April, Syeda Ghazala made headlines in Pakistan, becoming the first female to head a major police station in restive Karachi.
Commanding approximately 100 male police officers, Ghazala is helping to strengthen law enforcement in a city facing growing threats of violent extremism and significant terrorist attacks. But Ghazala's position is certainly not the norm in a country plagued by militant violence that has contributed to political, economic, and social instability.
On a lucky day in Pakistan, one of the approximately 4,400 female police officers (out of more than 400,000 total officers) may be on duty. There are not enough female officers to serve at every security checkpoint, and due to prohibitive norms, the male officers cannot conduct body searches of females. But the people of Pakistan deserve better than a 1 percent chance at combating extremism.
International partners who have poured millions of dollars into efforts to counter terrorism in the country must realize this tremendous gap because, in a nation with a porous border, where the government is struggling to contain violent extremism and has launched a large-scale offensive against militant groups in the tribal areas, a greater investment in policewomen can deliver a very high return.
In a new research report from the Institute for Inclusive Security, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that increases women's participation in peace and security processes, Allison Peters found that female police officers are especially critical in fighting violent extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, with its conservative social and religious norms. Rather than relying on the typical kill-or-capture approach of counterterrorism, policewomen have the potential to serve and protect entire communities, providing new means to prevent violence before it takes hold.
As counterinsurgency and counterterrorism research has shown, police operations are often more effective at combating terrorism than military force. And policewomen often have greater access than their male counterparts -- they can treat female victims, enter private homes where females are present to record crimes or secure evidence, search female insurgents at checkpoints, and may be the first to see behavioral changes that signal growing militancy in family members, both male and female. With their social influence, policewomen can also disengage neighbors from violence and build trust between communities and law enforcement.
Yet, their numbers are few in Pakistan, and there has been little emphasis on bolstering their presence or rank. Through on-the-ground consultations with policewomen and Pakistani security experts, the Institute for Inclusive Security researchers found that female officers lack basic equipment, rarely receive advanced technical training, are discriminated against in nominations for training courses, and, in some cases, are prevented from filing preliminary reports of crimes.
With Pakistan's extensive challenges, prioritizing women's inclusion, supporting female-led initiatives against violent extremism, and increasing the recruitment, retention, and professionalization of women in the police forces are all fundamental steps toward stability.
The Pakistani government's recent effort to put forward a comprehensive National Internal Security Policy (NISP) is a positive step. The NISP calls for several initiatives to strengthen and modernize Pakistan's law enforcement agencies. Building a viable law enforcement sector must be a core component of any strategy aimed at combating substate violence, because officers have a better understanding of the threats to communities where they have a permanent presence. Pakistan has historically relied on its military to shoulder much of the burden for internal security, while its police forces and other law enforcement institutions languish.
However, the proposed strategy fails to address adequately the need for a substantial increase in the number and effectiveness of women police officers.
Greater female representation in the police force would not only ensure that the Pakistani government can combat internal threats, but it also would encourage more-effective spending of international assistance. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than $7.2 billion in security aid to Pakistan since 2001. None of this funding specifically prioritizes the recruitment and retention of women in the police forces, despite evidence of their effectiveness in countering terrorism.
But Congress has the opportunity to change this. In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a foreign aid bill that includes language prioritizing U.S. assistance for efforts to grow the number of women police officers in Pakistan and elevate their position within the force. This is a step in the right direction, and any final foreign aid bill needs to retain this critical provision.
Addressing the terrorist-related violence that feeds the political, economic, and social instability afflicting Pakistan and the surrounding region remains a top priority for the United States and its allies, even as the United States draws down its forces in Afghanistan. With extensive resources still committed to these efforts, it's time to shift how we think about law enforcement by prioritizing women's inclusion and leadership.
Whether or not policewomen's roles in preventing and ending violence in Pakistan are acknowledged and supported is now at stake in the choices being made in Washington and Islamabad.