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Civil society oversight

Last edited: December 29, 2011

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The active participation of civil society organizations, particularly, women’s groups, in developing security policies and overseeing the structures, policies and practices of security institutions is a critical element of the sector’s accountability and can:

  • ensure the diverse perspectives and security needs of different groups within the population are considered when planning and developing national and local security measures;

  • help strengthen local ownership of security sector reform processes;

  • improve the value and relevance of community-level security initiatives; and

  • advocate for greater action to eliminate violence against women and girls (Kanani 2008; Barnes and Albrecht, 2008).

Civil society organizations need to be represented and contribute to policy discussions in order to play an effective role in monitoring the sector’s accountability. In this regard, formal security oversight bodies should include the participation of women’s organizations, particularly groups that advocate for and work with survivors of violence (e.g. civilian review boards, public complaints commissions and independent monitoring groups). These joint civil society-government bodies can develop, review and coordinate implementation of national policies and action plans on violence against women, ensuring that they include specific measures and outline key responsibilities for security institutions.

Example: The Policy Advocacy Partnership on Violence against Women and Children in Ghana

The Ark Foundation, Ghana, is an advocacy-based women’s human rights non-governmental organization. To achieve a coordinated policy framework for addressing violence against women and children in Ghana, it spearheaded a Policy Advocacy Partnership comprising state and non-state actors to lobby for the adoption of a National Policy and Plan for the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act (Act 732 of 2007), and to ensure that the Policy addresses sexual and gender-based violence issues broadly in institutional arrangements. It also successfully lobbied for adoption of an integrated, coordinated approach to addressing violence against women and girls in the policy framework. From 2008 to 2010, the initiative conducted monitoring to assess the status of implementation of the Act.

Source: Ark Foundation. Monitoring and Advocacy Unit.

Specific actions that civil society can take to hold the sector accountable for performance include:

  • Monitor national security laws and policies for their compliance with international and regional laws regarding women’s security needs, violence against women and girls and the role of the security sector. Organizations can play a vital role in monitoring the compliance of national laws with internationally and regionally agreed commitments, for example, through a shadow report alongside the official government report on implementation of a convention or resolution such as CEDAW or Security Council resolution 1325. For examples of shadow reports monitoring national commitments, see the country reports submitted to the CEDAW Committee (see column Information provided to the Committee) during annual sessions and Peace Women’s National Commitments Initiative.

  • Monitor police and military reform processes, such as through conducting independent reviews of the process and outcomes, to ensure they include measures to improve responses to violence against women, and providing analysis and recommendations to policymakers, advocating for increased accountability of security institutions for their performance in addressing the issue.

Example: The role of women in Fiji’s national security and Defense review

Following discussions at a Peace Vigil led by women during the May 2000 hostage crisis, the National Council of Women of Fiji made contact with the military, learning to negotiate and communicate with security forces, who had strong influence in addressing instability in the country. As a result, the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces brought together members of the Military Council and other senior officers to meet with representatives of the Peace Vigil, who presented a statement known as ‘The Women’s Letter’. It outlined the need for Fiji to return to parliamentary democracy; for the military to uphold the 1997 Constitution as the supreme law of the country; and urged the military to respect human rights. While the letter was received respectfully and favourably, the delegation learned a critical lesson that the language of the military and the security sector needed to be used for future dialogue and peace initiatives.

In 2003, the National Council of Women and the Military Council held a national dialogue, which resulted in the Fiji Women, Peace and Security Coordinating Committee and the National Council of Women making formal submissions to the National Security and Defense Review. This demonstrated the valuable contribution that women’s networks (from community and national levels) can make into early warning interventions, while also identifying key entry points for women at local and national decision-making levels. The submission focused primarily on women’s participation in security decision-making, identified violence against women as a barrier to participation, and included the following recommendations:

  • The Minister for Women should be included on the National Security Council.

  • The Permanent Secretary of the Women’s Ministry should be a permanent member of the National Security Advisory Committee.

  • Women should be effectively and equitably represented on Provincial and District Security Committees.

  • Women should be included in the National Security Assessment Unit.

  • Gender balance in the decision-making levels of the security forces should be ensured, and efforts made to recruit women into the Military Forces.

During the process, the Government of Fiji publicized a cabinet paper on these issues, held additional consultations and had implemented the first two recommendations. In 2008, Fiji’s Minister for Women was appointed to the National Security Council by the interim Government. Through this appointment, the Director for Women became a member of the Intelligence Advisory Committee and other security committees.

Sources: Hendricks, C. and L. Hutton, (2008) ‘Defense Reform and Gender – Tool 3, Gender & Security Sector Reform Toolkit, Eds. Megan Bastick and Kristin Valasek, Geneva: DCAF, OSCE/ODIHR, UN-INSTRAW; communication from Sharon Bagwhan-Rolls, Femlink Pacific; UNDP (2010) Enhancing Security Sector Governance in the Pacific Region: A Strategic Framework.

  • Monitor implementation of policies and practices, including by documenting cases of violence against women and make recommendations on how institutions should respond. Organizations can conduct gender assessments of institutions, processes, policies and budgets with regards to prevention and response (including collection of gender-disaggregated data), presenting findings and concrete recommendations for security institutions. Civil society and community-based organizations can also play a vital role in the collection of data on different types of violence against women, especially where police capacity is low. For example, in Timor-Leste, the non-governmental organization Fokupers collects its own data on reported cases of violence from women seeking help from the group, which it publishes, shares and discusses with the Police Vulnerable Persons Unit, to complement police data and as part of a national referral mechanism for cases of gender-based violence.

Example: Recommendations for US military

The National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office has developed a Toolkit with recommendations to the United States military to improve their response to violence against women as follows:

  • Use the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence. Review, evaluate, support, and enhance the efforts of the U.S. Department of Defense to end domestic violence.

  • Establish a task force to address acts of sexual assault. Create a complementary body to the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence to address acts of sexual assault that occur within the military or are committed by service personnel.

  • Assess the incidence of sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and stalking among unmarried military members and their intimate partners. Continue to identify and evaluate any policies or practices within units that directly or indirectly encourage activities that compromise women’s safety.

  • Improve coordination between the military and civilian communities. Implement a coordinated community response to crimes that involve sexual assault, including forced prostitution, dating and domestic violence, and stalking (committed on and off the military base). 

  • Enhance and continue to use military intervention to address and eliminate domestic violence. Work collaboratively with military and civilian communities to improve intervention and prevention efforts.

  • Continue to teach command and service members how to prevent unauthorized use of violence throughout their active duty service. Stress that strong leadership is needed at every level to strengthen the training and management of personnel.

  • Ensure that trained victim advocates are available on every installation and that women on military bases also have access to victim advocates from the local civilian community. Publicize the availability of civilian and military sexual assault and domestic violence hotlines and crisis intervention services throughout every installation.

  • Continue to offer victims and offenders multidisciplinary interventions. Recommend additional resources and funding or the redirection of existing resources.

  • Record all reported cases of sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, stalking, and military personnel involvement with women in forced prostitution in an appropriate Department of Defense database. Review recordkeeping efforts and recommend ways to improve tracking of cases involving violence against women.

(National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the Violence Against Women Office. Toolkit to End Violence Against Women. Chapter 15. The Role of the U.S. Military in Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women).

  • Raise public and media awareness about the responsibilities of security actors, the importance and process for reporting incidents to the police, and mechanisms available to hold them to account.

  • Establish networks working on security issues and violence against women, which can contribute to:

    • Sharing of relevant information on resources and ‘know-how’ on the role of security institutions in violence prevention and responses;

    • Building solidarity between organizations working on violence (via research, dialogue and exchange);

    • Strengthening capacity of members on critical issues and methodologies for research and advocacy;

    • Facilitating coordination of referral systems and service provision for women and girls;

    • Assisting police to identify vulnerable locations that increase insecurity;

    • Advocating across regions for improved responses to conflict and trafficking;

    • Informing national and international policies and programmes on women, peace and security;

    • Advocating for increased interest and investment in gender-based violence prevention

  • Focus on the long-term sustainability of initiatives engaging the sector on the issue (e.g. working to institutionalize training on women’s rights and gender-based violence; promoting joint service provision with national and local government agencies; helping to build a functional referral network).

Examples of security-focused civil society networks addressing violence against women

  • The International Association of Women Police aims “to strengthen, unite and raise the profile of women in criminal justice internationally”. Its specific goals include to: raise the profile of gender issues through policy and procedural changes, (for example in resource policies); improve women’s ability to excel by providing professional development opportunities; ensure that the women’s achievements and contributions to criminal justice and society are recognized; and encourage networking and peer support.

  • The southern-led Global Consortium on Security Transformation aims to bring new voices and perspectives into debates on security sector reform through research, dialogue and networking. It is supporting projects on women’s security and violence against women in Africa, Asia and Latin America – including looking at the response of security actors.

  • The Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa) was established in 2006 in Ghana as a women-focused and led Pan-African organization with the core mandate to promote women's strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance in Africa. The network primarily operates in West Africa and implements programmes related to women, peace and security (including security sector reform), women’s leadership and decision-making in peace and security issues, and their role in post-conflict recovery.

  • Gender Action for Peace and Security in the United Kingdom, is an expert working group of peace and development NGOs, academics and grassroots peace builders founded in 2006 and focused on advancing the implementation of UNSC resolution 1325 and facilitates and monitors the meaningful inclusion of gender perspectives in all aspects of national policy and practice on peace and security.

Search for other relevant organizations on the Peace Women Portal.


Key Tools

A Women’s Guide to Security Sector Reform (Bastick, M.and Tobie Whitman, DCAF, 2013). This guide seeks to encourage and empower women to take part in shaping and transforming the security sector in their communities and countries. The Guide provides both information on the security sector and SSR, and tools for action, drawing upon the experiences of women in civil society from Afghanistan, Liberia, Libya, Nepal, Serbia, and Uganda, among other countries. The Guide outlines how to research security issues, form coalitions, plan strategically, develop recommendations, advocate and engage directly with the security sector. It contains practical tools, including exercises to identify local security needs, sample letters to security officials, talking points for meetings with policymakers and media, and a glossary of security terms. Available online in English and French.

Civil Society Oversight of the Security Sector and Gender – Tool 9’, Gender & Security Sector Reform Toolkit (Barnes, K. And Albrecht, P. Eds. Bastick and Valasek, 2008). This tool is a resource for civil society organizations, engaged in oversight of the security sector, as well as those that seek to play a more active role in this regard. The Tool provides an introduction to the importance and benefits of integrating gender issues into civil society oversight of the security sector, including practical examples and recommendations. Available in Arabic; English; French; Indonesian.

Public Oversight of the Security Sector: A Handbook for CSOs on Democratic Security Governance’ (Capriani, Cole E. and Kinzelbach, K., 2008). This Handbook is for civil society and non-governmental organizations. It provides an overview of conceptual and practical considerations on oversight aspects that lend themselves for civil society involvement it is also relevant to democratic institutions and representatives, policymakers, practitioners, researchers, security sector institutions, the media, as well as regional and international organizations partnering with civil society on public oversight of the security sector. The Handbook includes a chapter on Gender and Democratic Security Governance, which outlines the benefits of integrating gender issues into the sector. Available in English.