Helping police to be gender-sensitive in Pakistan

Women in Pakistan face a range of discriminatory and harmful practices that can threaten their security. Saferworld has been working with police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province on a gender-responsive policing project to ensure that they are better able to respond to crimes against women.

Women in Pakistan must contend with a variety of strict religious, familial and tribal customs that limit their rights. The Gender Gap Index 2015, published by the World Economic Forum, placed Pakistan second from last on a list of 145 countries ranked by gender equality. Though there has been progress on the part of the government towards reducing discrimination against women, they still continue to suffer high levels of marginalisation and violence.

The incidence of gender-based violence is very high in Pakistan, particularly in rural and tribal areas of the country. Domestic violence is one of the most frequent forms – some estimates put the percentage of women who have experienced it between 70 and 90 percent – but it is widely considered to be a private matter and is not usually discussed or addressed by either local or national authorities. In addition to domestic abuse (including spousal abuse), women are also sometimes subjected to so-called “honour killings”, and rape. However, because of cultural and familial taboos, and fear of retribution or intimidation, most cases remain unreported. There is also no proper mechanism through which the government can collect figures on cases of gender-based violence.

In order to move towards gender equality, changes must be made across the criminal justice system, including to the structure, institutional culture and behaviour of the police. Increasing female police officers in stations, on its own, will not lead to greater gender sensitivity. It should also be complemented by addressing the inherent societal gender norms that reinforce male power within the police system.

Perceptions of the police

To address these issues, Saferworld and other consortium partners are contributing to the Coffey-led ‘Aitebarr programme’ – a peacebuilding peacebuilding initiative for post-crisis contexts, funded by the UK Government in December 2012. At the start of the programme, a baseline survey of over 28,000 residents of Peshawar, revealed that only a quarter of male and female respondents thought the police would treat them fairly when settling minor offences. In addition, the survey also showed that many women were uninformed of their legal rights and were unaware of police services that they could use when in trouble. Despite a 10 percent fixed quota for women serving on the police force, less than one percent of KP police are women. Such a low number makes it difficult for women to report their problems and concerns in a very male-dominated environment.

During Saferworld’s discussions with women’s groups in Peshawar, it became clear that the justice system also fails to provide justice for victims, and does not go far enough to punish offenders. This has weakened the faith of many people in the justice system, and has widened the gap between communities and police. For women especially, cultural barriers as well as lack of information and an absence of sufficient services pose huge challenges. Only two women-friendly police stations operate in KP province and only in two districts (out of a total of 26), and even these have insufficient resources.

Supporting gender-responsive policing

In order to reduce the rate of crime against women in the province and to make police stations more sensitive to women’s needs, Saferworld provided its expertise on gender sensitivity to support the Aitebaar programme to set up seven model police stations in five districts of KP – three in Peshawar (University Town, Faqeerabad and Gulbahar), and others in Nowshera, Mardan, Swabi and Charsadda. These model police stations set an example for how to provide effective services for both men and women. In addition, seven ‘women’s help desks’ were created to provide relief and protection specifically for women. Police officers assigned to these desks process all cases filed by women so that their concerns are taken seriously. They are also responsible for referring certain cases to specialised psychologists, ensuring effective service delivery and collecting data on crime against women – currently the only source of such primary data in the region.

Saferworld has worked with these ‘women’s desks’ by providing regular assistance on operational issues, as well as holding mentoring sessions and trainings – making sure that the desks provide a safe and secure environment for the women who come into the police stations. This has also meant working with communities to raise awareness of the available facilities.

We also continually engage with police departments to advocate for institutional changes at all levels, and work to make sure that female officers find their workplace conditions acceptable. Our surveys showed that female employees at the model police stations were mostly satisfied with their roles, and were confident that the ‘women’s desks’ are an effective way to address some of the problems that women face.  

Bridging the gender gap in the police force

There have also been challenges. The police force is dominated by men, due to the low acceptability of women police officers inside the police force. As a result, our recommendation to hire more women is still a long way from being realised. More time and effort is required to make the police more gender-sensitive. Gender norms that promote aggressive masculine culture pervade law enforcement agencies, leaving little room – or desire – for change.

In order to ensure future sustainability for gender sensitivity, the institutional culture of the police must change to accept women officers and challenge the gender norms that reinforce the dominance of men in the police force. Workers at all levels and communities should also encourage local women to join the police. This is not something that can happen overnight, but the progress we have seen in these target communities has been encouraging. By expanding these programmes further, women facing abuse and discrimination will know that they have somewhere to go for help.  

Saferworld has been working to create a more gender-sensitive police force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as part of the Aitebaar programme, led by Coffey International. The four-year peacebuilding support programme, funded by the UK Government, was the result of a post-crisis needs assessment jointly conducted by the Asian Development Bank, United Nations, the KP Government and FATA Secretariat, and continued to work with the KP police force as well as international and national partners until December 2016.

Find out more about Saferworld’s work in Pakistan here.

Image copyright © Gretchen Alther/ UUSC