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.  SSR 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.”


Marissa Fortune
6 maj 2019, 3:40:50 e pasdites

Hi Thammy, Thanks so much for the comment! I wholly agree with the position that this is as much an issue for men as for women. So often we confuse “gender” with “women” when really it’s about addressing the underlying gendered constructions that make sexual violence possible. There is a great need to address the role that toxic masculinity plays in conflict-related sexual violence, and in gender-based violence across contexts. It’s encouraging to see more and more men begin to take interest in gender analysis and the value that it brings to the study of conflict but there is definitely still a long way to go!

Thammy Evans
6 maj 2019, 1:46:13 e pasdites

Indeed the role that the security sector plays as a deterrent, and its role in tacitly condoning such behaviour if the security sector does not react with due diligence and justice, is a very important one. There is also the equally important role of the perpetrator. As Jackson Katz says, violence against women is (also) a men's issue  And some of the root causes and drivers of such behaviour are societal and psychosomatic . There is much to be done here also to prevent downstream violence and recurrence of violence handed down through poor inter-personal skills, communication and means of addressing lower level conflict before it becomes violent.

Mirko Daniel Fernandez
22 jan 2019, 12:10:53 e pasdites

Thank you Marissa for reminding us about the importance of donor credibility when trying to mainstream gender equality into SSR interventions. In regards to your last statement, I would like to add that for many women and girls from marginalised communities, who do not share the same image appeal of the average Hollywood star, time was up long ago but society in general, tended not to react in time when demanding and offering protection for them against gender-based violence (GBV). This is unfortunate and highlights for a need for an intersectional approach to security and justice provision whether as part of an SSR support initiative or an unassisted national reform process. Key women’s organisations working at the global level to advocate for gender equality have recognised that an intersectional approach has been slow to integrate into GBV strategies in spite of influential organistions such as WILPF providing clear guidance for its application. However, some western countries like Canada are actually trying to do this, although some may argue the actual efforts are not enough. Regardless, there are some important lessons to be rescued from the Canadian experience for SSR which I believe can complement your blog. The Missing Women’s case from British Columbia, Canada provides a very sad but interesting example of how a police force in a Western Country reformed towards a more intersectional approach to policing or unbiased policing, particularly for GBV prevention and intervention. In this example, during the 1990’s and early 2000, nearly 50 women from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, the vast majority of them women of First Nations or indigenous decent, continued to be reported missing. Police recognised they did not respond effectively with internal and external inquiries identifying inherent bias in the police institution as a root cause of the problem. You can call this Vancouver’s first #MeToo movement as many women, including murdered victims, from these communities continually sought protection by police and other state institutions. This tragedy would later influence the reform of the Vancouver Police Department or VPD.The recommendations from the inquiries were incorporated institutionally by the VPD and Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The recommendations included the creation of civilian oversight mechanism (currently the IIO) and greater engagement with First Nations and women’s organisations in developing internal policies and guidance including Code of Conduct and including performance indicators. This process also lead to amendments to the Police Act were brought into force in January 2012 (p. 18) which established the authority for the director to set binding provincial policing standards for all police agencies in British Columbia. Additionally, this process also had impact on policing standards nationwide. From this experience it is very interesting to observe how groups in positions of vulnerability for reasons based on societal discrimination were able to influence policing standards. Elements of the missing women’s tragedy can be found in Canada’s current foreign policy. Finally, as you rightly mentioned change is still needed, corporate practices need to improve, and recognition that consent training and ‘zero tolerance’ is not enough. I would like to add to this by stressing a need for an intersectional approach to protect the more vulnerable.

Valentin Wagee
4 dhj 2018, 2:01:40 e pasdites

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