Security institutions around the world—armed forces, police units, border guards, and corrections officials—are predominately male-dominated. As institutionalized gender imbalances become less socially acceptable, the common solution has been to add more women into these security institutions to obtain gender parity. However, simply increasing the number of women does not comprehensively reform security sectors in a way that dissolves gender biases or builds sustainable and effective security institutions that protect the entire population equally.

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is a process of strengthening justice and security institutions to become more effective, accountable, and responsive to the security needs of all people. This reform process usually occurs in post-conflict and transitioning societies. Gender is usually an aspect of the SSR process that is long-forgotten about or approached in a mismanaged way. In addition to adding more women to a male-dominated field, inclusive security sector reform must also act to ensure that all security officials, both men and women, are more gender-responsive. This means that security institutions must begin to incorporate gender concerns into the fabric and culture of their standard operating procedures.

But this is not to say that gender-balanced security institutions are unimportant. On the contrary, women’s inclusion in the security sector is critical to enhancing institutional capability to be more responsive to the entire population it is to protect, including men, women, boys and girls. For instance, evidence has proven that adding more women to peacekeeping missions improves the operation’s overall effectiveness within a conflict or post-conflict setting. But in addition to increasing women’s participation in the security sector globally, it is important to institutionalize gender awareness and responsiveness training for all security officials when reforming institutions.

The level of security and insecurity that an individual feels is compounded by factors such as class, race, and gender. Men and women may experience similar violent occurrences, yet the impact of these experiences affect each gender quite differently. Historically, men and boys experience more instances of forced recruitment into gangs or violent groups, whereas women and girls are more affected by sexual violence within conflicts. This is not to say that women are not forcibly recruited into violent groups or that men are not sexually abused; the security needs and experiences of men and women are very different and, in many cases, based on specific societal gender norms. It is based on these specific needs that gender responsive SSR needs to be included in all reform processes.

Simply increasing the percentage of female participation in security institutions will not sustainably change the deep-rooted stereotypes or toxic gender norms that exist within societies, particularly in traditionally hyper-masculine cultures common in the security sector. Rather, it is important that security institutions and officials understand that gender perspectives and concerns need to be a focal point of security sector reform so that the security needs of the entire population can be served—considering the varying needs of both genders. It means that male security actors should also develop their tools of being gender responsive so that they can do their job more effectively. SSR sometimes fails to achieve this as they add more women into their organizations to conduct only “soft tasks” or women’s issues. Indirectly, by training male security officials to have these tools, the overall security institutions will become less hyper-masculinized and will better support their populations.

For example, a project conducted by Saferworld in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Pakistan successfully worked with police stations to create more gender-responsive policing units. The organization helped set up model police units in the province, including help desks to provide protection services for women, that were mainly staffed by male police officers. With the model units, police units were given an example of how to better be able to provide protection and effective security services to women and include gender responsiveness into their practices. Additionally, in the 1990s South Africa reviewed its defense institutions and consulted specifically with women representatives to better understand the security issues women face. By consulting key women community members, authorities were able to understand issues that male officials may have neglected in SSR processes, such as continued sexual harassment of women. They began to include new policies and structures into the male-dominated defense institutions to be more representative and responsive of gendered needs. This is a key example of how security institutions can be gender responsive even when they are male-dominated.

It is important to remember that gender does not only refer to women. In many cases within SSR, many implementers only view gender as a concern of women and they add women security officials to handle women’s issues and do not equip male counterparts with the same tools. The implementation of SSR should include a focus on gender, both men and women, to ensure that the entire population is adequately protected, according to their particular needs. NATO and Georgia conducted an assessmentof the Georgian armed forces to better understand gender equality, or lack thereof, within the organization. The review included looking at harassment and abuses of both sexes. As the project aimed to reform the armed forces sector to be more gender responsive, it sought to include and understand both men and women’s perspectives throughout the reform and assessment process. By not viewing gender simplistically—that is, by seeing the unique experiences of both genders—the SSR project was able to begin to integrate gender responsiveness into the Georgian armed forces.

However, it is not easy to reform security institutions that typically promote a masculinized culture and may have little institutional desire for change. Gender inclusive SSR will have to included changes to the institutional structure, policies, and culture of the specific organization and can take many years to become a sustainable change. It is important that both male and female security officials are able to build their capacity to be gender responsive so that the needs of the entire population they are to protect is fulfilled.

About the author: Renee Coulouris is a Master's degree candidate at Johns Hopkins University, studying Global Security. She has previously worked at Women in International Security and in the Africa II Division of the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations. She has conducted research in Tunisia, Israel, and the West Bank and Jordan on issues relating to international security, foreign policy, and women's roles in extremist organizations. Renee graduated from Northeastern University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs and Political Science. 

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The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.