“Guinea” means “Women”: How Challenging is it to Mainstream Gender in SSR?

by Mpako Foaleng · May 25th, 2011.

How to mainstream gender into government policy, but more importantly into government practice, remains a complex and challenging endeavour. This is particularly true in a context where gender based violence and discrimination based on sex is seen as widespread, as is often the case in countries emerging from violence or a period where the rule of law has not prevailed. In such countries, where the security forces, who are meant to protect the state and its people, are accused of violence, of gender-based violence, there is a particular challenge as to how to ensure, as part of an SSR process, that gender is an integral and true part of the reform process.

Last March, my colleague Elsa Dazin and I had the opportunity to support the National Technical Committee (NTC) on Security Sector Reform (SSR) for the preparation and organization of the national seminar on SSR in Guinea. Most traditional fields of the security sector were involved including the police, defence, civil protection, gendarmerie, customs, justice and wildlife protection service. This provided a good opportunity to witness the challenge of ensuring a gender sensitive approach to SSR. When introduced to the NTC, we were welcomed and were told that in the local Conakry language, “Guinea” means “women”.  My impression was that gender was viewed as synonymous with ‘women’, and there was no further disaggregation beyond that.  Such a perception is not uncommon and fails to recognise that men, women, boy, girls, ethnic, religious and cultural groups have very different security needs and can experience insecurity in very different ways.

A working session of the National Technical Committee on SSR, Foaleng/DCAF’s ISSAT/March 2011, Conakry

While it as clear from discussions within the NTC, that gender is an important topic that has to be reflected in the SSR process in Guinea, members were still struggling to find the best way to mainstream it into their work. The elaboration of Gender Mainstreaming policy, the promotion of gender equality and fighting violence against women were systematically mentioned among the priorities and within each field in the action plan. However, more gender issues were addressed under a separate objective (frequently referred to as “promoting gender”) in parallel to other priority actions and as such the idea of mainstreaming gender throughout the process was lost.  As an example, within the defence sector, plans for the restoration and construction of barracks often fail to take into account gender considerations, and as such the idea of diversity within the armed forces.

General communication around gender issues remains weak and mostly focused on the visible consequences and not necessarily on the structural gaps and deficiencies that lead to discrimination based on sex and to gender-based violence.

Those involved in the SSR process clearly understand the connections and can identify potential entry-points, the challenges remain on how to turn these ideas into legal, structural and operational reforms that take into consideration, equally, the capacities of, and the opportunities for women, men, boys, girls, ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

For me this experience underlined that any Gender Mainstreaming strategy should first and foremost be linked to a thorough understanding of the social and cultural context. When discussing issues of gender equality within the security sector, putting it in terms of operational effectiveness gives it a more solid foundation from which to build.  The challenge however remains of how to take these initiatives forward, and how the SSR process can support wider social change in the area of gender equality, and ensuring security for all.

Mpako Foaleng

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