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Dec 10, 2015 | SSR Initiative

This article is contribution #13 in our Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Gordon, E., Welch, A.C. & Roos, E.. (2015). “Security Sector Reform and the Paradoxical Tension between Local Ownership and Gender Equality”. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 4(1), Art. 53. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.gj

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is an increasingly significant feature of peacebuilding efforts recognizing the importance of effective and accountable security sector institutions to sustainable peace, as well as regional stability and international security. It is broadly agreed that local ownership is one of the core principles of successful SSR projects. SSR programmes that are not locally owned tend to result in security and justice sector institutions that are not accountable or responsive to the needs of the people and, therefore, lack public trust and support. They are less likely to resonate with cultural values and are, therefore, likely to be rejected by the local population, which undermines the extent to which SSR and broader peacebuilding efforts can be successful.

Similarly, it is increasingly recognized that mainstreaming gender issues and promoting gender equality in SSR programming is essential to its success and is a key factor in developing meaningful local ownership. There are normative and utilitarian reasons why SSR should be gender-sensitive as well as obligations to adhere to international instruments (UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions making up the Women, Peace and Security Agenda as well as a broader legal framework encompassing the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Violence against Women).

However, while the principles of local ownership and gender equality are intertwined, there can be a tension where local actors may not share the Western liberal norms and values underpinning democratic governance, human rights and gender equality.  In these instances, a vital question centers on whether external actors should refrain from imposing their own culturally-specific values regarding gender equality, that would undermine the principle of local ownership? Or, rather, should efforts be taken to ensure that local ownership is inclusive and not limited to members of male-dominated, state-level security and political structures and other elites, thereby avoiding further disempowering women and other marginalized groups?

Examining examples of SSR in South Sudan and other conflict-affected environments to analyze the tension or conflict that can exist between local ownership and gender equality, we discuss what happens when gender discrimination and patriarchal values characterize the local environment and ‘locals’ do not value gender equality.

We found that the principle of local ownership is often used in defence of a reluctance to promote the engagement of women in SSR programmes and mainstream gender throughout SSR processes. When it is perceived or presented that gender discrimination and patriarchal values characterize the local environment and ‘locals’ do not value gender equality, it has been argued by practitioners that to promote gender equality and mainstreaming would undermine the principle of local ownership. This, in turn, would undermine the prospects of successful SSR and, with it, effective peacebuilding. Hence, the apparent tension between local ownership and gender equality. Such a position uncritically accepts the status quo and assumes that dominant norms and values in patriarchal societies are shared by all members of that society.

Research also showed that both local ownership and gender mainstreaming are narrowly interpreted in practice: local ownership is often reduced to consultation with state-level members of the security and political elite; while gender mainstreaming in SSR is typically reduced to recruitment of women in security and justice sector institutions. This serves to deny the consideration of the gender implications of all decisions made throughout the SSR process or the institutional changes required to enable women to be effective in the security sector.

Rather than a tension existing between the two principles we argue that, in fact, local ownership without gender equality is meaningless. In essence, the question that needs to be asked is: what do we mean by ‘locals’? Locals are not a homogeneous whole and, although SSR may be achieved more quickly by simply identifying state-level leaders as local counterparts, the results may perpetuate structural inequalities, power divisions and conflict dynamics, and, thus, undermine the value of SSR and, moreover, undermine the peacebuilding process. Local ownership needs to be inclusive if institutions are to be genuinely responsive to the needs of the people, rather than the elite or dominant members of society. It is important that a broad cross-section of society are meaningfully engaged in SSR programming from the outset, particularly those who tend to be marginalized, in order that their specific security and justice concerns are able to find expression and their needs addressed. In particular, SSR programmes need to ensure that women actively engage with these projects and to make sure that their specific security and justice needs inform decisions about future security structures. Indeed, unless the specific security needs and concerns of the marginalized are addressed in SSR programmes, post-conflict security and justice will be illusory.

An SSR programme that merely resonates with the dominant values of a society risks resulting in a security sector that merely attends to the security needs of dominant groups and protects their interests. If security sector institutions are not representative of and responsive to the needs of the wider public they will not be effective, nor will they enjoy broad public trust and confidence. Consequently, the potential success of SSR and sustainable peace will be undermined. It is particularly important that those who have the least access to security and justice should be able to be actively engaged in the development and implementation of any SSR programme and have their security and justice needs addressed. It is argued that it is precisely those societies where promoting gender equality and mainstreaming may be considered to be unrealistic where its promotion is most needed. Thus it is ironic that gender-sensitive SSR should be less likely to be promoted in places where women are marginalized, discriminated against and violated.

The question must be asked why disregarding one principle (gender equality and mainstreaming) is justified on the basis of another (local ownership), particularly when they are so integrally related. It should also be asked why the principle of gender equality and mainstreaming is often ignored (despite policy and legal obligations) on the basis of protecting the principle of local ownership.

The tension between local ownership and gender equality is deceptive, serving merely to protect the power of dominant groups, to disempower the marginalized, to disguise the power relations at play in post-conflict environments and to avoid addressing the security needs of those who are most often at risk. Moreover, failing to promote gender equality undermines the extent to which SSR programmes result in security and justice sector institutions that are representative of and responsive to the needs of all members of society.

In our article, we argue that gender-sensitive SSR is not often promoted, despite the fact it is likely to lead to a more inclusive and successful process, because of reluctance among dominant groups for power relations to be exposed and to be changed within male-dominated institutions, societies and the broader international community. It is suggested that it is this resistance to change and reluctance to relinquish power that undermines the effectiveness of SSR and broader peacebuilding processes; it is not the promotion of gender-equality and mainstreaming than can inhibit potential success. Moreover, the concept of the ‘protected’ and ‘protectors’ being ascribed to women and men in all patriarchal societies hinders the advancement of gender equality: reinforcing rather than questioning and challenging this position can undermine the security of women and compromise the security and stability of the broader society.

There are risks associated with promoting gender equality and mainstreaming, especially when ill-informed of the local context. There may be power shifts and potential destabilization as a result. Similarly, problems may arise with coordinating a wider set of actors and concerns, or there may be real fears about security risks facing women pioneers in the security sector. However, there are also security risks associated with not promoting gender equality from the outset of any SSR programme (particularly considering high levels of gender-based and sexual violence in the immediate aftermath of conflict, and reluctance to report cases of abuse or even discuss such phenomena).  While it could be argued that it may be prudent to address gender issues once mainstream society is more receptive, it is submitted that it is less likely that efforts to address such issues and promote women’s security will be successful once the structures, policies and power bases have been constructed.


Dr. Eleanor Gordon is a Lecturer in Conflict and Security Studies at the University of Leicester and Centre for Security Governance Senior Fellow with 15 years of experience in the field of conflict, security and justice.

Emmicki Roos is an expert on UNSCR 1325 and the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda and is the Executive Director for 1325 Policy Group.

Dr. Anthony Welch, a Centre for Security Governance Senior Fellow, is an expert in Security Sector Reform, with over twenty years’ experience both in the academic and practitioner fields, and is a former senior military officer.