Comment & analysis

Integrating gender in community security

27 January 2015 Julie Brethfeld

Gender norms and relations play a substantive role in conflict and peace dynamics, so a strong gender perspective must be an integral part of community security projects. Julie Brethfeld, Saferworld’s Conflict and Security Adviser, explains how Saferworld’s community security approach creates spaces where diverse gender groups feel able to express their security concerns, and can eventually take measures to address and prevent gender-based violence and change gender norms.

Gender norms at the heart of conflict and peace

Gender norms and relations play a substantive role in conflict and peace dynamics. Not only do women and men play different roles in situations of conflict or insecurity, they are also affected in different ways. For example, women might not have a say in decisions affecting their own safety or in negotiations on conflict prevention and peacebuilding; and men might face social expectations to be more actively involved in taking up physical violence to defend their families or communities. Furthermore, gender injustice can be one factor contributing to tensions and violence, as do other aspects of social injustice and discrimination. Any effort to improve local safety and security and to reduce conflict thus needs to take gender considerations into account right from the start.

As part of this, it is important to look at gender beyond the male-female dichotomy and acknowledge the full diversity of gender. The way that people understand and experience their gender roles differs according to other aspects of their identities such as age, ethnicity, religion, class and so on. For example, young women might be differently affected by a certain situation than older women, and men belonging to one ethnic group might play a different role in a given conflict than their peers from another. Other identity markers that shape gender norms, roles and expectations can include caste, religion, or the level of education and wealth. Last but not least, the specific situations and problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people, who are often particularly vulnerable, need to be taken into consideration.

Addressing gender norms through community security

Saferworld’s community security programmes follow an approach that puts people at the centre, and empowers them to better understand their own context, and identify and address key security challenges in collaboration with other stakeholders. As such,  these programmes provide excellent opportunities to ensure that spaces are created where diverse gender groups feel able to talk about their security problems and concerns, and that responses address their varied needs and sensitivities and are thereby more likely to be sustainable.

As with any intervention, a solid analysis of local conflict and security problems that considers gender dynamics is essential for community security programmes. Such an analysis can show how gender norms and dynamics impact on or are shaped by local tensions or insecurity, and can help to identify entry points for programming that really get to the causes of conflict. For example, there is evidence from research from South Asia that a key reason why men in the region use sexual violence is because they believe they are entitled to, especially when it comes to violence within the family. Setting out to address such norms might then offer an entry point for gender-sensitive community security programming.

But gender norms might also impact on the look and feel of people’s security providers, most notably, whether women or minority groups are equally represented and respected within the police services. Community security working groups in South Sudan and Nepal, for instance, have advocated with the police services to have women police officers based at local police stations, as this can make it easier for women to report crimes and access security and justice services.

Adopting appropriate gender-sensitive approaches

Finding an appropriate way to fully engage diverse gender groups, including those usually not participating in public discussions and decision making is crucial. For example, in Nepal, assessments at the beginning of Saferworld’s community security programme identified specific groups that were particularly marginalised, or vulnerable to becoming involved in or victims of violence and insecurity. This includes Madhesi women, who are traditionally not supposed to participate in any public programmes or events; and disenfranchised, unemployed young men who run the risk of becoming involved in illegal activities or turning to violence. This sort of analysis enabled us to develop specific strategies to reach out to those groups and take their concerns seriously. In some contexts this might require approaching family members and explaining the potential positives that would result from allowing their family members to participate in activities.

Feedback from community members has shown that having inclusive and diverse community security working groups prevents one specific group dominating the local security agenda. For instance, in Tajikistan, women were frequently attacked by wild dogs when fetching water. Sharing their fears in front of men for the first time raised awareness among other community members that this was a problem and resulted in a decision to bring water resources closer to the village. However, sensitivity is crucial. There might be situations where it is beneficial to talk about certain issues in women-only or men-only groups first before bringing the groups together, especially if the issues discussed are seen as very sensitive, such as sexual violence.

Gender-based violence and community security

Community security programmes can also contribute to responding to gender-based violence (GBV). In Bangladesh, early marriage was identified by communities as a major local security challenge, in part because girls in marriages to much older men face significantly higher rates of domestic violence. By reaching out to local authorities and traditional leaders, the local community security working group in one district raised awareness on the negative implications early marriage has on children, and emphasised its illegality. As a result, authorities became more reluctant to issue marriage certificates for underage boys and girls. In several locations in Nepal’s Siraha, Sunsari and Bardiya districts, street dramas raised awareness around domestic violence issues and educated the audience about their legal options. As a result, women felt more empowered to report incidents, the police became more active in responding to domestic violence, and husbands were more reluctant to resort to violence as a means of resolving family disputes. Community security is also a good means to start conversations about taboos, for example to acknowledge that there is not only sexual violence against women and girls, but also against men and boys.

Empowering women and their communities

Furthermore, community security programmes can have positive effects on women’s empowerment. Women participating in community security activities have said how it has given them the confidence to play an active role in improving their local security situations. For instance, in South Sudan, women in several community security working groups have started to play a key role in working with youths to prevent them becoming involved in violence and/or crime and in reducing incidents of domestic violence/conflict. In other contexts, women have said that the programmes have helped them feel confident about directly approaching local authorities and security providers themselves rather than having to rely on other family members to do it for them. In addition, as community security working groups are becoming a respected mechanism for women to support security in their communities, there are opportunities to build on these outcomes.

Changing underlying gender injustice and inequalities which lead to violence and insecurity requires comprehensive and long-term efforts. Empowering communities to respond sensitively to the full spectrum of people’s gender needs and interests, and positively transform gender norms and dynamics, can make a contribution to the larger goal of furthering peace, security and gender equality.

Julie Brethfeld is a Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld.

Read more about our work on gender, peace and security.

Read more about our work on community security.

“Empowering communities to respond sensitively to the full spectrum of people’s gender needs and interests, and positively transform gender norms and dynamics, can make a contribution to the larger goal of furthering peace, security and gender equality.”

Julie Brethfeld