In Pakistan, few institutions epitomize the connection between power and male dominance better than the police. Even after a decade of Pakistani government efforts to recruit more women in police departments, policing in Pakistan remains an overwhelmingly masculine profession — with women making up less than 3 percent of the country’s police force, despite quotas in place. And for the policewomen who do serve, institutional barriers and societal prejudices have made career progression an increasingly uphill battle.

Syeda Aiman, a member of the Sindh Police in Karachi, Pakistan. April 6, 2021. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)
Syeda Aiman, a member of the Sindh Police in Karachi, Pakistan. April 6, 2021. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)

Policing is seen as unsafe profession and policing institutions are not designed to support women. But this lack of gender equity in policing is detrimental for the institutions and citizenry at large. When Pakistan’s population is almost half female, it needs more women to provide necessary and equitable government services such as police and security service.

Women have a crucial role to play in policing in Pakistan, and many are already at the forefront of tackling challenges ranging from terrorism to gender-based violence while shattering social stereotypes. For example, Suhai Aziz made headlines as a first responder to the terrorist attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in November 2018. And in December of the same year, Stella Sadiq became the first women police officer to be awarded the Quaid-e-Azam Police Medal for her valor in preventing two suicide bombers from entering one of country’s largest shrines.

But Pakistan’s policing institutions need to make a concerted effort to knock down the barriers preventing even more women from assuming these roles — and recently established Women Police Councils (WPC) offer a promising opportunity to help women enter and advance in Pakistan’s police force.

WPCs are formal bodies within police departments mandated to work for the welfare of women officers, advocating on their behalf and collectivizing their voices of across the country. All women staff in a given department receive automatic membership in their respective council, while the executive body represents various regions as well as ranks. This has created a network of female police officers who can review rules and procedures through a gender-based lens, recommend improvements, and bolster capacity building and networking opportunities for existing policewomen — as well as inspire more women to join police.

Barriers to Policewomen’s Success

The barriers for policewomen to succeed professionally cannot be understated — and it begins before most women even enter the force.

Ten percent of placements in every Pakistani police department’s recruitment cycle are reserved for women. But that mandatory quota is rendered moot and ineffective by the unfair screening process against women recruits. Women face unreasonable height and physical fitness requirements. And there is a lack of reforms to incorporate affirmative action in written exams despite advocacy on the issue.

Those who make it to the service despite these hurdles have traditionally been assigned roles such as staffing administrative desks or relegated to dealing with petty crimes related to family or property disputes. This has reinforced societal prejudices that women are less capable than their male counterparts for active law enforcement efforts and created occupational gender segregation when it comes to being assigned to investigate complex, high-profile cases. At the same time, such limited assignments have hindered women from acquiring the necessary experience and skills needed for career progression, especially in leadership roles. 

Police departments also largely lack gender-responsive infrastructure, policies and processes. Many police facilities lack female restrooms, and there is little support available for women’s transportation when assigned to a field job. There have also been complaints of workplace harassment and gender discrimination of various kinds. This is all compounded by long and unpredictable work hours and a lack of childcare support, making it disproportionately difficult for women to stay in the police force while raising a family.

Joining Hands: Women Police Councils

To address these myriad issues, USIP — with the support of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs — established the Police Awam Saath Saath (PASS) program in 2015. PASS aims to improve citizen police relations and promote a citizen-centric approach to policing by addressing the trust deficit between the community and the police and modernizing aspects of police services.

Among its various efforts, PASS provides technical assistance to the Women Police Councils and shares lessons on international best practices to assist police departments in two out of four provinces in Pakistan. 

Working under the patronage of the provincial police chiefs and headed by the most-senior women police officers in their respective provinces, the WPCs are working toward greater gender equality and equity within Pakistani police departments.

On the recommendation of WPCs, police departments in both provinces have already made strides toward appointing women officers to head police stations and to serve as official registrars of complaints.

WPCs have also helped establish committees that look at harassment within their departments and provided gender sensitivity training to police employees. Additionally, the WPCs assist women officers in making special professional development plans. They’ve supported the building of female restrooms and childcare centers in police facilities and the standardization of uniforms for women officers where needed. The WPCs also provide a mechanism to women officers for grievance redressal and resolution of their individual service issues.

While WPCs cannot be expected to solve all social and institutional impediments related to acceptance and retention of women in police, their establishment alone is a step in the right direction. Important lessons can therefore be learned from the experience of establishing these councils, so that such platforms can be replicated in other police departments struggling with similar challenges around the world.   

Enduring Challenges

The concept of women police networks has existed for a while in Pakistan. But previous attempts at establishing formal mechanisms failed because critical factors were missing, such as higher numbers of female officers among the police force, strong internal champions of gender equality and a wider social movement in support of women police officers.

On this occasion, however, these essential ingredients — as well as a strategic reading of the social and institutional landscape and the implementation of the right tactics — proved instrumental in turning the idea of formal Women Police Councils into reality.

Building consensus and translating it into formal administrative approvals through legally binding standing orders from the police departments was a process fraught with many difficulties. A number of senior police officials saw the WPCs as an attempt to create a parallel management structure. They argued that existing command and control mechanisms are adequate to deal with the staff issues, including those pertaining to women officers. Some argued that after donning the uniform, one ceases to be a man or a woman, but just a police officer. And some women police officers themselves were skeptical of the concept and saw the platform as a mere debating club with little room for impact.

To address and allay these concerns, USIP utilized evidence-based advocacy, partnered with reform-minded officers and built alliances with civil society and gender rights groups. This proved instrumental in nudging the police departments to embrace the idea.

However, the idea that merely wearing the uniform would end gender-based discrimination still proved challenging to overcome. Many policewomen shared their experiences at women police conferences organized under the PASS banner at the national and provincial levels. Women rights groups and organizations, such as the Women Parliamentary Caucus and the National Commission on the Status of Women, as well as women leaders in the wider rule-of-law community provided further incentive to support these efforts.

Finally, several male civil society leaders, politicians, academics and, particularly, police officers came forward to acknowledge the gender inequality within Pakistan’s police force and supported efforts to ensure gender justice for their female colleagues.

The WPCs still remain in their infancy, and much work is needed to firmly establish an inclusive and equitable police force in Pakistan. WPCs are an important first step, however, toward the ultimate goal of ensuring equal and equitable representation of women in police. Strong WPCs can help improve women’s numbers, their occupancy of key positions across hierarchal levels, their mainstreaming in terms of critical policing roles, and the creation of a safe and friendly work environment and a healthy work-life balance.

Amna Kayani is a program analyst for USIP’s Pakistan office working on the Police Awam Saath Saath program.

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