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5 steps to equitable security using an intersectional approach

Multi-gender and racial group of learners at a security training

by Kelsey Hoppe, Safer Edge CEO

The goal of security provision – whether by a government or organisation – is equitable security. Equitable security is built on an intersectional approach and cannot be understood without it. To understand what an intersectional approach to security looks like we need to understand how our current security systems are built and how an intersectional approach is different.

Today, almost all security provision focuses on equality. Equality means that individuals are provided with the same security resources, training and opportunities. Equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and the allocation of security resources, training and opportunities will need to be allocated differently to reach an equal outcome. “Threats aren’t respecters of persons,” we hear. To counter those threats, the organisation takes a reductionist approach to individuals. With equal security provision as our goal, we treat every person the same no matter their individual characteristics. This type of security works well if organisations are providing security for a homogenous group or ones with strong hierarchies – like the military or police. In such organisations, personal characteristics, thoughts, actions, activity can be assumed and focus placed on the external environment in which the group is operating.

This approach situates location at the centre of security assessment. It is why we hear places referred to as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. London is ‘safe’ and Baghdad is ‘unsafe’. We don’t need to ask the question, ‘safe for who? When? Or why? Because all people are treated equal in the environment and the variable is the number or intensity of the threat face.

"Equal security provision works well for organisations that are homogenous or have strong hierarchies. It allows them to focus almost entirely on location-based threats. "

European security risk manager standing on map of Europe with raised hand

However, most humanitarian, development and even corporate organisations are not structured like the military and are not providing security for a homogenous group. Humanitarian and development organisations are diverse in thought, action, experience and mission and within those organisations their personnel are even more diverse. Human diversity cannot be reduced to a single dimension and our safety cannot be defined by a one-dimensional view of the space we occupy. Threats to our safety come from multiple manifestations of who we are - as well as where we are - and these need to be addressed with an intersectional approach to security.

Intersectionality is a term first used by feminist and civil rights activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race affected women’s experiences of systems and structure differently. It has developed into a term used to describe the interconnected nature of a person’s race, class, gender, ethnicity, age and other characteristics. All our characteristics translate into experiences of privilege or marginalisation that affect everything including how we experience fundamental human rights, access to basic services, educational opportunities and safety and security. Taking an intersectional approach to security means that our safety cannot be understood apart from ourselves - our characteristics, behaviours, capabilities and experiences.

intersectional security graphic

In the past few years, there have been increasing calls and events highlighting how we need to re-think security provision. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how policing in the U.S. not only fails to keep African-Americans safe, but rather endangers them. British author Caroline Criado Perez highlights in her book Invisible Women how women are more likely to die in car crashes and be injured by ill-fitting body armour. And global organisations have been wrestling with how to deploy LGBT+ people in locations where their identities are criminalised.

All these voices are saying that our current ‘equal’ approach to security is insufficient and that for security to be provided equitably it must be intersectional. Equal provision of security ignores one of the most basic elements in the security equation – ourselves.

In responding to these demands, organisations have attempted to become more representational flexing their systems and creating additional security advice or training for groups which proactively raise their concerns about inadequate security provision. A woman’s presence becomes a mandatory element in completing a risk assessment. Women’s security courses are developed. There are now briefings for LGBT+ staff. But, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, “representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.” Tacking on fixes to our security system, while the core remains the same, ignores a fundamental flaw in how security is delivered.

It is impossible for our security systems as they are currently designed to deliver equitable security because they lack an intersectional approach. An intersectional approach cannot be incorporated as an afterthought – it must be the basis of the design.

"It is impossible for our security systems as they are currently designed to deliver equitable security because they lack an intersectional approach."

How do we do this? How can organisations build a security system that delivers security equitably through an intersectional approach? Here are 5 steps:

1. Recognise intersectionality

Most organisations’ security management still treats their staff as a homogenous group and focus on environmental threats. Every person’s intersectional characteristics and experiences need to be recognised as integral for both personal and organisational security account for how that privileges or marginalises a person’s capability to be safe in any location.

2. Understand intersectionality

A lot of work has been done on using intersectionality in practice and it is each security manager’s responsibility to understand how this relates to security support. Some people are still fighting to have their identities understood – much less included – in the security discussion and they should not be responsible for educating an organisation on integrating intersectionality.

3. Examine our current risk management practice

Our current risk management systems, plans, protocols and training privilege some people over others. Who do our current systems work for and why? Who don’t they work for and why? It is insufficient to tack on extra briefings or ‘champions’ for those for whom the system is failing. We need redesign our systems and rebuild them around intersectionality.

4. Build inclusive systems and practice

We often speak of security being ‘provided’ or ‘delivered’ betraying a patriarchal hierarchy with an active security provider and a passive security implementer. But security - like good programming – needs to be co-constructed. The organisation needs humility to recognise that it cannot understand every staff person’s experience of safety and security and does not hold every perspective. The individual in turn must be proactive and engage with the organisation contributing their experience.

5. Make security systems accountable

In most organisations, security practice has little accountability and, if it exists, it is usually upward – toward a risk committee or executive. Good security practice should meet the needs of the people it serves and should therefore be accountable to them. Accountability would evaluate security based on the perspective of those it is meant to serve and be evaluated based on whether it is meeting those needs. Rather than counting the numbers of people trained or the number of specific races or genders included in security processes, accountability could be constructed around the effectiveness of training or the outcomes of inclusion.

An equitable security system based on an intersectional approach has the immediate benefits of improved and accessible organisational security support. When people see themselves in advice and support they are more likely to adopt and remember guidance. When people understand the perspectives of others they are more likely to be able to support each other and less likely to put others at risk without realising it. As groups of people, organisations need to recognise that no one is safe until every individual is safe.

But how? For most people, this is the biggest question. Even if we accept the five premises above how can security managers – given our singular perspectives, experience and conditioning – use our privilege to redesign security systems with an intersectional approach?

Several security practitioners in humanitarian and development organisations are already grappling with these questions and have developed innovative ways to redesign their practice around intersectional approaches. We’ll be talking to them in an upcoming roundtable conversation providing you with insight and ideas for redesigning your own security approaches. If you’re interested in being involved – including a link to the conversation – click here.


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