A new regional study has found sexual harassment to be an under-reported, unacknowledged and inaccurately recorded problem within the Maldives Police Service.
A quarter of women police officers interviewed for the study –‘Rough Roads to Equality: Women Police in South Asia’ by the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) – said they had faced harassment, but only half referred the incident to a higher authority.
Detailing a culture of male dominance, superiority and discrimination within the police force, the study recommended an external and independent complaints investigation mechanism and the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy.
The report surveyed the situation of women in policing in five South Asian countries; Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Maldives and identified challenges to women’s participation in the police force.
The Maldives has the highest representation of women police officers with 7.4 percent of the force comprising of women. The regional average is a dismal five percent.
Noting female representation within the police force is needed to increase women’s access to justice, the study also recommended a full and independent gender audit to improve recruitment and retention of women police officers.
Almost all women police officers interviewed for the study stated sexual harassment to be a problem of concern in the police force, but only one complaint of sexual harassment was formally lodged since 2012, the study said.
A senior woman police officer said female officers were hesitant to report harassment due to extremely low rate of success in the past, lack of a support network for victims and the victimisation and vilification of those who make complaints.
In one case, when 11 girls complained of sexual harassment, a senior officer was suspended. But he was later acquitted by a court and reinstated to a lower rank.
He now “often tries to scare” the girls who have complained against him, and the issue was raised with the Commissioner of Police. However, no action has been taken so far, the report said.
Young female recruits are targeted, respondents said, and cited numerous examples of inappropriate comments about the body parts of female officers, clothing and other inappropriate requests related to sexual behaviour.
“There have been a few cases of women leaving straight after training because they could not take the harassment,” one officer said.
“One female officer who worked in the training department commented that women were treated as sex objects and female instructors had no power. If they question or challenge the situation their life is made miserable; when she took issue with it, she was removed from the department,” the report read.
Senior male officers, on the other hand, expressed vastly different views on the problem, ranging from an acknowledgment that “it is a serious concern” to “not a problem here” to blaming the victim.
One male officer who acknowledged the issue agreed that established mechanisms were ineffective.
“When I was head of a particular department, many female officers approached me, although this wasn’t really the mandate of my department. I had to hear their voice and pass it on to responsible officers. The way they saw it was that officers responsible at that time weren’t very sensitive about their concerns. Which is why the female officers did not want to go to them, did not believe will help. So it was neither reported nor talked about,” he said.
Women police officers complained of lack of recognition from male colleagues, and said they felt they had to work twice as hard to prove themselves.
Demonstrating the male culture at play, one male officer said: “The profession seems to be a very tough job, and women tend to be soft.” However, many respondents said women perform better in training.
The study took issue with the lack of female barracks, or facilities such as separate toilets at police stations.
Many women officers identified the challenges of trying to balance work and family as a reason for leaving. The study noted the need for daycare facilities to retain women.
As with many other police services around the world, there is a serious under-representation of women in senior ranks, the report said. There are no women at the top five most senior ranks.
There is now one woman chief inspector, and four inspectors. In 2013, there had been no female inspectors.
The CHRI said: “There is a certain amount of will and commitment at the senior level to ensure the police service enhances and encourages women.” The force is reserving places on boards and committees to give women officers more of a role in decision-making, and attempting to deploy female officers in their own areas, the report said.