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Legislative / parliamentary oversight

Last edited: December 29, 2011

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As representatives of citizen interests, parliamentarians have a crucial oversight role, holding the executive accountable for the performance of the security sector. Parliaments review, amend and pass laws that define and regulate the sector and their powers; approve corresponding budgets; serve as a bridge between government and citizens by engaging in national dialogue on security issues; provide a monitoring and evaluation function; and can establish bodies such as a parliamentary ombudsmen or commissions to investigate public complaints against security institutions (Luciak 2008; Born et al., 2003). To maximize their oversight role, parliamentarians should:

  • Approve inclusive, needs-based security legislation which is based on broad consultations with civil society including women’s organizations and considers the different security needs of men, women, girls and boys – especially related to their experiences with violence. This may involve:

    • Drafting, reviewing and amending national legislation related to violence against women to ensure the specific responsibilities of law enforcement personnel are in line with human rights standards and commitments (See examples of provisions in section on national legislation). Laws should be informed by advice from experts on the issue.

    • Conducting gender impact assessments or evaluations of proposed legislation and policies, specifically in relation to preventive measures and responses to different forms of violence, which can be implemented by specific parliamentary committees (e.g. internal affairs, defense) or groups (e.g. gender caucus).

    • Holding consultations, public hearings, town hall meetings to gain information and feedback on proposed or current security-related legislation, policies and reforms – ensuring the participation of women and women’s organizations, and specific discussion of violence against them (see civil society oversight).

    • Reviewing carefully the budget allocations in relation to agreed commitments to ensure alignment.


Example: Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary hearings on efforts to prevent domestic violence  

In June 2008, the Kyrgyz Minister of Internal Affairs held parliamentary hearings with the deputies of the Zhogorku Kenesh (parliament) and representatives of law enforcement and judicial agencies, crisis centres, non-governmental organizations and the media. The hearings aimed to assess domestic violence prevention efforts and consolidate the proposed criminal procedure measures to increase the effectiveness of police responses in such cases. The assessment resulted in:

  • Issuance of two ministerial orders related to:

  • Improved gender- disaggregated statistical data. For example, The Law on State Guarantees of Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (2008) provides for the collection of gender-disaggregated statistics; while the National Plan of Action for Achieving Gender Equality (2007–2010) calls for the development of a gender evidence base and related statistical information. Since 2000, the National Statistical Committee has produced an annual compilation of sex-disaggregated statistics entitled “Women and Men in the Kyrgyz Republic”.

  • Decisions to monitor the implementation of the Law "On Social and Legal Protection from Domestic Violence” and make amendments to the Law and develop a new version to be submitted to Parliament.

The initiative has contributed, among other efforts, to a rise in the numbers of temporary orders issued, although the figures are still very low in the context of the large number of domestic violence cases in Kyrgyzstan. The initiative was also highlighted as a positive effort, among other gender-based violence interventions, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences during her visit to the country in 2009, although she noted that there was a need for sustained implementation of actions over time, and greater outreach to both police and the population to raise awareness and counter negative practices.

Sources: UN Secretary-General's database on violence against women Kyrgyzstan Country Page; Interviews with Gulsara Alieva, gender focal point of Ministry of Internal Affairs and Aleksandra Eliferenko, Association of crisis centres (2010); United Nations General Assembly (2010) Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Mission to Kyrgyzstan

  • Monitor and evaluate the implementation of legislation and budgets to hold security institutions accountable for their actions, in particular:

    • Monitor the implementation of legislation including the specific actions required by the sector, in line with international, regional and national commitments.

    • Request an evaluation of government policies/programmes related to the issue.

    • Initiate parliamentary questions and propose debates on inquiries regarding violence against women. For example, individual parliamentarians can raise questions that require a response from the Minister of the Interior or Security and propose inquiries into the sector’s progress on violence prevention and response.

    • Actively participate in government-led sectoral reviews or reform processes (e.g. a defense review, police reform).

    • Hold public hearings and select committee meetings to review government performance on implementing relevant legislation, involving testimonies and presentations by government ministers, civil servants and members of security institutions (i.e. police and armed forces).

    • Establish inquiries and monitoring of complaints, investigations and prosecution of human rights violations and sexual exploitation and abuse conducted by security personnel against members of the public or female colleagues.

    • Request that security and defense reviews include consideration of gender issues, including violence, and consultation with experts in these fields, including women’s organizations.

    • Commission research / consultancy work on the implementation and impact of legislation and policies related to the sector’s role in addressing the issue.

    • Conduct inspection and information visits to particular facilities (e.g. local police stations, women’s police units, women’s prisons).


Promising practice: Public Hearings in South African Parliament on implementation of the Domestic Violence Act

In October 2009, the Portfolio and Select Committees of the South African Parliament held two days of public hearings on the implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act. Oral submissions were made by a variety of civil society organizations and experts including the Legal Resource Centre, People Opposing Women Abuse, a University of Cape Town professor, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Projects Abroad Human Rights Office, Mosaic, the Gender Advocacy Programme, the Saartjie Baartman Centre, REACH, the Cape Law Society, the Women's Legal Centre and Thoyando Victim Empowerment. Several survivors also provided personal testimonies. Key issues raised with respect to the sector’s performance included:

  • The lack of adherence to the National Instructions of the South African Police Service on domestic violence

  • The absence and lack of clarity of guidelines for police officers

  • Pressures on police to reduce crime statistics contributing to failure to accurately record domestic violence incidents

  • Failure by police officers to inform victims of their rights

  • Impunity for state agents who failed to carry out their duties

Key recommendations made by contributors included the need for:

  • Establishment of a specialized police unit to deal with domestic violence complaints

  • Provision of adequate and continuous training to police officers

  • Regular progress reports to parliament by the Police on their implementation of the Act

  • Amendment of the Domestic Violence Act to correct ambiguity concerning arrest warrants, allowing officers to arrest a perpetrator without warrant if imminent harm is suspected

In February 2010, a draft report on the hearings was issued, with various conclusions related to the police:


  • There appeared to be a disincentive for police to record domestic violence cases; following targets set for reducing contact crime, police often turned away people reporting domestic violence, to create the appearance of a reduction in the figures.

  • Firearms were not always confiscated after being used to threaten victims, nor were perpetrators’ licenses suspended.

  • The safety of persons with protection orders was compromised, as police were not always willing to serve the protection order or arrest perpetrators who had violated the protection order.

  • Numerous incidents were reported citing the appalling attitude of police, who often subjected victims to secondary abuse.

  • There was a need for risk assessment to make victim safety a priority when returning to the environment.

  • Lack of resources: The police claimed they had no vehicles available and services were not rendered in cases where reports came from outside their jurisdiction, particularly in rural areas.

  • Service of protection orders: Protection orders often did not serve the purpose they were intended, because the victim had to return to the abusive environment; cost implications were not applied uniformly across the country; and reluctance of police to serve protection orders, or undue delay, placed the victim in grave danger.

  • Training: The Police Service provided training, but was insufficient on its own and there was a need to review existing training modules and to monitor and evaluate their application, and to debrief officials to keep them sensitive to the issues they were dealing with.

  • Specialized Units: The reestablishment of the Family Violence Child Protection Unit and Sexual Offences Units was welcomed, but more information was needed, particularly around the mandate regarding domestic violence.

Overall, it was recommended that certain sections of the Domestic Violence Act be amended, including police powers to arrest a perpetrator and the precise meaning of ‘imminent harm’. The report suggested police training on the Act be improved, particularly around serving protection orders, and made additional recommendations as follows:

  • the need for training norms and standards that were consistent around the country.

  • amendment of the Department of Police‘s National Instructions to provide clear guidelines to police officers on when perpetrators should or should not be arrested.

  • the need for a five-year plan and an indication from the Department of Police looking at decreasing the incidence of domestic violence, clearly stating the role of South African Police Service Evaluation Service in monitoring progress on those targets.

  • close monitoring of referrals made by police officers to domestic violence survivors for health care services and counselling.

  • maintenance and monitoring of domestic violence registers, including accountability for those responsible.

  • development of a mechanism to deal with withdrawals or situations where women did not wish to pursue charges but still required help and protection.

  • allocation of sufficient resources in terms of obtaining forensic evidence.

  • the parliament should insist on reports from the Department of Police on its compliance with the Act and Firearms Control Act as it relates to domestic violence.

Sources: Parliamentary monitoring Group; Public Hearings on the 11 year implementation of the Domestic Violence Act

  • Review and approve institutional budgets: Parliaments can use their mandate to adopt and oversee budgetary provisions related to security, defense and policing to oblige security institutions to prioritize the issue through the following actions:

    • Request security institutions to employ gender-responsive budgeting for policing and defense operations.

    • Scrutinize expenditure against policy commitments and actions plans, which is usually the role of a public accounts committee.

    • Institute or review the functioning of financial auditing mechanisms (e.g. an ombudsperson), ensuring these are mandated to examine performance related to violence against women.

  • Investing in internal capacity development: Parliaments should have the required institutional capacities, financial resources, skills and knowledge to implement their oversight role effectively, which can be supported by:

    • Hearing testimonies from women’s organizations and survivors, via individual members of parliament of parliamentary committees or caucuses.

    • Establishing parliamentary caucus on gender or violence against women, which provide forum for debate and discussion of these issues.

    • Establishing formal mechanisms for civil society-parliamentarian interaction on the issue– for example via a parliament liaison office, representative or researcher.

    • Undertaking training and capacity development on the issue, including for   their staff, especially those on security, defense and internal affairs committees, and regularly review briefings and research produced by academics, non-governmental organizations and other experts.


Promising practice: The role of women parliamentarians and women’s organizations in creating gender-responsive security policies in South Africa

The Republic of South Africa’s National Defense Review was conducted between 1996 and 1998. At the insistence of women parliamentarians and others, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee called for the Review to be undertaken as a nationwide consultation process, with contributions made by members of the defense industry, civil society groups, including defense-related NGOs and women’s organizations as well as representatives of the academic community. A variety of measures were taken to ensure public participation, including the use of military planes and buses to transport religious and community leaders, NGO activists and representatives of women’s groups to regional meetings and workshops. The consultative and transparent nature of the process changed the perception of the military in the eyes of the public, giving the Review legitimacy and credibility.

The Review included a focus on ‘human security’ and emphasized the creation of a non-sexist institutional culture, including an obligation of the Ministry of Defense to identify and eliminate discriminatory practices and attitudes in the armed forces. It called for affirmative action and equal opportunity programmes, acknowledgment of women’s right to serve in all ranks and positions, including combat roles.

Women at the grassroots level and in rural areas demanded greater freedom; equality in the eyes of law and society; the right to property ownership; access to safe housing, employment, and education; and protection from all forms of violence. Grassroots women’s organizations were vital in drawing attention to previously ignored issues such as the needs of dispossessed communities whose land had been seized for military use, the environmental impact of military activities, and sexual harassment by military personnel, which contributed to the formation of a defense sub-committee on sexual harassment of women by military personnel.

Following the two-year participatory defense review process and the issuance of the White Paper, a number of mechanisms were instituted to address the issue:

  • the Defense Act of 2002, which classifies sexual harassment and discrimination as criminal offences;

  • creation of a Gender Focal Point within the Equal Opportunities Directorate, with outreach across the services and divisions;

  • a Gender Forum to implement gender policies in the Department’s lower levels;

  • a telephone hotline to report cases of sexual harassment and gender-based violence by defense personnel; and

  • a Gender Sensitization Programme within the Department to raise awareness and understanding of gender policies.

  • The process also resulted in the government’s recognition of the need to integrate gender-based training into peacekeeping operations, drawing upon the expertise of non-governmental organizations.

Sources: Anderlini, S.N. and C.P. Conaway (2004), ‘Negotiating the Transition to Democracy and Reforming the Security Sector: The Vital Contributions of South African Women’, Washington DC: Women Waging Peace Policy Commission, quoted in Enhancing Security Sector Governance in the Pacific Region, a Strategic Framework, UNDP, PIFS, DCAF January 2010; Luciak, I. (2008), ‘Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector and Gender – Tool 7’, Gender & Security Sector Reform Toolkit, Eds. Megan Bastick and Kristin Valasek, Geneva: DCAF, OSCE/ODIHR, UN-INSTRAW: DCAF.


Key Tools

‘Parliaments Take Action on Violence against Women: Priority actions For Parliaments’ (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2009). This guide is a resource for Parliamentarians and advocates working with them. The guide outlines six priority areas for parliaments to for ending violence against women and girls, including establishing a legal framework, implementing laws and promoting accountability, raising awareness, building cross-cutting partnerships, demonstrating political will and strengthening institutional capacities. The six strategies are illustrated through examples of parliamentary actions from various countries and are accompanied by references to additional resources. Available in ArabicEnglishFrench and Spanish.

South African Police Service Station Monitoring Tool (Parliamentary Monitoring Group-South Africa. 2005). This tool and report-back questionnaire are resources for parliamentary groups as well as other oversight actors (advocates or independent authorities) to use when monitoring police performance. Developed in the context of South Africa’s Parliamentary and Provincial Safety and Security Committees, the questionnaire aims to: facilitate effective oversight of station level policing; provide committees with independent data to inform recommendations; enable comparison across stations and provinces; measure progress over time; and ensure more effective collaboration in oversight functions between provincial legislative committees by using a standardized tool. The form includes a few questions related to the capacity of police stations to deal effectively with violence against women and a dedicated section on implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. Available in English.

Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector: Principles, Mechanisms and Practices — Handbook No. 5 for Parliamentarians (Born, H., F. Fluri and A. Johnsson, 2003). This handbook is a broad introduction to enhancing parliamentary oversight of the security sector. The first two sections set out the theoretical and analytical framework for the examination of parliamentary oversight of the security sector, including a global overview of the role of Parliament and other state institutions in security issues. Section IV examines the tools and instruments that parliaments can use to oversee the security sector, while Section VII aims to assist parliaments in regulating the recruitment, selection and training of security personnel. Available in English.

‘Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector and Gender – Tool 7’, Gender & Security Sector Reform Toolkit’ (Luciak, I. Eds. Megan Bastick and Kristin Valasek, 2008). This tool is intended for audiences at the national level include parliamentarians, parliamentary staffers and political parties. Members and staff of regional parliamentary bodies, such as the Pan African Parliament, the Central American Parliament, the European Parliament and the OSCE and NATO Parliamentary Assemblies are also a target audience; as are institutions and groups of parliamentarians, such as the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, which undertake parliamentary assistance activities. Government security sector reform and governance project officers, civil society organizations, researchers and academics working on the intersection of security, parliaments and gender will also find this tool useful. This tool seeks to highlight the importance of parliamentary oversight of the security sector and the benefits parliamentarians derive from integrating a gender perspective into their work. Available in Arabic; English;  French; Indonesian. The tool is complemented by a practice note with a summarized version of the guidance (Available in Arabic; English; French; and Indonesian).