Violence against women is rampant in Pakistan and has reached epidemic proportions; last year, in particular, can be remembered as harrowing for the women of Pakistan. While the number of crimes against women in Pakistan continues to soar, the importance of knowing whether the police and other law enforcement agencies possess the requisite gender sensitivity and responsiveness to deal with these cases becomes all-important. Reports on the matter indicate that police behaviour is unsatisfactory, and data reveals that less than 2% of women in Pakistan who experience violence seek help from the police. This abysmally low number reflects a lacuna in the criminal justice system and this article aims to delve into the factors which prevent women from seeking help from the police. Additionally, this article discusses the steps necessary to address the institutional and cultural impediments to women’s access to justice.
Women and the police in Pakistan
Pakistan saw a surge in cases of violent extremism and terrorism during the early 2000s which led the Pakistani police to focus their attention and resources on counter-terrorism. An enhanced involvement in counter-terrorism resulted in the diminished role of female police officers and police focus shifted away from building public trust in the police, disproportionately impacting female officers and female victims of various crimes. In the past six years, provincial governments in conjunction with the police departments in various provinces have launched a variety of initiatives including dedicated gender protection units to restore public trust and improve the quintessential ‘thana culture.’’ Police stations, nevertheless, continue to be dominated by patriarchal and gender insensitive practices. When female victims report crimes, their complaints are often brushed under the carpet by police officials as “personal matters” or they are subjected to vicious character assassination, victim-blaming and insensitive gender slurs. Superintendent of Police and former Director of the National Police Academy, Maria Mahmood, revealed that the most serious challenge she faces as a female officer is that ‘women do not report cases of violence because of victim-blaming attitudes by police officers.’
If a female complainant is persistent in pursuing the complaint, it has been reported that police officials attempt to resolve the dispute by mediation or reconciliation instead of registering an FIR. Due to a general atmosphere of hostility, gender insensitivity, and male dominance, women prefer not to take their disputes to the police and ultimately reach settlements with their perpetrators, often compromising on their rights. It, therefore, becomes crucial to address the reasons for the lack of gender sensitivity in the police department. One major reason for the gender insensitivity in the police force is the extension of the patriarchal attitudes, norms and taboos that plague our society. The general perception among society is that a woman of sound character and moral values will never need to turn to a police station. The societal stigmatisation attached with police stations deters women from reporting incidents and gender norms that promote aggressive masculine culture pervade our law enforcement agencies making police stations hostile spaces for women. Low female representation in law enforcement agencies, currently 1.5% in the police department, also discourages female complainants since the level of comfort they have in disclosing their issues to female officers is not the same when it comes to male officers. These issues can, however, be addressed through targeted efforts for gender-responsive policing. Farzana Kausar, a former officer in charge of the Women and Juvenile Facilitation Centre in Gujrat, expressed that prior to receiving gender sensitivity training, she viewed women survivors of violence in a stereotypical manner and believed that women report broken relationships as violence.
Current initiatives for gender-responsive policing in Pakistan
Although every district in Punjab now has dedicated ‘women’s help desks’ to deal with gender-specific crimes and complaints, information on their existence and location has not been effectively disseminated in society, especially in rural zones where there continues to be a significant degree of incognisance about rights and redress mechanisms. In June 2021, the first female police station was inaugurated in Quetta and it has 19 female police officers deployed to provide dedicated support to female victims of crime. Despite being lauded as a beacon of hope for women’s access to justice, the fact remains that for a province with 26 districts, one centre dedicated to women is not enough. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, seven ‘women’s help desks’ have been established which have been selected to process cases filed by women. In Sindh, four women were made heads of male police stations to bolster women’s trust in these police stations. Islamabad has taken lead by introducing a helpline dedicated to gender crimes and establishing a model gender protection unit which has both call desk and walk-in facilities and is exclusively run by female officers. Despite all these initiatives, there has been a preponderance of instances where women have been pressured into taking back their complaints. According to Superintendent of Police, Mahmood, in cases involving domestic violence, the police tell victims that domestic violence is a family matter and they try to resolve the case instead of applying the relevant laws. Exceptionally low conviction rates for gender crimes also dissuade women who feel pursuing justice will be a waste of time, resources and effort.
Gender insensitivity which has unfortunately incorporated itself into our police structure has multifaceted implications that require bold and across the board changes so that women’s access to justice can be improved. Structural, cultural, institutional, and most importantly attitudinal change within the police department is the best way forward. Changing police attitudes is a priority as it is an essential component of the technical resources of any department. Although strongly incorporated biases may take long to neutralise, efforts should be made to increase gender sensitivity in the department by organising regular training for officials of all ranks. Emphasis should additionally be placed upon discharging duties in an unbiased way through the application of relevant laws, and preconceived societal notions should not impact professional work. New operating practices, incentive structures and evaluation methods that are sensitive to women’s needs should be introduced into police work. Abuses of women’s rights must be punished as criminal acts, for that, police and civilians alike must internalise the idea that such abuses are criminal in nature and cannot be dealt with as personal or family matters. Both male and female police officers often lack a basic understanding of the nature of crimes committed against women which must be changed by constant reinforcement. Information about the existence of new operating procedures and dedicated police units established to address crimes against women must be disseminated in society through a mass awareness campaign. Furthermore, the performance of gender units needs to be closely monitored and the data reflecting their performance must be made public to reinforce public trust and confidence in these units. Low female representation in the police force reflects the fact that police work is still viewed as ‘male work’ around the world. The retention of female officers is a related problem. Women need to be aggressively recruited in the police force and methods to retain them in service should be devised. A department works best when women are involved in the accountability process. Women themselves need to hold their police forces to account, especially by participating in the relevant oversight mechanisms. Bodies such as police review boards, national human rights commissions, community-police liaison committees and international organisations need to engage women in systems of accountability and oversight, so that their concerns can be brought directly to police forces.
 The past few months have been harrowing for the women of the country, Dr. Nida Karmani
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