WASHINGTON, D.C. – A meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 18 African military and security professionals was among the highlights of a three-day international workshop discussing the role of women in African armed forces co-hosted September 12-14, 2012, by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and the U.S. Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM).
“We’re incredibly proud to be sponsoring this program … and to be working with all of you on the greater integration of women into the security forces,” Clinton said Sept. 14 while meeting workshop participants who visited her State Department offices. The workshop, titled “Leaning Forward: Gender Mainstreaming in African Armed Forces,” brought together more than two dozen experts and practitioners from 14 African countries, the AU, and Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the United States government to examine and highlight the progress made, challenges experienced, as well as the opportunities available to enhance gender mainstreaming in African security forces.
In her nearly four years as the top U.S. diplomat, Clinton has repeatedly called attention to women’s rights and gender equality. “For years, many of us have tried to show the world that women are not just victims of war; they are agents of peace,” Clinton said in December 2011 at Georgetown University, discussing an executive order then newly signed by President Obama to implement the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.
The crucial role of women in ending conflict and building lasting security also has been recognized in Africa. Over the past decade the African Union (AU), sub-regional organizations, and African governments have devoted significant attention to promoting gender equality and gender mainstreaming in the armed forces and security policy development. These efforts have yielded impressive results in several African states. Rwanda, for example, is the world leader in terms of women’s representation in parliament. Women hold 56 percent of seats in the lower house of Rwanda’s parliament and 38 percent of seats in the senate. Seychelles has emerged as a leader in promoting gender equality in the security forces. Women account for 38 percent of police in Seychelles and 20 percent of the country’s defense force. Women also comprise more than a quarter of personnel in the Namibian and South African defense forces.
While women continue to make strides—for example, the presidents of Liberia and Malawi both are women—success stories often are the exception rather than the rule. In most African states, the process of integrating women into the armed forces and security policy decision-making has progressed slowly. Furthermore, although women are increasingly becoming integrated into security forces across the continent, they are still largely underrepresented in leadership positions.
Representation of women in global peacekeeping and conflict resolution is case in point. In 2010, women accounted for only 2.4 percent of signatories to peace agreements. Out of almost 100,000 UN peacekeepers, women comprise only 3 percent of military personnel and only 9 percent of police. Further, according to the UN, “no woman has ever been appointed chief or lead mediator in UN-sponsored peace talks.”
Simply tallying the proportion of women in the military, however, is not a sufficient measurement of gender equality. “It is not sufficient to determine gender equality by the number of women in an institution,” says Dr. Cheryl Hendricks, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, during a presentation at the recent Africa Center workshop. “Their positions, conditions of employment and experiences are as important.”
“African governments, continental and regional organizations, and civil society groups have long realized that the continent could not realize its full potential without transformative and significant action to enhance gender equality and combat discrimination against women in the economic, political and social spheres,” says Dr. Monde Muyangwa, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Africa Center. “Over the years, many African countries have made progress on this front, but much more remains to be done.”
Gender mainstreaming efforts often are met with resistance within military establishments. Entrenched perceptions that women do not have a role in military service and a general lack of adaptability of military structures are major impediments to promoting gender equality.
To respond to this challenge, experts at the workshop stressed that African militaries must integrate gender perspectives into recruitment, training, and personnel management strategies. Specifically, African armed forces could reevaluate policies on promotions, maternity leave, marriage, pensions, sexual discrimination, and harassment.
While some stress that advocates of women’s empowerment need to lobby senior military leaders, others stress the need for champions in the political sphere to ensure that militaries have a clear mandate and sufficient resources to conduct gender mainstreaming activities.
“The structure of politics in African countries must also allow women to participate so that they can look at gender issues objectively,” argued General Owoye Azazi, former National Security Advisor and Chief of Defense Staff in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, during a panel that examined the tools for promoting gender mainstreaming in the security sector.
If gender mainstreaming is to be truly effective, African leaders must be held accountable for their commitments to promote gender equality. “There is often a disconnect between lofty political commitments and the realities on the ground,” said Dr. Funmi Olonisakin, Director of the African Leadership Centre at Kings College, London.
To bolster accountability, African governments, militaries, and regional institutions will need to enhance monitoring and evaluation capacity. This will require compiling and maintaining detailed and accurate statistics about gender representation in the security sector.
Sustained engagement by civil society and the press will also help to ensure that governments and militaries remain actively engaged in gender mainstreaming efforts. Participants in the workshop recommended establishing a civil society organization to be designated as a watchdog on gender mainstreaming issues.
Gender mainstreaming champions may also need to reevaluate how they discuss and define gender mainstreaming.
“Some people think it’s just a feminist agenda,” said Heather Bush, Outreach and Gender Specialist at AFRICOM. “But when people understand that it’s about engaging over half the population to enhance human security, that’s when the light bulbs start to go on.”
Since 2009, U.S. Africa Command has engaged in several initiatives aimed at promoting gender mainstreaming efforts, both across Africa and within its own command structure. AFRICOM established a Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, which aims to foster dialogue about the expanded engagement of women. Additionally, the command sponsors research on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the Great Lakes region as well as research on best practices in SGBV training in the armed forces.
Alongside ACSS, AFRICOM assisted the government of Senegal with a year-long project to assess and better integrate women in the armed forces. AFRICOM also funded construction, renovation, and repair of facilities that provide services to SGBV victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
AFRICOM’s leaders say they understand that, in order for these initiatives to be truly effective, gender mainstreaming efforts must be sustained, comprehensive, and integrated throughout its operations. “Mainstreaming should not be limited to individual activities,” Ambassador Helen La Lime, Director of Outreach (J-9) at AFRICOM, said during a presentation on the command’s role in promoting gender equality on the continent.
“These concepts are most effective when woven through various activities and programs,” La Lime said. “We need to find a way to integrate these gender themes into everything that happens at AFRICOM.”