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What are the main challenges?

Last edited: December 29, 2011

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  • Lack of political will and leadership: Experience suggests that sustained political commitment is required from the international community, national leaders and top management to ensure security institutions uphold women’s rights and address violence against them. Sustaining such political will is difficult due to limited understanding of the impact that violence against women can have on security outcomes (e.g. community stability). Additionally, governments may not consider gender-based violence to be a priority vis-à-vis other security issues due to financial or other capacity constraints. A lack of political will may result in inadequate resourcing of security institutions and dedicated mechanisms for security personnel to address violence against women. This also undermines the rights of survivors to access basic protections and perpetuates a political and social environment where such violence is tolerated (United Nations, 2006).

  • Limited resources and infrastructure: Even where there is political will, in many contexts – especially fragile and conflict-affected settings – security institutions may simply lack the infrastructure, including basic equipment or transportation, or financial resources to protect women and girls or respond to survivors (UNODC, 2010; Saferworld, 2010). This affects the ability of the police to implement preventive security measures such as routine patrols as well as their capacity to investigate, appropriately respond to and provide referrals for survivors. In low-resource settings, particularly rural areas, there are communities with little or no police coverage or where the nearest police station is several hours away. This creates additional barriers for reporting incidents of violence (e.g. transportation costs, time required to travel, ability to leave family and employment responsibilities, etc.), and enables perpetrators to act with impunity. The close relationships and connections within small communities may also prevent women from reporting to police, for example, if a perpetrator is an acquaintance or relative of a member of the police.

  • Short-term and fragmented investments: Initiatives to address violence against women within the sector are often developed and implemented with a short-term timeframe and budget. Poor funding allocations for violence against women and girls are characteristic of many national budgets and the budgets of security institutions specifically. Especially in post-conflict environments, the bulk of funding for security initiatives addressing gender-based violence is derived from the international or donor community. This creates particular challenges for continuity and sustainability given the explicitly short-term and often externally-driven priorities underlying initiatives. Policy efforts and programmes focusing on gender-based violence may also be isolated from institutional and sector-wide processes, further reducing their potential impact and sustainability. For example, the experience of specialized units (e.g. women’s police stations and gender desks), which are important short-term measures in low-resource settings, has highlighted the risk of targeted efforts being marginalized from mainstream security policies and institutional practices. Once established, units are not always allocated sufficient resources to operate effectively with adequate coverage to reach the entire population. Additionally, the lack of sustained and institutionalized programming perpetuates the frequent turnover of staff knowledgeable on the issue, slows efforts to standardize norms and practices, and prevents promising pilot initiatives from being upscaled and maximizing their effectiveness (Saferworld, 2010, Villalva, 2006).

  • Changing priorities within a broad mandate: Police are required to respond to a broad range of crimes and public order issues every day, which creates difficulties for balancing commitments to address violence against women with providing responses to more established crimes within the institution. In addition, providing police with ongoing training so they are equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills to respond appropriately to violence against women (including an understanding of gender equality) is difficult given the breadth and depth of training required across all areas of response. 

  • Lack of skills and knowledge among police and other security actors: Overall, there is a dearth of security personnel (at all ranks, from administrative staff through leadership) with a sound understanding of gender inequality and how this relates to abuse against women. There are even fewer security actors with adequate technical expertise to address gender-based violence (at both the policy and operational levels). This dearth of competency has significant impact on the effectiveness of the sector to uphold its mandate to protect women and girls’ fundamental right to live free of violence. In many settings, security personnel have limited or no training specific to gender-based violence; and even where personnel receive specific training, security institutions often have high staff turnover due to difficult work environments. Further, there are often limited opportunities of upward mobility for staff specializing in this area. Cumulatively, these factors may act as a disincentive to being trained on the issue and reduces retention of trained personnel, who frequently leave positions to work in units or functions that receive greater support and acknowledgement within the institution (Barnes, 2009).

  • Poor communication and collaboration between security actors and other sectors:  An effective response to violence against women and girls requires the sector to work closely with other actors from health and justice sectors, and involving local authorities, legal assistance, and other survivor support groups and organizations in order to provide the maximum protection and care for the survivor, as well as to promote the potential prosecution of the perpetrator(s). In practice, there is often limited and at times no cooperation between security actors and other service providers (e.g. health, shelter, judicial personnel) or civil society organizations supporting women and girls. Cooperation between across sectors and among actors may be strained due to a lack of formal coordination mechanisms at both a national and community level; differing provider response protocols and referral policies; and weak relationships between individuals or distrust of security personnel, particularly if they are involved in perpetrating violence or are complicit when responding to cases reported to them.

  • Dominance of informal justice systems and customary law: In many communities across regions, especially within indigenous communities, rural areas or in settings where formal justice systems are weak, informal justice systems, tribal and customary law prevail. Women may rely on or prefer to use informal justice systems; they may be perceived as the only option for recourse available, may be more easily accessible within the community than formal justice mechanisms, or may be seen to uphold traditional values. Women may also pursue informal justice because they fear being stigmatized within their family and community or fear losing economic support and opportunities should they pursue a formal judicial remedy (for example, in cases where their husbands/ partners or a community leader or authority figure may be jailed as a result of a formal judicial process) (Swaine, 2003; Ladbury, 2009). In some areas, police may refer the case to an informal system or discourage women and girls from pursuing a response through the formal system. This limits women’s access to protection measures by law enforcement (orders of protection, arrest, or removal of perpetrator on cases of domestic violence) and limits their opportunities to seek redress for acts of violence against them (Barnes, 2009). There is less oversight of informal justice systems to ensure their adherence to national or international human rights standards, and that women's rights are being upheld in practice. At times, these systems often discriminate against female victims, reaching settlements without the participation or agreement of the affected woman or girl. In the worst cases, the process may perpetuate the violence she has experienced, for example, by forcing a victim of rape to marry the perpetrator. (For additional information, see the Justice module and UN Women. 2011. Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice).

  • Discriminatory socio-cultural norms and gender stereotypes: Most societies remain male-dominated and in many communities, violence against women and girls is largely accepted as a norm. The social stigmatization of gender-based violence survivors by family members, authorities, service providers, and police or other law enforcement actors can prevent women and girls from reporting cases of abuse. Discriminatory beliefs and attitudes held by police related to women and girls’ rights and roles within the family and community are a significant barrier to improving the sector’s role in addressing the issue. Security personnel and management may treat violence against women as a private matter, rather than one for state intervention, which can prevent the establishment, implementation (including enforcement) of policies, protocols and other practices to uphold women and girls’ rights. For example, in cases of domestic abuse, police may try to mediate between the woman and the perpetrator with a focus on reconciliation of the couple. This may escalate the violence and dissuade the survivor from contacting police again. In other cases, research has shown that police officers have refused to record cases and have sent women back to abusive situations, often leading to further abuse and stigmatization or in extreme cases, femicide (OECD/ DAC, 2009, Sequeira, et. al., 2007; Spraos, 2008; Hamilton, 2009; USAID, 2006).

  • Discrimination and limitations on women's presence and roles in the security sector: Despite increasing efforts to expand the recruitment and retention of women, female personnel remain a small percentage within the sector. In some contexts, women have been prohibited from working within security institutions, which are dominated by men altogether (Kaplan, 2000; Whitworth, 2005). For example, as of 2011, women represented an average of 9 percent of police forces globally (UN Women, 2011). Where they are able to find work in such institutions, other forms of discrimination in education, training and professional opportunities result in women remaining in lower-ranking, administrative roles, often receiving less pay for their work. While each woman’s experience is unique, institutional environments which promote discriminatory attitudes, negative perceptions about women in security roles, and perpetuate stereotypes of female personnel, can deter women from joining and serving in the sector and affect their ability to fully contribute to the institutions in which they work. This has a critical impact on survivors, who often prefer to disclose their experience to a female officer, although women officers also need training in providing a survivor-centred response.

  • Impunity for security sector actors perpetrating violence against women and girls: In some contexts, security actors are amongst the primary abusers of women’s and girls’ rights and are themselves perpetrators. Many cases of police and military abuse of civilians, especially women and girls have been documented in human rights reports (for example, see Human Rights Watch Reports; Amnesty International; also documented in reports by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences). Where police and military officers operate in a culture where violence against women is considered acceptable, and is tolerated by the majority of their colleagues, uniformed personnel are not likely to be held accountable for these abuses. Such crimes contribute to the impunity of perpetrators and reduce the number of women in the police or military, which further affects opportunities for reporting abuses and access to protection; as well as limiting the overall effectiveness of security institutions (UNODC, 2010).