Gender and security sector reform

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IT is both ironic and tragic that policy debates on the need to reform the security sector in post-conflict societies such as Zimbabwe do not address gender-based injustices, especially the trials and tribulations of women in conflict situations, yet at the turn of the 21st Century, a lady parliamentarian invigorated this critical debate.

Report by Pedzisai Ruhanya

The term “security sector reform” first made an appearance in a speech by Clare Short, the former British minister for international development in 1997.

Short’s idea was further conceptually developed by European and Canadian academics although this “invention” is challenged by scholars who argue that the versions of the current security sector reform have been ongoing since the middle of the 19th Century.

Security sector reform, according to Short and others who followed after her, has been linked to debates on poverty alleviation, sustainable development and professionalisation of the security forces, which is mainly the focus of the Zimbabwean discourse on the matter.

In Zimbabwe, calls for security sector reform have been due to ubiquitous role of the country’s military in civilian political and electoral matters on a partisan basis.

Security sector reform that is not linked to military incursions into partisan politics has its roots in Western donor debates over how best to target and implement development assistance, thereby fostering a policy nexus between poverty and security debates.

In this scope, security sector reform is asserted as an integral part of development assistance, especially in post-conflict societies prone to relapse into violent instability.

In the case of Zimbabwe, given the partisan role of the security apparatus in the political and electoral affairs of the country and consequently the colossal human rights violations attendant, security sector reform applies with regards to the country’s repressive and transitional situation.

Debates in all these contexts and the Zimbabwean case have concentrated on oversight and structure of civil-military relations, the democratic control of the armed forces and the integration of all security agencies responsible for securing a state’s internal and external integrity.

Zimbabwe’s military generals or hierarchy have constantly made it public they will only respect the civilian authority of Zanu PF, not any other government of the day.

The security apparatus think they are the power brokers without whose approval democratic electoral processes should be disregarded. This is the debate that engulfs the call for security sector reform in the country.

There is a substantial body of general criticism concerning approaches to security sector reform.

Some civic groups have voiced concerns about the tendency of the security sector reform to focus heavily on providing training skills, supplying resources and increasing organizational efficiency to overcome capacity deficits of the security system at the expense of addressing more fundamental shortcomings, in particular the need to build the integrity of the system which in the Zimbabwean case is in tatters.

In Zimbabwe, such integrity-promoting measures include structural reforms that discourage abuses and partisanship associated with the security apparatus over the years.

For instance, vetting, building institutional accountability, strengthening institutional independence, advancing adequate representation and ensuring that the security establishment is actually responsive to and reflective of the communities it protects and operates within.

However, a preliminary analysis of the debates on security sector reform following the signing of the Global Political Agreement in September 2008, which actually calls for reform of this sector, shows that such criticism fundamentally suffers from a lack of gender perspective and integration.

In this regard, the strategies that are positively discussed and advanced for security sector reform in Zimbabwe fail to substantively and consistently engage gender disparities and justice in transitional Zimbabwe.

Without exception, all these contentious debates and conversations in Zimbabwe exclude women who are also victims of state-sponsored violence linked to the security or coercive apparatus of the state.
There is an evident structural link between security sector reform and dealing with the past after several years of conflicts related to the Matabeleland massacres and pre and post-election state-sponsored violence from 1985 to June 2008.

The failure or lack of this dimension seriously undermines the extent to which security sector reform can be meaningful, long-lasting and transformative.

Therefore, there is need to interrogate and think about security sector reform in the context of transitional transformation. In particular, there is need to think about how the gender failings of past-focused accountability mechanisms have manifested themselves and how they have influenced current understanding of what role the past plays in the security sector in Zimbabwe.

Most of the locales where security sector reform is discussed and propositions are considered or dismissed, as is often the case, are decision-making bodies that have a history of poor representation of women. These locales include the military establishment, the government, political parties and the male-dominated leadership of civil society organisations.

Representation constitutes a critical element of re-engendering security sector reform into context in Zimbabwe given entrenched patriarchy in the social, political, economic and cultural organisation of the country. It is therefore relevant to mainstreaming, specialisation and cross-cutting approaches to gender security.

This stated, an important underlying caveat should be examined and appreciated. It would be an elementary mistake to confuse representation with reform. The UN Resolution 1325 “urges UN member states to ensure increased representation of all women at all decision making levels … for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.”

The resolution calls on governments to take positive steps to promote the entry of women into the security services as well as requiring the presence of women in peace-making negotiation teams, something that was overlooked in the GPA talks despite the fact women were the most violated during the conflict.

Beyond the procedural package of issues by representation itself lies the further step of ensuring women are meaningfully represented in decision-making positions and that there is a critical mass so that divergent voices can emerge.

This critical mass is essential to deflect the real possibility that women will either be absorbed into the status quo or marginalised, argues transitional justice scholar Professor Fionnnuala Ni Aolain.

A preliminary assessment of women’s participation in negotiation processes premised on the requirements of UN Resolution 1325 reports that women themselves have viewed their presence as tokenistic and have been deeply disillusioned with their participation and their influence on the outcomes.

In Zimbabwe, all the key platforms for security sector reform debate are male-dominated. Engaging with gender security issues requires transformation to prevent patriarchies reinforcing one another.

Ruhanya is PhD candidate and director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute. He writes in his own capacity.

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