How the #MeToo Movement Highlights the Need for Security Sector Reform in the Global North

by Marissa Fortune · November 30th, 2018.

And why sexual and gender-based violence may be the most important (inter)national security crisis of our time.

It has been just over a year since the New York Times first published the accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s widespread pattern of sexual abuse, sending shock waves through the entertainment industry and launching an international conversation on just how unsafe it is to be a woman in the world. As one after another, women came forward with tales of sexual assault and harassment, the United States saw the power of solidarity, and the #MeToo movement became a way to share stories, foster connection, and bring change. But it also highlighted just how much change is still needed. Better corporate practices, consent training, and ‘zero tolerance’ are not enough in a society where widespread violence against women is symptomatic of both a socio-cultural crisis and a security sector that is fundamentally broken. While the US and other wealthy countries are engaged in development work aiding in strengthening and improving the security capacity of the Global South, the #MeToo movement is proof that they might want to take a look at their own security structures as well.

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is the realignment of the security sector including all the actors, their roles, responsibilities and actions working together to manage and operate the system in a manner that is consistent with democratic norms, sound principles of good governance and respect for human rights in order to contribute to a well-functioning security framework.  SRR aims to ensure democratic, civilian control of the security sector and make sure that it is effective, affordable and efficient. Most SSR practitioners emphasize the human security approach, which addresses the security concerns of individuals and takes a holistic view of the various factors at play when thinking about what it means to be ‘secure’. Recent scholarship and practice of SSR have developed a large focus on the importance of incorporating gender analysis in approaching security. Since women and men experience (in)security in different ways, this must be accounted for. Failing to recognize the security concerns of women means disregarding the safety of over half of the population and therefore, “SSR approaches that ignore gender will fall short of achieving their goal of effective and accountable delivery of security to all.” (Bastick, 2008).

So, what does #MeToo have to do with SSR? The testimonials of women coming forward to share their stories have brought to light the brokenness of the security sector in the Global North. Both anecdotally and statistically, it can be shown that the United States (as well as other ‘developed’ countries) routinely fail to protect women from systematic violence against them, and if that isn’t an (inter)national security crisis, nothing is. Taking women’s security seriously and looking at security through a gender-wise lens means reconceptualizing security as the diminution of all forms of violence and inequality, including domestic violence, rape, poverty, gender subordination, economic marginalization, and ecological destruction.

Women’s insecurity comes from a variety of sources, from the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, harassment, and the wage gap, to the lack of accessible and affordable healthcare, and barriers to accessing fair judicial processes. It is estimated that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and many of these cases go unreported. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that in the United States, homicide was one of the leading causes of death for women under the age of forty-four, and of these homicides, 55.3 percent were committed by an intimate partner. Rather than being a source of stability, intimate relationships have become a threat to the security and wellbeing of women in many cases. On college campuses, rape is at epidemic levels among both women and men and more than 90 percent of cases are not reported to the police. The failure of security providers to prevent and protect from these types of threats, as well as the overwhelming failure of the legal system to accomplish justice in the majority of cases, can be seen as a symptom of a very serious illness within Western security sectors. (This is not to mention the higher rates of violence committed against transgender, queer, and gender-nonconforming individuals or the added dimensions of race, class, and indigeneity. Delving into the ways the security sector routinely fails to provide a baseline of protection, and in some cases exacerbates the threat and risk levels of marginalized communities, would take much more time to unpack.)

Although the concept of SSR is not commonly used in relation to developed countries, I argue that it ought to be. Reform of the security sector is severely needed and to pretend that it is not is to continue to put women at risk. The security sector in high-income countries like the United States or Canada have yet to effectively prevent and respond to gender based violence or attain gender parity for men and women employed in security institutions. Better policies are needed, ones that take the unique security concerns of women seriously and protect citizens from both internal and external threats. It’s time for a serious conversation that problematizes the assumption that Western states have reached the ‘final stage’ of societal development. Despite the fact that Western countries are often the key actors in supporting SSR processes in post-conflict, transitional and ‘developing’ contexts, they are rarely forced to reckon with their own security shortcomings, and to that I say, “Time’s Up.”


Valentin Wagee
4 Dec 2018 14:01:40

Dear Marissa, Thanks a lot for your work and for the enriching read! It is indeed the responsibility of the international community to make sure that mainstreaming gender is a priority in security sector reform programmes and assistance. You might want to take a look at the work of the work of the NATO Committees on Gender Perspectives, which aims at integrating a gender perspective in Organizations' operations and processes. I believe they are about to publish their annual report. Best regards, Valentin