In 1999, refugees fled the post-referendum violence in East Timor to Atambua in Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia. Many of them were women and children. As a retired female police colonel, I flew in to Atambua with the wife of the then-national police chief to assist in dealing with these refugees.
When we arrived, the East Nusa Tenggara police chief excitedly told us not to worry about the safety of female police officers.
Thank god, I’ve moved them all to Kupang [the provincial capital] so they will be safe from the conflict.
We were shocked and dismayed. The presence of female police officers is crucial in ensuring women and children refugees are protected and that their needs are met. In refugee camps, women and children usually lose out in the fighting over resources such as water and blankets. They are also vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The decision to withdraw female officers says a lot about how the police organisation regards female officers.
In Indonesia, a culture that views policewomen as lesser officers than their male counterparts still prevails. Policewomen are considered mere auxiliaries to policemen.
Need for cultural change
The way a country regards female police officers is crucial in its efforts to protect women against violence in the general population.
Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies have also restructured their organisations to accommodate women’s issues. Since 2007, each police district has established a special women and children protection unit. The attorney-general has a focal point for women’s issues. The Supreme Court also has a working group.
But despite such legal and structural progress, if the culture within the police corps still discriminates against women, effective protection for women’s rights will fall short.
To change this culture, Indonesia needs to increase the number of female police officers and empower them to hold positions of command.
Borrowed culture from the military
The discrimination against female police officers is partly a legacy of the merging of the police force and military between 1961 and 2000. As a result of that merger, from 1967 women were banned from entering the police academy, which produces commanding officers.
At the time, the police recruited women from outside the academy but their role was limited to administrative and logistical functions.
This is changing. Since the split between the police and the military in 2000, women are allowed to enter the police academy. Currently, of more than 600 police districts, 50 are headed by policewomen.
However, the numbers of female police officers are still too low. There are no female officers sitting as equal to policemen in command-level positions at the national police headquarters.
In 2012, policewomen made up only 3.5%, or 14,030, of the total 385,785 police officers. Half of them are stationed in Java, with others scattered in other islands in Indonesia.
In 2014, the Indonesian National Police had a large recruitment drive, bringing in 7000 female cadets out of 20,000 recruits. But Indonesia needs more than a one-off large recruitment of female police officers.
The intake of female police should be at least 10-12% of recruits every year. In time, we should aim for at least 30% of the police force to be female officers.
Impacts of gender discrimination
Discrimination against women in the police force affects both female officers and women in the general population.
To enter the police force women are subjected to degrading treatment. Human Rights Watch has reported that the police and the military conducted “virginity tests” on female applicants in their recruitment process.
While the military openly admit the practice to screen out “naughty” women, police chief Badrodin Haiti denied the police conducted “virginity testing”. He argued the test was to check their reproductive health.
The police are more progressive than the military in this case. But, in practice, new recruits are still subjected to this invasive test.
The police should expressly ban “virginity testing”. But as the police lack female commanding officers to push for this practice to end, female recruits are still vulnerable to this degrading treatment.
Discrimination against women in the police force also hampers the wider effort to improve women’s protection.
Having more policewomen in society would not only help women and children seeking protection and legal recourse for physical abuse but also contribute to a holistic protection of women and girls in the country.
Policewomen in the community can work on improving the prevention of underage marriage and consequently teen pregnancies, one of the causes of high maternal deaths in Indonesia.
They can be directed to prevent human trafficking, of which women are prone to be victims, by educating communities they are stationed in about the risks of being trafficked.
In conflict and disaster areas, policewomen are needed to protect women and children in refugee camps.
Women comprise half the population of Indonesia. The state has an obligation to protect the rights of women.
Increasing the number of women entering the police force each year, training police officers on gender issues and giving women leadership positions will help change the culture in the police corps and consequently improve the protection of women in the country.