This week, the Commission the Status of Women (CSW) convenes to discuss “women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” Eliminating violence is critical for any conversation about women’s empowerment. Yet CSW’s official 2021 report proposes eliminating violence against women by “build[ing] the capacity of law enforcement personnel.” Such conversations are often accompanied by calls for more gender-responsive policing and increased surveillance of the spaces in which women live.
Over the past year, violent incidents carried out by police across the world have captured attention, including Breonna Taylor’s murder by police in the United States, the violence of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria, and the brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors in Myanmar. Such newsworthy events are merely a handful among the incredible number of non-spectacular incidents in which police are a source of insecurity for (especially Black, indigenous, trans, poor, and sex-working) women in their daily lives.
Bolstering security architectures is not an antidote to violence against women. The discussion at CSW must urgently move beyond how we can soften police violence through reform—a process that efficiently obscures the violence embedded in the institution of policing itself. Instead, conversations about gendered security need to be oriented away from policing as it currently exists. Advocates committed to women’s empowerment must consider how we might build new forms of community accountability and safety premised on wellbeing and care.
Much has been written about the origins of policing in the United States and England as products of racialized social control, anti-Blackness, and imperialism. The London Metropolitan Police was created to suppress opposition to the British state’s occupation in Ireland (whose population was racialized as an inferior other). In the US, police were initially mobilized to protect the interest of white slave owners by capturing and forcibly punishing enslaved people.
In the decades that followed, policing facilitated the expansion of the settler colonial state across indigenous lands. As the institution of the police evolved in both contexts, it strengthened in opposition to labor organizers and unions as police were employed to defend capital, large corporations, and landholders against fears of working-class rebellion. The very institution of policing, then, was never about creating security for all, but rather about protecting particular racialized and imperial economic interests. And yet this institution has been exported across the globe under the logic that police are integral to securing “safety.”
Thus, any conversation about eliminating violence against women needs to look clearly at the police as a source of insecurity and violence in women’s lives. In the US, at least 250 women have been fatally shot by police since 2015. While this figure is deeply alarming, it does not begin to capture the much more mundane violence Black and trans women, in particular, experience at the hands of the state. This experience of insecurity propagated by police is not unique to the US or England, though it has important unique racist logics that are a product of its origins in both contexts.
A few countries illustrate the gender impact of militarized policing. In our research, we’ve interviewed dozens of informal vendors or sex workers in Rwanda—a country that boasts more than 21 percent women in its police force, “gender desks,” and the highest level of women in parliament in the world—who are regularly roughed up by police, arrested, and sent to “rehabilitation” facilities where they are shaved, subjected to forcible health screenings, and often detained for months. In Sri Lanka, Tamil women and men are regularly abused at checkpoints and in police stations. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a security sector supported and trained by international stakeholders was responsible for egregious violence against protesters in the context of the country’s fraught elections. In Brazil, police are responsible for thousands of murders each year that occur with impunity under the guise of securing communities from gang violence. During Kenya’s last election, police killed dozens of people—including children—and were responsible for numerous recorded incidents of rape. In each of these contexts, police and militaries receive resources, training, and equipment from external actors in the interests of stabilization and the rule of law.
Too often, in spaces like CSW, an acknowledgement of these violent legacies has been met with a reformist logic that building up security architectures, or folding women into leadership roles in the police, the military, and other security apparatus, will allow violence to dissipate. Carceral logics undergird efforts to protect women from gendered harms, and women’s inclusion becomes the route through which gender-sensitive change is sought. This position views the systems that cause violence—including police, and the racial capitalist militarism that upholds policing more broadly—as reformable. Indeed, gender mainstreaming in security sector reform has been a priority of much advocacy within the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the wake of UN Security Council resolution 1325 over the past 20 years, and we’ve seen women’s inclusion proffered as a way of mitigating histories of violence and harm. These efforts parallel initiatives to include marginalized communities into security sector reforms as a way of ensuring that these forces are less racist.
As research has shown time and time again, diversifying these institutions relies on the “magical thinking” of reformism, which ultimately protects violent and harmful systems from total collapse. Indeed, the violent repression of women last week at Sarah Everard’s vigil in the UK by a police department led by a woman commissioner encapsulates the profound limits of inclusionary, reformist strategies to affect meaningful change towards gender emancipation.
The centrality of abolitionist thinking in advocacy circles has perhaps never been more visible as in the past year, in the wake of the George Floyd protests in the US and across the world. Brilliant thinkers and Black feminist activists like Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, Beth Richie and others have amplified the long struggle for abolition and allowed for a recognition that abolishing the police is the necessary and only solution to eradicating the pervasiveness of violence in our world. These calls have taken on global momentum in synergy with anti-militarist movements, including among anti-occupation groups in Palestine, movements to end the Korean war, and feminist peace movements. Moreover, these activists and movements—alongside collectives like Critical Resistance, INCITE!, and the Feminist Peace Initiative—have provided necessary corrections to those who dismiss demands to “defund” or “abolish” the police as impractical. Claims that fewer police will lead to violent crime, human trafficking, or pedophilia are frequently deployed to stoke fear of the policy implications of abolitionist positions.
Instead, feminists, abolitionists and radical thinkers have invited all of us to imagine: what world do we want to live in? What does a world look like that is free from violence and oppression in all of its forms? How can we envision a world where everyone has everything they need—including safety, sustenance, and the possibility of joy? Given that we are deeply entangled in the systems we want to change—white supremacy, capitalism, transphobia, ableism—answering these questions requires imagining what our world would look like if these systems simply did not exist. But we can also look to what has already worked—communities where abolition has already created more safety and freedom—to build confidence that our imaginings are not futile and that abolitionist strategies will put us on a path towards peace.
At CSW, instead of foregrounding conversations about women’s leadership in public life (without attention to which women we champion), we might instead focus on better understanding how those at the margins understand the sources of their autonomy, power, and oppression. Instead of advocating for strengthening law enforcement and carceral systems to deter violence against women, we might instead consider more transformative visions of justice.
Finally, instead of viewing security architectures as the principal arbiters of safety, we might consider how wellbeing and care emerges when communities have the ability to articulate their own futures and needs. Imagining a world without policing and the structures that maintain it is essential to imagining a world without violence against women.
Dr. Marie Berry is an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Dr. Milli Lake is an associate professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of International Studies.