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Aug 6, 2014 | Commentary

In post-conflict settings, security sector reform (SSR) has primarily been a male dominated discourse. However, in the past decade, the significance of female perspectives and their contributive role has become a cornerstone of SSR practice. Despite this recognition, scant attention is paid to the facilitating conditions that would enable implementing bodies, such as the police, to engage in sustainable gender sensitive SSR. Given that various nations and international agencies are investing heavily in Gender Sensitive Police Reform (GSPR), it is crucial to understand the basic factors that could facilitate lasting reform measures. With this, it becomes easier to acknowledge and defend balanced gender roles at all levels of society.

According to UN reports, women represent 1 in 10 police officers worldwide. However, the number rises to 1 in 4 in developed countries, while in post-conflict countries the number can reach a staggering 1 in 50. Many global aid programs seek to increase comprehensive GSPR in post-conflict and transitional states by not only increasing the number of female officers and gender trainings, but also including gender perspectives into the operating mandates. The desired end result is a national police force that is representative and responsive to the needs of the citizens they protect.

Progress has been made on this front. We see examples of this in Timor-Leste and Kosovo (see here and here), where women in the police are clearly making their mark as enforcers of citizen protection and justice. In contrast, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to be plagued by integration failure, despite the injection of millions in foreign aid and SSR interventions to do so. This begs the question – what are some of the necessary conditions that need to be in place in order to achieve gender sensitive SSR and GSPR?

One seemingly obvious criterion would a political system where women, and indeed all groups, are equally represented. The push for increased women’s representation is applicable on a global scale, and the emphasis is particularly strong in countries emerging from conflict. The foundation of women’s representation stems from the idea that the greater the societal representation in the political administration, the more likely beneficial policies for the represented groups will be formulated, supporting the continual push for gender parity across government sectors. However, when looking at implementing gender sensitive policies, especially those surrounding such highly sensitive and widespread issues such as gender security, it is crucial to see what conditions exist in a society that would either be supportive or harmful to the engagement of such practices.

To date, no global study exists that explicitly examines the potential correlation between female representation in the national government and the levels of gender sensitive police reform. But limited data does exist that can help illustrate this connection. According to the World Bank, Timor-Leste, Lesotho, Burundi, and Nicaragua all show a history of women being elected to parliament – with numbers ranging from 18.5 percent to over 30 percent.  These countries have also engaged in comprehensive GSPR, as measured by the presence of high-ranking female police officers, specialized gender response units, and a percentage of female officers on par with the global average.[1]

In contrast, strong examples of GSPR are lacking in countries exhibiting low levels of female representation (e.g., Bangladesh, Haiti, and Nepal), despite many implementation efforts. This is not to say that GSPR does not exist in countries with low representation; rather that high presence of women at the political level can be seen as an indicator of a county’s will and ability to embark on these types of reforms.

Women’s inclusion in the political arena can be, and arguably should be, viewed as an indication of the political and social will and the litmus test for how likely engendered SSR policies will take hold. If women in authoritative positions are not seen at a national level, how will they be respected as local enforcers of law and order?  It is easy to include gender sensitive policies; however their sustainability, actual implementation, and levels of comprehensiveness are very often dependant on the level of social and political will. One way to see if these policies will take root is to see if such engagement is also mirrored at the political level.

Research suggests that women in government lead to more gender awareness, more legal options and legislation benefiting women, and a shift in the way women are viewed as national actors. As women make greater gains in politics, their needs and issues get a place at the political table. Thus, when the UN, EUROPOL, and other international organizations develop GSPR policies as part of international aid packages, one of the first things that should be considered is the level of representation at the political level and how long that has been in place. In countries where gender inclusiveness has met with some success at the political level, it seems more likely that the political agenda will be favorable to women’s security issues and that comprehensive GSPR practices will be ingrained within the police operation mandates.

Representation alone will not have a strong impact on GSPR. But, coupled with other initiatives, it will help drive the progress in engendered security. Examples of such programs include gender sensitive national action plans (many of which now exist as a component of UN Security Council Resolution 1325), increased targeted recruitment measures, and comprehensive training programs for officers to enhance their awareness of gender based crimes, thus counteracting the culture of ignorance.

While political representation levels will ebb and flow, they should still be taken into consideration. A thorough understanding of the role women play and have the potential to play, coupled with the knowledge of the sustainable and context specific GSPR implementation, has the potential to translate into strong and effective SSR policy. And as a result, a stronger SSR sector that operates with citizen interest at the forefront will emerge.


Heather Murphy holds an M.Sc from Uppsala University and has spent over 10 years leading international development initiatives.


[1] Except Burundi which has a low percentage of female officers but instituted a quota and currently engages in active recruitment targeting women. Numbers are taken from various UN and World Bank reports.