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Dec 5, 2016 | Commentary


What is gender’s current place in security sector reform (SSR)? Is the inclusion of women in SSR sufficient? Is there a more nuanced approach to transformative security sector reform with regards to gender?

The above questions are a part of an emerging discourse that attempts to reconsider past practices that have fallen short SSR’s objectives. One part of the conversation directs itself towards inclusive consideration for gender in SSR, defined by scholars as gender security sector reform (GSSR). While important strides have been made in GSSR involving inclusion of females in decision-making and discourse on sexual-based violence, it remains incomplete and, at times, detrimental to both gender and sustainable SSR initiatives. This article outlines some of these issues, and introduces the sub-field of gender sensitive police reform (GSPR) as a transformative approach to radically reconsidering how gender relates to SSR. The following paragraphs will explore examples of GSPR, seen in India’s and Liberia’s Female Formed Police Units (FFPUs), as well as Haiti’s National Police force. It introduces the concept of ‘gender-mainstreaming’ as a key alternative to one-dimensional quotas in ‘gender-balancing’, thus promoting a novel reconsideration of the relationship between gender and security reform.


Gender Security Sector Reform: A Victim of ‘Balancing’?

There are a number of instances in which GSSR relies upon a simplified understanding of ‘gender’ in security reform parlance. Firstly, although much headway has been made in the inclusion of female voices in security reform, traditional frameworks continue to maintain gender’s position as an after-thought to ‘main’ security questions. This à la carte consideration in SSR disallows a central placement of GSSR in both discourse and practice. Furthermore, within GSSR, the concept of ‘gender-balancing’ plays a key role in the rhetoric, which is a tool to recruit and retain women throughout all levels of SSR. An unofficial euphemism for this concept might be ‘add women and stir’, as it concentrates on female representation and quotas as the main solution to the complex gendered systems of security. Finally, most GSSR discourse simplifies the concept of ‘gender’ to ‘women’s issues’. In other words, gender sensitivity in SSR—when it is included—typically (1) only considers women in either victim or caregiving contexts and (2) ignores most of the non-traditional, multi-dimensional voices of gender, such as excluded masculinities and unconventional femininities.

In recent times, gender equality has certainly gained ground in SSR, with initiatives such as UNSR 1325. Yet, as important as it is to ensure that females’ perspectives are better represented, the aforementioned overreliance on gender-balancing and one-dimensional conceptualizations of gender can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes. Gender sensitivity provides untapped insight into post-conflict orders, but it continues to be considered as a secondary issue to ‘main’ security issues. Furthermore, one cannot simply expect the presence of females to ameliorate highly complex gendered security systems on its own. This single-dimensional approach creates situations in which women who are inserted into current security systems typically face varied obstacles that their male counterparts do not. Finally, GSSR tends to overlook the fact that ‘female’ is just one aspect within the concept of gender. An over-simplification of ‘women dealing with women’s issues’ not only limits the scope of GSSR, it also relegates women to victim-roles and perpetuates harmful gender hierarchies of female passivity. These shortcomings demonstrate some of the ways in which GSSR can reinforce, rather than transform particular gendered relations. Recently, however, gender sensitive police reform (GSPR) has emerged from within SSR, attempting to more thoroughly engage gender sensitive discourse with a highly gendered sector: the police.


Gender Sensitive Police Reform: From ‘Balancing’ to ‘Mainstreaming’

GSPR has been cultivated within an awareness that most GSSR still remains marred in limited traditional conceptualizations of gender. Situated in police reform, it is premised on the notion of gender as a central and crucial part of SSR processes. Furthermore, the singular operational definition of gender that has been traditionally relied upon is expanded into ideas such as ‘gender-mainstreaming’, which works to include the ways in which both males and females are affected by and can affect gendered social structures. Gender-mainstreaming explores overarching dynamics of gender and reconsiders security systems in light of the varied experiences of both men and women. This concept asserts that gender-balancing is not sufficient, and advocates changes to internal structures of police institutions. Lastly, ‘gender’ in GSPR is not synonymously reduced to ‘women’s issues’; instead, it works to incorporate non-traditional voices to include the ways in which both males and females are affected by and can affect gendered social structures. These elements of GSPR are further explored below, within current practices and initiatives in India, Liberia and Haiti.

Beyond the gendered expectations of women in soft peacebuilding roles, GSPR moves gender into conversation with a traditionally masculinized sector, the police. For example, quotas are being set by police forces in post-conflict areas such as Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Liberia to employ forces that contain at least 30% females, while simultaneously including “efforts not just to recruit and train more women officers, but to ensure they are not isolated in the lower ranks”, according to UNIFEM. Gender-balancing is taken as an important initiative within GSPR, albeit as one part of a larger need to mainstream gender issues. The engagement with gender moves from ‘add women and stir’ to more profound listening and thus taking into account gendered perspectives in strategic police reform planning. This means that not only are police forces incorporating women into what was ‘men’s work’, but they are simultaneously consideration long-term consequences of such policies on those women. Support networks for female personnel are thus created, leading to sustainable inclusion and encouragement for further recruitment. It broadens the opportunities for female officers, and provides a broader understanding of gender-sensitive reform for forces in general.

With an attention to how female officers are represented, GSPR deviates from GSSR’s structure through an innate understanding that gender-mainstreaming requires substantively inclusive discourse at all stages. Gender-mainstreaming considers innate gendered stereotypes that would affect how females in security roles might be received by local populations, and acts accordingly to mitigate negative outcomes. When the UN launched a campaign in Liberia using Female Formed Police Units (FFPUs) from India,¹


United Nations officials were careful not to describe the female police officers as somehow ‘different’ from other women, but as exemplifying what women can do… [T]he discourse avoided setting up the FFPU as the ‘different women’ involved in security and instead offered a construction that embraced collaboration and input from local women.


This combines gender-sensitivity with community engagement, both of which are crucial for robust SSR.

Furthermore, the roles of such all-female police units are not being limited to ‘soft’ tasks or ‘women issues’ of policing. Liberia’s own FFPUs “tend to have a more macho culture and their main duties are crowd control, not regular community policing”. This movement breaks free of standard feminized conceptualizations of police, and allows security systems to be reimagined. Such reconsideration of perceptions and expectations creates a system in which the women in these units are not perceived as isolated or inferior to their male counterparts. Indeed, Liberia’s own “WACPU [Women’s and Children’s Police Unit] has acquired something of the prestige of an elite task force within the larger body of the police, in part because…these police units are better equipped than some other areas of police work“.

Gender-mainstreaming in police reform, therefore, targets stereotypes and perceptions on all levels, to fundamentally reform a system that has failed to consider and thus care for various gendered experiences in security. Another key example of this is the Haitian police under the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Senior Gender Advisor of the mission, Nadine Puechguirbal, is quoted stating:


Th[e] effort to engage more women in the Haitian National Police…is very important, not only for the way in which the police will function and be seen by the population, but also because the feminization of the national police will highlight the involvement of women in non-traditional roles as actors and agents of change in Haiti.²


Here, gender-mainstreaming is seen neither as a way to simply satisfy quotas nor as a means of allowing women to address women’s issues. Instead it is a part of a broader project to transform the standard ‘masculinized’ structures of policing into a more appropriately gender-balanced system for the entire population. Thus, rather than compartmentalizing the issues of GSPR, mainstreaming works on “treating it as a whole”. The model concerns itself with listening to the varied gendered perspectives that comes from such a holistic inclusion.


Moving Towards Transformative Approaches to SSR

Each of the above examples exhibits various elements in GSPR’s language of gender-mainstreaming in its policy initiatives, as well as the various ways it has been implemented thus far. Rather than inserting women into a gendered system, it works to transform perceptions and approaches to policing along gendered considerations. GSPR provides a unique perspective towards a more substantive and transformative discourse. Authors that explore GSPR have recently directed their enquiries toward case studies of post- conflict or developing states who are enacting reforms, such as India, Liberia and Haiti. Indeed, correlations have been noted between the presence of Indian FFPUs in Liberia and increased female numbers in the Liberian national police force. “Research has found that international forces modelling gender equality were more likely to lead to increases in political participation among local women and decreases in domestic violence in a host society”. The implementation and existence of such gender-sensitive policies can therefore produce a snowball effect that opens further dialogue, ideas and practices on approaches to security reform.

Police forces’ presence in the community provides opportunities for populations to visualize transformed understandings of ‘male-dominated institutions’ throughout the security sector. This article has attempted to reiterate past inadequacies in GSSR’s approaches, such as gender-balancing, while consequently demonstrating a need to focus on gender-mainstreaming and community engagement. Approaches such as those found in GSPR provide radical, transformative methods to SSR.


Ciara McHugh, a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance, currently examines police reform in post-conflict societies. Her research in international security studies took off in 2010 through an Andrew G. Mellon collaborative grant, while she was undertaking undergraduate studies at Marquette University. Since then, this work has expanded through a number of fellowships and research initiatives, focusing specifically on post-conflict civil society in a range of contexts including Rwanda, Cambodia and Northern Ireland. She has traveled extensively throughout the US and Europe to promote interdisciplinary dialogue regarding local ownership in international peacebuilding. After serving as an AmeriCorps member in 2014, she relocated to Northern Ireland to pursue a master’s degree in International Relations at Queen’s University Belfast, investigating contemporary policy discourse on Gender Sensitive Police Reform.


[1] (Pruitt, 2013, p72) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13533312.2012.761836?journalCode=finp20

[2] (Denham, 2008, p16) http://www.dcaf.ch/Publications/Police-Reform-and-Gender-Tool-2


Feature Photo Credit: UN Photo/Marcus Bleasdale/VI