Badges, Blue Helmets, and “Women’s Work”

Posted on 22 June 2010 by

The UN recently reaffirmed its commitment to increasing women’s participation in peacebuilding and conflict-resolution with specific targets set for the organization’s police force: By 2014 the UN hopes to double the number of women serving globally as UN police officers (UNPOL). In response to the UN’s call, Bangladesh plans to send an additional 10,000 female officers.

UNMIT UNPOL Officers (cc) United Nations Photo

UNMIT UNPOL Officers (cc) United Nations Photo

While to many the idea of women from the Global South — especially from Muslim countries — serving as security personnel may be surprising, the fact is women are stretching traditional norms and embracing these new roles across the world. Jordan got its first female motorcycle police officer five years ago and within months, twelve other women sought to do the same. Today, there are over 100 women serving throughout the country. Despite numerous limitations on women’s rights, Iran had its first female graduating class from the country’s police academy in 2003. This past April, Nigeria announced that it will be sending an all-female police unit to Liberia to serve as peacekeepers. Even in Afghanistan, women are serving as police, including in the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar.

When women are given the opportunity to serve as officers, they often become highly valued assets on their force. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out that women bring an essential extra dimension to the important tasks of bringing peace, stability and development to populations recovering from conflict. Women play an especially critical role in countries that have experienced widespread sexual violence which is tragically an increasingly common weapon of war. In addition, female officers are often called upon to deal with issues such as rape and domestic violence, which sadly know no border, and are more apt to take seriously complaints of sexual harassment — again a problem confronted by women regardless of nationality. Outside of these tasks, police authorities are finding that women are excelling as just plain ole’ cops. According to the head of the Department of Traffic in Amman, Jordan, in certain cases women “surpassed their male counterparts in physical, mental and emotional fitness.”

This is not to say that these women do not frequently face serious challenges, including harassment by male officers, and even threats to their personal and family security. In September 2008, a senior ranking Afghan police officer who ran the crimes against women division, Malalai Kakar, was killed, and her 18-year-old son wounded, on her way to work in Kandahar. But, refusing to submit to fear, other local women have come to the ranks to fill her shoes.

While many female police officers have the support of their family, this is not always the case and some have been asked to resign. However, in many instances these women become major breadwinners for their families, causing relatives to frequently change their tune. Furthermore, these professional women often become role models, expanding the viable professional options as conceived by young girls — and shaping boys’ acceptance of women in authority positions. One government official in Mauritania hopes that the 100+ women serving as police there will “open all doors before women so they may work alongside their male brothers to create a society that guarantees equality between the sexes and respects freedom.”

The call for more female police by the UN is a step in the right direction for the actual implementation of UN Security Council Resolution (UN SCR) 1325 on the ground. The resolution, coming up on its ten year anniversary this October, calls for women to play a greater role in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict and for the international community to make greater efforts to address the impact of armed conflict on women and girls.

However, with the UN’s new push for additional female blue helmets, some countries are struggling to acquiesce claiming that the few women police officers serving domestically are too valuable to send on international missions. This is one of many excellent reasons to ramp up female recruitment at home. In order for women to have a real impact and actually change security cultures that are frequently dysfunctional, if not outright abusive, security services need more than a token number of female officers.

And, as more women serve publicly in positions of authority that challenge traditional norms, the phrase “women’s work” will lose its meaning.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. nadodi Says:

    This is a great post Catherine.

    I remember the first all-women police station that opened in Tamil Nadu, India (my home state) in 1992. There were many newspaper articles then of women who said that it felt safer to to take their complaints to these stations, particularly when it was about domestic violence. Your post made me do a search to find out where they are and what they are doing. According to Wikipedia, Tamil Nadu is also home to the first women commando force in India. :-)

    And, according to Women’s e.news, India now has around 300 all-women police stations where female police officers who serve as “part authority figure and part counselors” are now part of a larger anti-violence effort. More at India’s All-Women Police Pursue Dowry Complaints

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