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Sexism and gender imbalance in Punjab police force

The Punjab Police website states that there are around 4,000 policewomen on various posts, including SP, ASP, DSP, inspector, SI, traffic warden, ASI, head constables, constables, while according to a senior officer women constitute less than one per cent of the around 175,000 force in Punjab.

This gender imbalance is further cemented by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 that ranks Pakistan at 153 out of 156 countries. Another manifestation of this is that since the establishment of the first women police station in the country in 1994, there are only half a dozen of them in Punjab almost three decades on.

The station house officer (SHO) of Faisalabad’s lone women police station, Madiha Irshad, tells Dawn societal and cultural barriers used to hold back girls from joining the force, especially in rural areas, but not anymore.

“When I joined the police seven years ago, the only profession girls were asked to take up was teaching. But now mindsets are changing. I belong to the rural area of Samundri and was the first girl from there to join the police, but a lot of girls have followed me.”

Ms Irshad also feels the low number of women police stations is due to a lack of resources, but the government is working towards their expansion on tehsil and district levels.

“Women hesitate to approach police because in a regular police station the reporting officer is a man,” believes the SHO, who was inducted into the force in 2014 after passing the PPSC exam. She says people did try to discourage her from joining the police, but she was determined.

Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Amara Athar, who’s currently deputed as the Punjab Constabulary battalion commander, also agrees that women hesitate to approach the police for lack of female officers, but she believes the solution isn’t to depute women everywhere but rather gender sensitivity among the male force.

The women police station model hasn’t been successful because, she argues, this “segregation” isn’t practical, as women of an entire city can’t be forced to go to one police station. “Every police station should cater to the entire population so they need to be strengthened and sensitised and not deal with a complainant based on their gender,” she tells Dawn.

Despite significant progress made in safeguarding women’s rights, including legislation, access to justice still eludes many. The problems are compounded by a massive gender gap in law enforcement organisations and a lack of gender sensitisation among officials.

Most of these institutions, including the police and judiciary, remain male-dominated and the prevalent patriarchal mindset within them discourages women from narrating their ordeals, especially in rural areas.

Certain initiatives taken by the police to encourage female complainants, such as establishing helpdesks in all 36 districts of the province, setting up anti-harassment and violence cells run by policewomen, have not proved enough and women’s representation in the force also remains abysmally low.

SSP Athar echoes SHO Irshad that times are changing and a lot of girls are applying for even constable posts. But rather than inducting more women, she says, it’s important to retain the current officers and utilise their potential, which will encourage others. “For Police Service of Pakistan candidates it’s different, but juniors face promotion issues as they can’t fulfil the prerequisites when they’re not deputed in the field even though both boys and girls go through the same training. More women in decision making will improve things because male officers don’t talk to their female associates, hence don’t know about their issues.”

The senior officer believes gender sensitivity among the force isn’t an issue if a leader is strong.But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the SSP, who was inducted in 2009 through CSS and has been posted on various senior positions since then.

Ms Athar’s was the first batch of female ASPs in Punjab, so, she says, the very first challenge facing them was field postings – a domain held by their male counterparts until then. “The then police chief wanted to post us in the headquarters, but I fought that we’d be wasted as we also went through the same training, and forced him to relent. So the first challenge was acceptability and crossing cultural and societal barriers. Now, every female ASP is being posted in the field.”

Another foremost issue she and her batchmates faced was fighting sexist mindsets, whether in the judiciary or among their seniors. “Some officers still question why women join the force; this has been going on since I joined. When a male officer makes a mistake he is dealt with accordingly, but about a female it’s said she couldn’t do the task for being a woman,” SSP Athar recalls.

These sexist mindsets can change by mainstreaming the female part of the force. “If you don’t acknowledge their existence, they’re unable to prove themselves. Hardly any DPO meets female constables to listen to their issues. If they’re getting paid they should be made to work, their good work highlighted, treated equally as male counterparts.”

The flipside to this, she says, is some girls become complacent when they’re not assigned any task; this suits those who can’t do night duties, so for such constables the officers need to customise timings. “When I was serving as the Sargodha DPO, I posted a sub-inspector as SHO and she returned to work five days after her marriage because she wanted to perform. When few of such workers are given tasks, others will be encouraged, otherwise it won’t help with gender sensitisation of the police force,” she stresses.

SHO Irshad’s experience in her seven years of service, however, has been great and she claims her confidence is getting a boost by the day. The young officer has had her share of challenges, which have been different from SSP Athar’s who probably paved the way for girls joining in after her. “The challenge is the energy and time it takes to solve a case, catch suspects and conduct raids in far-off areas. But thankfully, I’ve been successful and received a lot of support from my family and the department.” She does feel the quota reserved for females in the police should be increased from 10 to 15 per cent even though women get selected on open merit also.

DIG (Operations) Kamran Adil believes even fulfilling the 10pc quota would be an achievement. He feels girls want to avoid leg work, late night duties and rigorous training, hence don’t join the force – an argument SSP Athar has already proven false with her experience.

“Then there are resources, structural and cultural issues that women aren’t ready to compromise on. There are approximately 175,000 police personnel in Punjab out of which less than 1pc are women. This is why legal obligations of cases can’t be fulfilled, as there are no women to conduct raids, on the streets or prosecutors, so access to justice for women is difficult.”

However, he does admit there is a need to mainstream female personnel and improve the culture of police stations. “We are on the right path but need more effort and energy,” says the DIG.

Source: The Nation