Sexual and other violence against women has been a feature of conflicts across Africa, from Sierra Leone and Liberia to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even in countries not at war, women are commonly raped, beaten and victimized in other ways. Only rarely do police or prosecutors take such crimes seriously. Even worse, policemen and soldiers - whose job is to protect citizens - have all too often been among the abusers.
Here and there steps are being taken to reform Africa's security institutions to increase their ability - and willingness - to safeguard women. But such improvements remain limited, notes Ecoma Alaga, an expert on gender and security sector reform and a former director at the non-governmental Women Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), headquartered in Accra, Ghana. Frequently, Ms. Alaga points out, the security sector in Africa "finds itself falling short in its responsibility" to protect women.
While it is imperative to overhaul Africa's security sectors generally, to make them more effective and responsive to citizens' concerns, it is especially important for such reforms to put more emphasis on overcoming gender discrimination and on protecting women, she argues. For that to happen, Ms. Alaga maintains, a "twin approach" is required. First, those engaged in security reforms need to pay more attention to gender and to actively involve women in all phases of reform programmes. Second, women's groups must themselves stop viewing security as "men's business."
The key to making security forces more gender-sensitive is similar to the essential ingredient in combating violence against women and girls more generally, argues Letty Chiwara, chief of the Africa Division of UN Women, the UN's gender agency: breaking the silence that surrounds such violence. "What is fueling the most atrocious types of violence against women is the silence," she said at an international conference on "the role of security organs in ending violence against women and girls," held in October 2010 in Kigali, Rwanda.
Reforming security forces will not be easy, notes Adedeji Ebo, chair of the UN's inter-agency task force on security sector reform. Africa's armies and police forces were originally set up under colonial rule, "were never created to protect Africans" and were instead viewed as instruments for extracting taxes and for "keeping the natives in check." After independence, adds Mr. Ebo, many African governments perpetuated or recreated similar security structures.
But as more African countries seek to rebuild after debilitating wars or to democratize repressive political systems, more are also trying to professionalize their armies, police forces, intelligence services and court systems. The ultimate aim is to bring their security sectors under the control of elected civilian leaders and to make them more attentive to popular aspirations.
Cleaning out the ranks
In countries where armies have been especially notorious for brutalizing civilians, one of the most obvious reforms is to rid them of personnel guilty of serious abuses.
After more than a decade of civil war, Liberia began building a new army in 2006. Although members of the old government armed forces and of demobilized rebel groups were permitted to apply, the selection criteria were rigorous. "Vetting" panels assessed the qualifications of each applicant, turning away anyone known for abuses. The names and photos of applicants were published and circulated in local communities, and the public was invited to provide any information that would disqualify a candidate. In the end, three quarters were rejected.
In the DRC a peace agreement in 2002 also set the creation of a new army. But the vetting process was much more limited than in Liberia. Often entire units from the previous factions were incorporated into the new Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC), with only a few of the most notorious officers excluded.
Despite the peace accord, insecurity has persisted in the DRC's eastern provinces, with women often brutalized and raped. Monitors from the UN and human rights organizations ascribe much of the abuse to the remnants of anti-government groups. But they frequently cite evidence that undisciplined soldiers from the FARDC have also raped, pillaged and killed.
In recent years, some FARDC soldiers and officers have been tried by military tribunals and found guilty of rape and other crimes. During 2010 alone, 79 cases were heard, including of a mass rape in South Kivu. But the Congolese army as a whole still has a long way to go before it respects the rights of women and other citizens.
Training and staffing
Training is important for changing the outlook and conduct of military and police personnel, and instructors from the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC and the European Union teach courses on human rights and gender issues to Congolese army and police units. Similarly, in Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Africa, questions of women's rights and gender-based violence have been integrated into military and police curricula and training programmes.
Training on its own can have only a limited impact. Changes in staffing are also vital, advocates for women's rights argue, both to alter the overall culture of security forces and to carry out particular tasks to help protect women. One of the recommendations of the October 2010 Kigali conference was to "recruit and promote more women officers at all echelons of the security organs."
Liberia - which produced Africa's first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - has made especially pronounced efforts to change the gender composition of security forces. When recruitment for the new national army commenced, President Johnson-Sirleaf announced a goal of achieving a military that would be 20 per cent female. But it proved difficult to find enough women willing to enlist who could also meet the minimum qualification of a high school education. The actual proportion of female army recruits is still only around 7 per cent.
Greater progress has been made in the Liberian National Police, for which the target was also 20 per cent. With the help of female instructors from the UN peacekeeping mission, the first all-female class of police cadets graduated in 2009. By May 2010, the force's total proportion of women had risen to about 16 per cent. Progress was enhanced with an "accelerated learning" programme in which young women applicants who had not completed a secondary education obtained their certificates from a local polytechnic school.
South Africa, which has been recruiting female troops and police since it started restructuring its security forces in the mid-1990s, has recently increased its quota for both institutions to 40 per cent in an effort to speed the process. After a "gender mainstreaming" audit highlighted shortcomings at the command levels of the army, eight female brigadier generals were appointed in 2007.
While African conflicts hold particular dangers for women, abuse is also common in countries at "peace." Even in the DRC, only an estimated 3 per cent of all rapes and other sexual assaults nationwide are perpetrated by members of armed groups. To counter the broader scourge of such violence, the police and courts must become more effective in pursuing such crimes.
But across Africa, women's access to justice remains very limited. The reasons include the weakness of the courts (which scarcely exist outside the larger towns), high court fees, corruption and ignorance of the law by potential plaintiffs, lawyers and even judges.
In a number of countries, including Rwanda, laws on rape and sexual violence have been strengthened in recent years. Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Africa now have specialized police units to investigate such crimes, and Liberia has a special court to hear cases of sexual violence. Guinea-Bissau has introduced gender training programmes for magistrates.
New legal aid clinics have emerged in the Congolese province of North Kivu. "Each month, we record about 30 cases of rape," reports Eugène Buzake, a lawyer with the non-governmental Synergie pour l'assistance juridique, "and we direct the victims to the courts." The group provides free legal advice, arranges protection for witnesses and helps transport them to court appearances.
Breaking the silence
As this example illustrates, greater involvement by civil society groups, women's organizations and others is vital. They can pressure security forces to correct shortcomings and take more energetic action. In South Africa in the late 1990s, women's organizations exposed sexual harassment of women by army personnel, helping to spur reform.
Violence against women is a broader societal problem and cannot be curbed by security institutions alone, notes Anne Marie Goetz, a governance and security adviser to UN Women. Much violence takes place in the family and other "private spaces," and is therefore difficult to police. Moreover, the "wide tolerance of abuses" prevalent in many societies in turn makes it harder to transform the security institutions.
Another hurdle is women's generally subordinate position in society. In Sierra Leone, according to a study by WIPSEN-Africa, some women who met all the selection qualifications for the police or army were ultimately "ordered" by their husbands to not join.
Getting Africa's security institutions to better protect women and advancing women's overall social and political status thus go hand-in-hand, emphasizes Kristin Valasek of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
Grassroots action is especially vital, argues Joséphine Pumbulu of the Association africaine de défense des droits de l'homme in the DRC. Her group promotes women's rights in schools, churches, marketplaces and other public venues and presses the government, army and police to safeguard women from violence. She urges Congolese women to more vocally "denounce the rapists."
To enable Congolese and other African women to do that, concludes Ms. Chiwara of UN Women, it is essential to create "a safe space for women and communities to speak out. At the heart of impunity is the silence that needs to be broken!"