Integrating gender into security sector reform in Burundi

International Alert Burundi recently carried out a study on women’s perceptions of security as part of its programme aimed at supporting local women’s organisations for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

One of the ways in which UN Resolution 1325 can be implemented is by integrating a gender element into Burundi’s Security Sector Reform (SSR), which has been one of the government’s major programmes since it won the first post-civil war elections in 2005. As the UN Peacebuilding Fund (UNPBF) had been supporting a number of projects for Burundi’s SSR which did not initially include a gender perspective, there was an excellent opportunity to increase awareness of UN Resolution 1325 and implement it.

Alert and its partner, the women’s peace organisation Dushirehamwe, together with the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security played an important role in lobbying the UN Peacebuilding Commission for the recognition of the role that women’s organisations have to play in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts. Thanks to this, Dushirehamwe, which leads a coalition of women’s organisations, was invited to represent women’s organisations as a very specific sector of civil society on the UNPBF’s steering committee and thus work closely with the security sector to integrate the gender perspective.

In order to inform the collaboration between civil society’s women’s groups and the security sector actors, a field study of women’s perceptions of security was undertaken by Alert. This included a series of consultations with women’s organisations, the army and the police high command, and a nationwide survey of women. Alert undertook the study in order to gain a better understanding of the specific security needs of Burundi’s women and their communities; to know if and how these are being incorporated into the ongoing SSR process in Burundi; and to collect specific recommendations from women belonging to the different communities.

By providing an overview of security from the women’s perspective, the survey’s findings will be useful both for the deepening of civil society collaboration and for ensuring the integration of the gender perspective in Burundi’s reformed security sector. By inquiring into both the reasons for insecurity and the quality of the response of the security sector in dealing with it, the findings point out the need for holistic strategies to enhance the security of women. The responses also highlight that SSR should be broadened to address the human element of security, which will be essential to the new system of community policing which is being put in place in Burundi at the moment.

In particular, the following issues were highlighted in the study:

Women’s security

Although 58% of women said that after a democratic election that followed 15 years of civil war, general security in the country has now improved, as the socio-political situation and the relative freedom of movement within the country confirm; only 41% of the respondents said that women’s security is better.

The questions concentrated on physical security, as one of the aims of the study was indeed that of understanding the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) and gathering opinions on how to prevent it.

There was great concern among respondents about the widespread phenomenon of sexual violence against women, especially concerning the victimisation of young girls. Women recognised that rape occurs inside the household too, even though in a small percentage. Otherwise, the cultural norm that the husband has the right to have sex with his wife at any time and in any circumstances is widely accepted.

It was somewhat surprising, however, that physical security was not the main concern of the respondents: it was human security instead, and human security expressed in particular terms, such as the relationship inside the household and women’s lack of access to land.

Adding insult to injury

Half of the respondents believe that factors within, as well as outside of the household, are sources of insecurity. Almost half of the respondents believe that the sense of insecurity due solely to factors inside the household: the emotional as well as physical abuse and the lack of free expression, the men’s infidelity (“polygamy”) are all reasons that contribute towards women’s insecurity. The latter is particularly relevant for the many women in non-legally binding relationships with men who have several other partners: if or when they are abandoned, they are not able to make ends meet.

Response of the police and justice system

Women were surveyed about their view of the service of the police and the justice system. Many cases of GBV still go unreported because women fear further conflicts which could bring consequences for the whole household and generally seek the mediation of traditional authorities, a mechanism that does not often result in pursuing penal sanctions. Although many women have responded that they have or they know others who have complained openly about sexual violence, the treatment of their cases by the police or eventually by the courts was largely unsatisfactory. Perpetrators are not pursued, and if pursued, rarely tried and further, if tried, convicted and imprisoned, rapidly released. This impunity is one of the main reasons that women do not feel protected and are therefore dissatisfied with the police and justice systems.

The women gave three specific reasons for the incapacity of the police to protect them – or for the justice system to vindicate them – was their indifference to women and their suffering (29.5%). The second and related reason was that women are underrepresented in the police and judiciary (28.8%); and corruption was the third most frequent response (6.8%).

Recommendations for reform

Although violence inside the household were frequently cited as being at the root of the problem of women’s insecurity, when asked for recommendations on how the provision of security can be improved, the respondents overwhelmingly cited the end of impunity for GBV as the most important reform to be achieved by the new security sector, and including more women in significant posts in these services was one of the specific recommendations for ending impunity.

Photo: Jenny Matthews