International Feminist Journal of Politics


Why Security Sector Reform (SSR) needs to look at the private sphere when reforming the post-conflict military to make it more gender equal


Nina Wilén

How do we make sure that SSR actually transforms the post-conflict military in a way which makes gender-based discrimination visible and gender-equality possible? In my latest article for the International Feminist Journal of Politics, I argue that it is necessary to look at gender norms and experiences from the private, non-official sphere in order to transform the public and establish a more gender-equal security sector.

Security institutions like the military and the police are influential organisations in any state, but perhaps even more so in post-conflict states, which often remain in fragile security situations. They are also to a large majority dominated by men and particular types of masculinities. This means that men are heavily overrepresented in one of the most powerful institution in a state. Clearly, this is not the way to go if we want to build a gender-just peace.

Ensuring that these institutions become just a bit more representative and democratic, has therefore become one of the top priorities on peacebuilding agendas. As a result, recent SSR processes often include an emphasis on gender mainstreaming and gender balancing in an effort to mitigate the masculine dominance and open up for more diversity, mainly by increasing the number of women in the ranks

Credit: UN Photos, UNMIL Honours Peacekeepers

Credit: UN Photos, UNMIL Honours Peacekeepers

Yet, while such efforts to make the security sector more gender balanced and gender equal certainly are welcome, they remain narrowly focused on the public sphere. I therefore argue that when reforming the post-conflict military, we need to take into account how gender roles in the private sphere influence and shape the public, otherwise we fail to understand and bring to light women’s subordination and exclusion in the security sector.

In my article, I highlight three examples, drawn from my interviews with male and female military staff in South Africa and Burundi, of how gender roles in the private affect the public.

First, the fact that women have the primary responsibility for taking care of children in the private sphere has consequences for their work in the military too – even for women who are not mothers. In my interviews in Burundi, male soldiers complained about allowing females in the army because they risked “getting pregnant all the time” and thus not perform as well as men. Female soldiers in South Africa who were mothers, explained how hard it was to find someone to take care of their children when they were deployed abroad. These examples show that norms about women’s responsibility as primary care takers in the private have concrete effects in their roles in the public sphere.  

Second, general resistance in society against women taking up jobs that are traditionally seen as ‘masculine’ also has an influence beyond the private sphere. This is especially the case for jobs that violates strong gender roles about what is appropriate or not for women to do, such as take up positions as fighters and/or protectors. Female soldiers risk facing resistance from both family and friends and male colleagues for joining the army which makes integration and acceptance in the military particularly difficult.  

Third, men’s perceived superiority over women has consequences both in the private and public sphere. This takes different forms, but in its most extreme and aggressive form, it is exemplified in gender-based violence against women. The military as an institution appears to have a problem here, as previous research has shown that domestic violence constitutes a social problem especially for the military. Male militaries are also more likely to use violence against their female colleagues than men in other professions. Clearly, this makes it more difficult for women to integrate the military as equals and enjoy a status as protectors.

So, what are we supposed to do then, to transform the post-conflict military and make it more gender equal? I make three proposals in my article for steps to take towards a more gender equal security sector.

A first step is to strengthen laws against domestic violence to make sure that security concerns encompass both the private and the public domain. A strong public stance against domestic violence in the military is important. This can be done for example through public relations campaigns and establishing units focusing on SBGV and domestic violence. Importantly, such initiatives should not be solely undertaken by women but should be driven and represented by men as well.

Reforms, which can contribute to a more gender equal division of labour in the private sphere are also welcome. This could include regulated and compulsory paternity leave to better balance the responsibility of care between men and women. Yes, this is far from the reality in most countries today, but it is not an unrealistic utopia vision as the Swedish army shows, where paternity leave is institutionalised, as in the rest of the Swedish society.  

Finally, continuing efforts to gender mainstream the security forces are important, as while important progress has been noted in many armies, gender work is still often seen as a box-ticketing exercise or an add-on for later. More work needs to be undertaken here to integrate a culture of gender consciousness throughout the security forces.

Read the full article here: Achieving a gendered transformation of the post-conflict military through security sector reform: unpacking the private–public dynamics


Nina Wilén is Assistant Professor in International Relations at Université Libre de Bruxelles and Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels.


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