image of women as a nurturers and rebuilders of conflict-affected societies and the image of a woman in uniform- not least a woman bearing arms and using them. It is useful to remember that the history of women’s role in community defence extends beyond the timeframe of modern nation states. Even in antiquity there were legendary all-women fighting forces such as the Amazons who are credited with range of military successes, and the invention of military tools such as the battle axe. Clearly, as Cynthia Cokburn would argue, “biology determines nothing”.

For both civilian and military actors working from within the security sector the challenge of ending sexual violence and ensuring that women's and girls' security in contexts of crisis is both operational and political. Operational in the sense that it requires clearer mandates, skills and tools on the part of security forces intervening; political in the sense that it needs high-level support to drive and finance change, particularly for police and military institutions structured by a chain of command. In light of the UN Security Council resolutions, NATO, alongside countries such as Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, have all formally recognised the role that the military plays in preventing the abuse of women in conflict. In implementing this commitment, there is gradual acknowledgment of how critical it is to work with women and civil society groups directly to determine the best strategies for maintaining community safety on the ground.

One such strategy has been to deploy all-women units in conflict and emergency contexts. Rockfar Sultana Khanam, the enigmatic Commander of a 160 member Bangladeshi Female Police Unit deployed to Haiti’s UN Stabilisation Mission is a part of this historic turn in strategy. In her unit, 50 men provide support services to 110 women police officers deployed with a mandate to provide security for the general population, but also bearing the additional responsibility, sometimes at community request, to provide security for women in the IDP camps. However while supportive of the idea of all-women police and military units in crisis contexts, Commander Rockfar is also wary of the idea of making the defence of women’s security an issue for women officers alone. In her words “engendering peacekeeping does not just mean women’s participation. It does mean that all peacekeepers should be sensitised about the human rights of women”. Litha Musymi-Oganda, Director of the African Union’s Women, Gender and Development Directorate, similarly cautions against the tokenism of seeing all-women units as a quick fix to deal with issues of women’s rights in peacekeeping operations, stressing the importance of ensuring that all staff deployed in peacekeeping missions feel committed to and responsible for upholding women’s rights and ensuring women’s security.

Shades of grey

At the start of this conference, Action Aid International’s CEO Joanna Kerr urged participants to consider solutions that may not be either black or white, but rather shades of grey. The debate around the role of the security sector, and in particular the armed forces, in ending sexual violence is a case in point. As a long-time advocate against violence against women reflected in the hallway, “it is not that I am against militaries as such, it is just that we are in a world where the military has become so repressive that it has become hard to imagine a force for security that would not be oppressive”.

There are no easy answers to these conundrums and questions. However despite often significant divergence in perspectives around concepts of peace, security, and the end goal of anti-violence work, it seems that activists on all sides of the debate in Montebello are willing to muddle through and begin to imagine what might lie in the ‘grey zones’.



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