Spotlight on women’s role in ensuring peace and security


In the run-up to the African Union (AU) summit from 7–15 June in Johannesburg, South Africa, the role of women in peace and security are the focus of several discussions among role players in this field. This is to coincide with the AU’s focus on ‘women’s empowerment and development towards the implementation of Agenda 2063’ – its theme for 2015. Figures on the ground, however, indicate that not enough is being done to ensure gender parity in the security sector in Africa.Gender mainstreaming is taking centre stage at the AU following the decision by the AU Assembly that 2015 will be ‘the year of African women’, a theme strongly supported by AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Agenda 2063, the initiative launched by Dlamini-Zuma at the 50th anniversary of the AU/Organisation of African Unity in 2013, also emphasises the empowerment of African women in order to achieve a peaceful and prosperous Africa in the decades to come.

In addition, there are a number of other global meetings marking 20 years since the Beijing conference on women and 15 years since the adoption of the crucial United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The 2015 United Nations (UN) High-Level Review on progress with the implementation of Resolution 1325 and the UN’s review of peacekeeping operations are also generating much discussion, particularly in Africa.

Still a long road towards gender parity

While the continent is making important strides in including women in all aspects of peacekeeping, security sector reform (SSR) and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, it is still a long way from ensuring gender parity in the security sector. Cheryl Hendricks, a professor at the political studies department at the University of Johannesburg and a specialist on African gender issues, says the AU is increasingly concerned about including more women in the security sector. Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership has contributed to this trend. However, as with other decisions and resolutions of the AU, member states’ implementation of its policies remains a challenge.

One example of the inclusion of women in peace and security efforts is the appointment of Senegalese gender activist Bineta Diop as the special envoy for women, peace and security of the AU Commission chairperson. Diop has done important work since her appointment in 2014 and has been visible in conflict areas, notably in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. She said in an interview in March 2014 that her priorities were the protection of women and children in conflict situations, facilitating the role of women in peace processes and the prevention of armed conflicts.

AU framework document

In addition, the AU Framework on SSR includes a strong gender component, thanks to the contributions made by gender activists during its drafting, says Hendricks.

The framework acknowledges ‘the obligation of member states to apply the principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment, including in SSR processes, as elaborated in the AU Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa’. ‘The entire SSR process will therefore include women-specific activities, gender awareness and responsive programming, and aim to bring about transformative possibilities for gender equity within the security sector,’ states the document. In the framework document, the AU also states its intention to develop tools for monitoring the implementation of these guidelines.

The framework document, like many other decisions and documents in this regard, builds upon the important UNSC Resolution 1325 that sets out global guidelines for including a gender component in peacekeeping and peace and security. The resolution ‘reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security’. It also urges all actors to include women in UN peace processes.

The AU has meanwhile recommended that national governments and regional organisations implement action plans for SSR that include a strong gender component. This is in line with the decision by the January 2009 Assembly of the AU that 2010–2020 will be the ‘women’s decade’. So far, however, only 12 national governments have done so.

African countries making progress

Still, the number of women in the security sector in Africa is growing steadily. ‘Africa leads the way in terms of numbers and frameworks, but just like everywhere else in the world, we are not reaching the 50%,’ said Hendricks, who is coordinating an international conference on gender and SSR in Africa, hosted by the Institute for Security Studies in the run-up to the June AU summit.

Facts on the ground also show the UN is not prioritising women in peacekeeping. According to a recent report in The Guardian, only 2% of the peacekeepers in the UN mission for the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) are women. According to the same report, South Africa has the biggest contingent of women in the DRC, with 168 women out of the 1 250 South African troops in MONUSCO.

Women as victims of violence

As part of the discussions on women in the security sector, the plight of women victims of violence provides a strong argument for including more women in the police, defence forces, courts and emergency services of African countries. In March this year, the PSC discussed the issue of women and children falling victim to violence in Africa. At the meeting, chaired by Namibian ambassador to the AU Anne Namakau Mutela, the spotlight fell on the plight of women and especially the threat of rape. Mutela said in an interview with the PSC Report there was a need to involve more women in peace activities and that she was ‘amazed’ by the problems raised by women peacekeepers when she visited the headquarters of the African Mission for Somalia (AMISOM). Women’s needs were not taken into account in planning and procurement processes, and their leadership was also necessary in post-conflict and reconstruction processes, she said.

Because Africa is one of the most important areas of concern for the UNSC and the continent that hosts the biggest peacekeeping operations, it is crucial that the gender perspective be included in the review that the UN is undergoing this year. Several meetings have been held to discuss the common African position on this review.

In October this year, the findings of the UN High-Level Review Panel on Women, Peace and Security should also be presented; and it is expected that Africa will figure prominently in the findings and recommendations of the review. According to UN Women, led by former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ncuka, the UN has repeatedly expressed its concern that ‘women’s perspectives will continue to be underrepresented in conflict prevention, resolution, protection and peacebuilding without a significant shift in how the resolution [1325] is implemented’.

The upcoming AU summit will clearly be an opportunity to look at the issue of women in peace and security and the need for important changes in the structure of security forces on the continent. Although women’s empowerment was also the official theme of the AU summit in Addis Ababa in January 2015, it was eclipsed by other issues and all but ignored. Following the discussions in Johannesburg, clear guidelines on implementation and monitoring will assist governments to ensure the effective implementation of these important decisions.


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