Post-Conflict Gender-Responsive Security Sector Reform: Risk Versus Opportunities

By: Dr. Eleanor Gordon, Ciara McHugh, Jane Townsley

Building Inclusive and Responsive Security Sector Institutions

Given that effective security and justice sector institutions are fundamental to sustainable peace, Security Sector Reform (SSR) – the reform or (re)construction of security and justice sector institutions – remains central to peacebuilding endeavors. A central principle of SSR is that security and justice sector institutions be both responsive and representative if they are to be effective and instill public confidence and trust. Gender-responsive SSR aims to develop institutions that address the security needs of women and men as well as people of diverse gender identities, with the aim of more equal representation of them. Despite policy guidance recognizing the need for more gender-responsive SSR, in practice women and their security needs continue to be marginalized in SSR efforts and security institutions.

When Risk Can Justify Inaction

This gap between policy and practice is often the result of arguments that unwelcome risks would arise from promoting a gender-responsive approach to SSR. These risks can legitimize inaction. They include risks to individuals, security sector institutions, and peacebuilding efforts and encompass security, programmatic, fiduciary, and reputational risks. They form three broad categories:

  • Physical harm: if the principle of gender equality is not valued within society, efforts to recruit women to the security sector can expose these women to harm;
  • Compromising operational effectiveness: arguments about risks to operational effectiveness in security institutions are based on assumptions that the skillset and aptitude of women can disrupt male bonding processes and institutional capacity;
  • Destabilizing power relations: in societies lacking a commitment to gender equality, efforts to promote gender equality can result in accusations of challenging traditional patriarchal power relations, which can lead to backlashes against women’s increased empowerment.

These risks also result in complementary risks to the SSR program and, in consequence, to any implementing organization or donor, which are often very concerned to avoid reputational and fiduciary risks. This cycle further inhibits efforts to promote gender-responsive SSR. As OECD (2016, 15) has stated, institutional desires to avoid such risks “are a major barrier in scaling up and delivering more effective and transformative programs in fragile, at-risk and crisis-affected contexts.”

Risks and Tokenism

These arguments about risk tend to focus on recruitment of women to security sector institutions rather than on activities involved in building a comprehensive gender-responsive SSR. This is in part because gender-responsive SSR is often reduced to recruitment of women in security sector institutions and tokenism, ignoring that comprehensive gender-responsive SSR moves far beyond tokenistic recruitment of women and can help avoid some of the risks which often justify inaction. Comprehensive gender-responsive SSR includes:

  • promoting meaningful and influential representation of women, men, and people of diverse gender identities;
  • attending to institutional, structural, and cultural barriers to women’s recruitment, retention, and promotion;
  • ensuring security sector institutions are responsive to the security needs of women, men, and people of diverse gender identities;
  • taking into account the gender implications of security policies, procedures, and practices;
  • attending to gender bias within security sector institutions and the way in which gender norms and expectations might cause harm.

Risk Analysis and Risk Management

These arguments about risk also tend to lead to inaction without undertaking a comprehensive risk analysis to determine the likelihood and magnitude of the potential risks, how risks can be mitigated and managed, and what risks may result from inaction. Given that risk avoidance can undermine program effectiveness, a comprehensive risk analysis would reveal how gender-responsiveness can increase operational effectiveness.

The Political Act of Risk Selection and Risk Aversion

Where an evaluation of risks leads actors to avoid taking action, it is necessary to ask who decides what constitutes a risk and which risks are worth taking.  It is necessary to recognize that these decisions are normative and political and tend to reflect and reinforce cultural norms and dominant power relations, including gendered power relations. Risks that arise as a result of hegemonic masculinities are therefore more likely to be regarded as acceptable or unavoidable (armed conflict, for instance), while those risks which appear to counter masculine norms are more likely to generate concern (e.g. those associated with advancing the principle of gender equality). This is especially the case among those individuals who may benefit from or align themselves with the traditional values enshrined within the patriarchal social order.

Institutions reflect and reproduce gender power relations and gendered inequalities. This is especially the case with security sector institutions that often serve to protect and promote hegemonic masculine norms. This understanding helps explain the gap between gender-responsive SSR policy and practice and the tendency for language of risk to trump the language of inclusion and equality. It further helps explain how informal rules, norms, and practices – such as gendered assumptions about the vulnerability of women and their capabilities, the appropriateness of women’s place and behavior, and normative assumptions about risk – can undermine formal rules regarding gender equality, responsiveness, and inclusion. Assumptions about risk are clearly informed by a “gendered logic of appropriateness” (see Chappell 2014 and other feminist institutionalist scholars). Risk taking and risk aversion are structured by informal rules that both reflect and reinforce gender power relations, thereby sustaining and justifying gender inequalities.

Missed Transformational Opportunities

When arguments about risk justify inaction on gender-responsiveness, opportunities are missed to advance a more effective, responsive, and accountable security sector that promotes the transformational change that can lead to sustainable and equitable peace. Comprehensive gender-responsive SSR has the potential to consolidate efforts to build a sustainable peace. This peace emerges through the renegotiation of gendered power relations and the distribution of resources, including access to security, justice, and power. Moreover, the long-term risks to gender equality, women’s security, and broader societal stability that arise from failing to enact a gender-responsive approach to SSR outweigh the risks of implementation. Unfortunately, the dominant patriarchal focus on preventing a recurrence of conflict in peacebuilding lends itself to focusing on the short-term and immediate risks, rather than longer term risks.


Women’s marginalization from SSR and security sector institutions occurs despite policy and a professed commitment to the principle of gender equality. This paradox of women’s continued marginalization stems from an attachment to gendered norms, which situate the woman as in need of protection but without the requisite security expertise to determine how best to respond to that need. A woman’s agency is consequently surrendered to others who often agree that women (notably early recruits in the security sector) should be marginalized from the security sector for their own good, as well as for the benefit of the institutions themselves (protecting their operational effectiveness) and wider society (protecting peacebuilding processes from unnecessary destabilization). It can be seen, therefore, that informal rules, practices and norms, imbued with gender biases, undermine efforts to promote gender-responsive SSR, even where formal rules and expectations exist. These informal rules, practices, and norms are especially likely to dilute or subvert reform efforts which challenge the gendered status quo (see Mackay and Murtagh 2019). Consequently, comprehensive gender-responsive SSR, which has the potential to lead to transformational change and avoid some of the practical risks discussed, is more likely to be framed as risky and potentially destabilizing as it is more likely to disrupt the gendered status quo. The language of “risk”, “stability,” and “appropriateness” is central to this process of undermining reform processes and to the continued marginalization of women within and through SSR programs.


For the full article, see: Gordon, E., McHugh, C. and Townsley, J. (2020) ‘Gender-Responsive Security Sector Reform and Transformational Opportunities’, Global Security Studies.