Transforming police services to support women

Transforming police services to support women

Date: August 20, 2013
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Pushpa Jamieson, journalist, media trainer and gender activist recounts walking down the corridors of Area Three Police Station in Lilongwe two years ago. Jamieson went there to source information for an article on gender-based violence (GBV) and the police’s Victim Support Unit. In the time she was there, she felt the pain and frustration many victims and survivors of GBV experience while reporting their cases.

“I went to the police just to see how women are handled when they come to report gender-based violence. I was shocked to find that the environment is not conducive and friendly for women.”

Jamieson also noticed that the Victim Support Unit was primarily made up of men. After explaining her ‘ordeal’ to three police officers, they merely laughed at her. However, these officers were unaware that she was conducting research.

This example of harassment and secondary abuse perpetrated against women by police is not rare and occurs in many law enforcement sectors across the SADC region.

Furthermore, the 2013 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer reveals that while 12 out of the 15 SADC countries have accessible, affordable and specialised services, for survivors of GBV, the reality is that these service providers remain under-resourced with limited capacity to deliver on their mandates. Madagascar, Lesotho and Swaziland still lag behind in providing accessible and affordable GBV services.

Another concern in the region is the lack of places of safety and secondary housing for GBV survivors. Governments rely on civil society organisations to provide this service, which is not a sustainable solution.

Speaking recently in an interview during the African Union Gender Meeting in Lilongwe, Fernando Jorg Manhica, the Director of the Legal and Council Affairs Division in Mozambique agreed that many GBV survivors experience abuse when reporting their cases.

“Women and children are oppressed but fear to report such cases to police because they are afraid of the conduct by some police officers who harass them,” said Manhica. However, he explained that the police stations in Mozambique are slowly transforming, becoming environments supportive of women and children reporting abuse.

The Mozambique Government has not only established a special department to deal with GBV cases, but also a call centre so women who cannot or do not want to go to the police station can still seek help and justice.

South Africa also has a police unit for dealing with cases of rape and GBV, and all survivors have the right to request a female police officer for assistance. Police departments have to ensure that all shifts have female police officers on duty to make certain women feel comfortable reporting cases of abuse.

Emma Kaliya, Chairperson of Malawi’s NGO Gender Coordinating Network (NGOGCN) said Malawi has also progressed in ensuring that women are free to report cases of GBV.

“I’m happy that our police stations have transformed for the better. Unlike in the past, cases of police harassment have dropped. Victims of GBV are treated separately at Victim Support Unit. I have been to different police stations in Malawi and the environment is now conducive for women,” said Kaliya.

Alice Mkandawire, the Principal Gender Development Officer in Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare echoed Kaliya’s view saying police stations no longer interrogate people at reception. She cited Kanengo Police Station in Lilongwe as an exemplary station, which has a special room that handles women issues.

“Generally, police stations in Malawi are now women friendly. However, the few cases of harassment which are still happening are as a result of police personalities that resist changing.” Mkandawire recalled an incident where a police officer called a rape survivor “prostitute”.

“It is high time we join hands and completely curb harassment of women in our police stations”, said Mkandawire.

Rhoda Manjolo, Malawi’s Police Service spokesperson attributed the positive police transformation to training and sensitizing police officers. “We have been training police officers on how they can handle victimised women. We are also working with the community policing to ensure that women realise that they are free and welcome to report GBV cases to police,” said Manjolo.

SADC State Heads need to ensure this transformation continues not only in breadth but also in depth, so these structures have greater resources and capacity. Moreover, governments must not only join hands with civil society to assist in establishing security and housing for survivors, but increase efforts to ensure law enforcement sectors obtain reliable and comprehensive quantitative data on GBV, because currently across the region, police GBV statistics are highly contested and data collection tools remain inadequate.

Dyson Mthawanji is a journalism student at the Malawi Polytechnic, a Media Centre of Excellence in Malawi. This article is part of Gender Link’s Opinion and Commentary Service special coverage of SADC HOS Summit in Malawi, offering fresh views on everyday news.

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Caption: Pushpa Jamieson, journalist and media trainer emphasises the importance of gender sensitive policing at training session for journalists held by Gender Links as part of the Media Centres of Excellence programme. Photo: Dyson Nthawanji


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