Africa: Cleaning out armies’ ranks to protect women

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The massacre of nearly 200 opposition demonstrators in Conakry, Guinea, in late September 2009 shocked Africa and the world. Beyond the sheer brutality of the crackdown, one feature was particularly stunning to many survivors and observers, although it has become a common one in most African conflicts: the systematic rape of scores of women.

Reforming African security institutions should include paying more attention to the plight of numerous women often victimized by men in uniform across the continent. If such a goal is to be achieved critical actions should be taken.

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 have all too often been among the abusers.

Here and there, however, steps are being taken to reform Africa’s security institutions to increase their ability — and willingness — to safeguard women, including setting up specialized units on sexual and domestic violence, courts dedicated to prosecuting sexual crimes and recruiting women into police and defence forces.

‘Twin approach’

But such improvements remain limited, notes Ecoma Alaga, an expert on gender and security sector reform (SSR) for the non-governmental Women Peace and Security Network–Africa (WIPSEN–Africa). SSR in Africa should put more emphasis on overcoming gender discrimination and on protecting women, she argues in a paper presented to a 15 September seminar in New York organized by the UN’s Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA).

For that to happen, a “twin approach” is required. On the one hand, those who design and carry out security reforms need to pay greater attention to gender issues and to actively involve women in all phases of reform programmes. On the other hand, women’s groups must themselves stop viewing security as “men’s business.”

Cleaning out armies’ ranks

In countries where armies have been especially notorious for brutalizing civilians, one of the most obvious reform measures is to rid them of personnel guilty of serious abuses. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), achieving that goal has proved difficult so far, despite numerous efforts.

A 2002 peace agreement provided for the creation of a new national army. But the process of vetting the ranks was limited.

Despite the peace accord, fighting has continued in the eastern provinces. Women often have been brutalized and raped. Although human rights monitors ascribe much of the abuse to anti-government groups, they frequently cite incriminating evidence against the regular army.

In June 2009 President Joseph Kabila proclaimed a “zero tolerance” policy. Since then, scores of rank-and-file soldiers have been tried.

But the Congolese army still has a long way to go. In November UN investigators confirmed that troops had killed some 60 civilians in one incident alone during an offensive against Rwandan rebels in early 2009. That same month, peacekeepers of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) suspended all support for army units involved in such killings.

Citing “lack of progress in the area of security sector reform” in a December 2009 report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Congolese authorities to thoroughly vet the army and bring to justice those involved in serious abuses.

General Monzili Zabili, a veteran Congolese army commander, estimates that it will take at least three years of intensive training and restructuring to create a truly “republican army.” What exists now, he says, is a “regroupment of several private militias.”

Contrary to the Congo’s experience, Liberia’s army offers an illustration of how cleaning the ranks can be effectively achieved. In 2006, after more than a decade of civil war, the West African country began building a new army. “Vetting” panels assessed the qualifications of each applicant, turning away anyone known to have engaged in abuses. The names and photos of applicants were published and circulated in local communities, and the general public was invited to come forth with any information that would disqualify a candidate. In the end, three quarters were rejected.

Training, staffing and legal action

Training is important for changing the outlooks and conduct of military and police personnel. In the Congo, instructors from MONUC and the European Union who have been working with army and police units teach courses on human rights and gender issues. Similar issues have been introduced in police curricula and training programs in Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

Changes in staffing are also vital, advocates for women’s rights argue, both to alter the overall culture of those structures and to carry out particular tasks to help protect women. In Liberia, President Ellen 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. Recently South Africa has increased its quota for both institutions to 40 per cent in an effort to speed the process. In 2007, eight female brigadier generals were appointed in the National Defence Force.

To counter the broader scourge of violence against women, the police and courts also must become more active and 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.

Some improvements are under way. In a number of countries, including Rwanda, laws on rape and sexual violence have been strengthened in recent years.

More broadly, violence against women is a societal problem and cannot be curbed by security institutions alone, notes Anne Marie Goetz, a governance and security adviser with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Moreover, she adds, the “wide tolerance of abuses” prevalent in many societies in turn makes it harder to transform the security institutions.

Mr. Ernest Harsch writes for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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