Women in Africa's top brass: it's not just about the numbers

African women are increasingly part of the military and police, but these remain strongly male-dominated institutions.

Increasingly, women are stepping up to the plate in peacekeeping missions and in police and armed forces across Africa.

Figures presented at a seminar on women, peace and security in Pretoria earlier this week showed that several African countries are making good progress in transforming the military and including women, when compared to worldwide figures.

Analysts, however, say the focus should shift from merely including more women in the security sector to making the structures more amenable to women. While quotas play a role, participants said there needs to be political will at the highest level to take issues of gender equality beyond mere representation.

South Africa has the highest number of women in peacekeeping missions – a total of 15% in its operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and 10% in Darfur, Sudan. Just over a quarter of the troops in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are women, says Cheryl Hendricks, Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.

Hendricks was one of the speakers at the seminar, which was hosted jointly by the Institute for Security Studies and the Australian government. ‘Compared to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries, we are actually doing very well,’ she said. The picture looks different, however, when it comes to top decision-making positions.

While there are more and more women in the security sector, they are often in a supporting role. South African women combatants, for example, are not in the front line. Of the peacekeepers who perished in the Central African Republic in 2013, none were women.

Political will is needed at the highest level to take gender equality beyond mere representation

Malawi, however, has women risking their lives in special forces, either as paratroopers or marines. Out of the 850 troops forming part of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), 5% are women. Despite challenging living conditions in the DRC, women in the Malawi Defence Forces are able to cope with it, the seminar was told. Since the FIB has a Chapter VII mandate, both men and women soldiers are taught during training that it is not a peacekeeping mission, but peace enforcement.

In Namibia there is also an increasing number of women in the armed forces, in line with greater representation on a high level in government. Gender equality in the country has been boosted by the appointment of Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila as the country’s prime minister in March this year. The new government of President Hage Geingob includes seven women out of 24 cabinet ministers.

However, women in the military still suffer from negative stereotypes and resistance against their inclusion, especially in decision-making positions. Limited years of experience also stifle their progress up the ranks. Out of the 22 generals in the Namibian Defence Force, there is only one woman.

Would sexual violence by peacekeepers be eliminated if there were more women in missions?

The topic of the seminar was in line with discussions around women’s empowerment at the African Union (AU) Summit in Johannesburg this week. The official theme of the summit, ‘The year of women's empowerment towards the implementation of Agenda 2063,’ will be discussed by heads of state during the 25th AU Assembly meeting on 14 June, as well as during a pre-summit high-level panel discussion on gender equality and women’s empowerment from 10 to 12 June.

The AU has adopted a number of resolutions and has created a gender, women and security programme within the Peace and Security Department (PSD) of the AU. In 2013, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma also appointed gender activist Bineta Diop as the special envoy for women, peace and security – a move that has been applauded by gender specialists. The AU Commission has been partly successful in implementing quotas for women. Half of the AU commissioners, for example, are women. In the PSD, however, women are mostly support staff. Out of 45 senior staff members, there is only one woman.

This year, 2015, is also the 15th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which is considered one of the most important frameworks in ensuring a greater role for women in the security sector. Later this year, the UN high-level review on the implementation of Resolution 1325 will report back on just how far the world has come with gender parity in the security sector.

Analysts say that regardless of the numbers, it is also important to be able to accurately measure the impact of gender transformation in the security sector. Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says this is extremely difficult due to the lack of transparency and limited access given to researchers. ‘These are complex studies that need the correct data,’ she says. Bouka recently conducted research in Kenya, where 8% of the Kenyan Defence Forces are made up of women. Here too, very few women are in high-ranking positions.

The role of women in peace and security is now reduced to fighting about numbers

Questions that still need definitive answers include whether there is a direct link between having women in decision-making positions and gender equality. Does having women peacekeepers help in the more effective demobilisation of women combatants in places like the eastern DRC? And would sexual violence by peacekeepers become a thing of the past if there were more women in these missions?

Analysts agree that women very often face cultural obstacles and prejudices when it comes to joining the military or police. In Zimbabwe, for example, there was no clear strategy in the demobilisation process after the liberation war, and no specific provision was made for women combatants. This has played a role in discouraging women to stay in the military of an independent Zimbabwe. The strong politicisation of the military in that country also excludes many women. Lingering gender stereotypes and resistance from women themselves also hamper progress.

Hendricks says the debate around gender, peace and security has lately lost some of its broader focus on transforming the security sector to ensure gender equality. In the 1980s, when the debates around women’s role in the security sector gained traction, there was concern by feminists that war and militarisation was a purely male domain and the aim was to make the sector more amenable to women. This has now changed. ‘Women’s role in peace and security is now reduced to fighting about numbers,’ she said.

Hendricks also laments the fact that lengthy ‘essentialist’ explanations are needed to justify including women in the security sector. She believes including women should not be a token gesture. ‘We don’t need to justify why women need to be peacekeepers. We need to be able to do what we want to do as women.’

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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