AFRICA: Security is Women's Business

Thursday, May 6, 2010
Business Day
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

The ‘women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights' mantra of the 1990s raised expectation that violence against women would be taken seriously by governments and people around the world. Instead, the epidemic of gender violence, namely rape and other forms of sexual violence, has escalated, from wars zones to main streets and blind alleys and rural areas without formal wars. Several international organizations have thus embarked on security sector reforms to eliminate, or at least minimize this tragedy.

The recent bouts of repeat revenge killings in Jos and other parts of Nigeria where most of the victims were women and children make Nigeria a veritable centre of this hell. While women demonstrators in black cloth against the carnage in Jos back in March was a novelty, Nigerians are so used to breast-flapping naked grand-mothers railing against environmental degradation by oil companies and rape by security forces that this shock and shame technique has now lost its value. Similarly, the routine abuse inflicted on Nigerian women, even though the Nigerian constitution and several international conventions, namely the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Right, which Nigeria that prohibit such crimes hardly draws attention.

Spousal abuse—which occurs in 20 per cent of adult relationships—is common in Nigeria. The Penal Code actually permits husbands to use physical means to chastise their wives as long as it does not result in ‘grievous harm,' defined as loss of sight, hearing, power of speech, facial disfigurement, or other life threatening injuries. Rape of Nigerian women and girls is very common, just as forced prostitution and sexual harassment are rampant. Discrimination against women in the private sector, particularly in access to employment, promotion to higher professional positions, and in salary inequality persists. Several businesses, especially banks, operate a ‘get pregnant, get fired' policy.

Despite huge investments in security sector reforms, police and other security forces normally do not intervene in these situations, while attempts to assert rights, especially against security agencies, is so dangerous that few women bother to try. The perpetrators are rarely sanctioned. The controversy over Senator Ahmed Yerima's alleged marriage to a 13-year old Egyptian child in the National Mosque in Abuja and the sexist ‘Nudity Bill' sponsored by female Senator Ita Enang suggest that our legislatures not only fail in their ‘responsibility to protect' women, but are indeed direct threats to women's security. Security sector reforms have not had much impact in Nigeria and elsewhere because of the equation of ‘national security' with state and elite security, while the limited reforms are entrusted to the very sources of gender-violence.

So, what must be done? Without blaming the victims, women's groups must cease viewing security as ‘men's business.' Instead, they and their allies must insist on a greater voice and role in deciding how our armed forces, police, courts and other institutions must be restructured. Recent ‘hearts and minds' exercise aimed at improving civilian-military relations around the country, though invaluable and successful, did not include women resource persons, let alone address gender violence by the military, as well as within the military itself.

Liberia is an unexpected role model. The proportion of women in their military and the police is set to rise from 5 per cent to 20 per cent and from 12 percent female to 20 per cent, respectively, thanks to rapid graduation of all-female cadets and the appointment of a female inspector-general of police. Forceful women's voices and presence are enhancing the work of the special court dedicated to hearing sexual violence. South Africa recently increased its quota for the army and police to 40 per cent women. Ghana has a female chief justice, while Guinea-Bissau has introduced gender training programmes for magistrates, resulting in steep declines in corruption and ignorance of the law by potential plaintiffs and even judges. Some other countries are bridging the gap between formal and informal security—youth gangs and civilian watchdogs—in the rural areas and suburban slums and incorporating them into their security service reforms to protect the poor who are overwhelmingly women. Nigeria's burgeoning women's rights advocacy community must lead public review of our defence structures and

policies so as to expose problems associated with the environmental encouraging sexual harassment of military and non-military women by armed forces personnel. Some groups have already laudably framed gender violence as a societal problem that is equally endemic in the family and other ‘private spaces too difficult to police. Yet, they can be more forceful in denouncing the wide tolerance of abuses that make it harder to transform all violent institutions, practices and persons. Making security women's business will help change the outlooks and conduct of military and police personnel. The usefulness of tomorrow's security forces will depend upon how much of the rights of their mothers, sisters, sisters, and daughters we protect today.