The balancing act

7 min read
23 Jun 2017
7 min read
2211 words
The struggle women police officers face in creating a name for themselves in a male-dominated profession, while also taking care of their homes

In 1951, Chaitamaya Dangol was recruited as the first woman police constable. She was entrusted with carrying out search and arrest orders on female offenders. However, female policewomen like her were prohibited from competing for officer-level positions and serving equally alongside men. Nepal Police was a segregated workforce, and the idea of a woman doing a man's job was largely met with ridicule. To think of a female police officer chasing down a male suspect and throwing the cuffs on him was beyond fathomable. Today, female police officers are no longer a rarity in Nepal, but how are they faring?

It was only in the 1980s that changes regarding women's recruitment by the Nepal Police were made--43 years after Dangol joined the force. The changes were made in response to growing demands from citizens, who demanded that more women at the officer level be hired--to ensure safer policing when it came to cases that involved women. In 1986, the then-Inspector General of Police (IGP) DB Lama amended recruiting practices further and started allowing women candidates to compete for inspector-level posts. 

In 1994, Mira Chaudhari was one of the four women to be recruited as a sub-inspector, along with 48 other male recruits. But it was only in 2015 that she was appointed as the Chief of district police office of Makwanpur. If Dangol were alive today, she might well wonder why it took Mira Chaudhari 16 years to be appointed to an independent command level position, considering how long the Nepal Police had already been recruiting officers.

Chaudhari attributes struggles like hers to women's failing to grab opportunities when presented to them. It's because of such gendered notions of what women should aspire to, on the part of women officers, that they hold themselves back, she says. Thus  police departments too used to be hesitant about appointing women for independent command-level posts. Chaudhari believes that owing to how women regarded their own capacities, they didn't seem to have the drive and the motivation to rise in the ranks.
Men, however, are usually free from the same impediments. For years, women have refrained from joining the police force because they have thought that the job did not gel with their family life. And for those who did join the force, the married ones--especially those with children--have been significantly less likely to accept appointments that require them to leave their family and relocate.

Inspector Chetana Pokhrel

Societal obligations seem to get in the way of women personnel's performance even in instances when the police force has tried to accommodate their needs. On January 2016--when Chaudhari was heading the Makwanpur district police units--she created a police post that was to be exclusively led by a female assistant sub-inspector and staffed with nine other female personnel. A few months later, Chaudhari was transferred to The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) to be the bureau's spokesperson. And to her dismay, the police post she had set up stopped operating as an exclusively female-led unit. She regards this incident as yet another chance lost for female police officers--to walk the walk and to distinguish themselves.

Chaudhari would like to see more women officers in the force. As it is, despite the female-friendly recruitment practices and equal access to professional training provided to women, female police officers still make up a rather low percentage in most departments. But Chaudhari knows that it's going to take some time before there are more women officers across police departments: for many years, female police officers were regarded almost as social workers, rather than figures of authority. For example, women officers were rarely called upon to deal with a public fracas--instead, they would be relegated to smoothing out matters after instances of conflict had been dealt with by male officers. And such selective apportioning of duty hasn't done much to help how women officers are viewed both by the police force and by the society at large.  

Most of the problems women officers face have their genesis in the prevailing stereotype that police work is primarily a man's domain. It's a stereotype that pervades the mindsets of even the women officers' families. The well-meaning husbands of officers often engage in benevolent sexism without their knowing it. They will, seemingly in order to be protective of their spouses, ask the officers to focus more on their homes than on their jobs. More often than not, the husband thinks he is looking out for his wife's best interests. But as harmless as such behaviours may seem, their repercussions can be heavy on a woman's work life--more so when she decides to take up a man's job in a man's world.

It should thus come as no surprise that of the 5,500 plus female police officers nationwide, the majority of them are still limited to working in the Women and Children Service Centres (formerly known as the Women Cell). The major mission of WCSC is to ensure fair and specialised police services for women and children. Chetana Pokhrel, a 26-year-old Inspector of Police at National Police Academy Examination Control and Basic Training Wing, says that the WCSC is needed because half of Nepali society is made up of females. It is impossible to carry out searches of women, or to solve cases, particularly involving violence against women and sexual offences, without female police officers, says Pokhrel. However, confining themselves to this kind of police work--which appeals to most women officers--can prevent the officers from stepping out of their comfort zone and working other beats. Pokhrel believes that female police officers shouldn't be diffident when it comes to involving themselves in various operational areas like crime investigation and intelligence, information and communication technology, and other police operations. 

"However, it is also essential to understand that working women have to suffer the 'double burden' guilt," she says. "Working women are still responsible for a significant amount of domestic work." Most of the female officers are solely responsible for the childrearing tasks in their family. They thus bear a heavier work and family load than do their husbands. As a result, many female officers often think twice before taking on responsibilities that require them to live away from home.

Living away from home is difficult for women officers because of the lack of women-friendly infrastructure in the barracks. Police stations across the country still lack separate living quarters, restrooms, changing rooms and washrooms for female police officers. This leaves them with no option but to rent a room near their duty station. For female police constables, or lower ranking officers, this makes for added costs, which they can ill afford. 

DSP Rameshwor Paudel

Female police officers also often find themselves devoting quite a lot of energy into becoming 'one of the men'. Quite a few women officers believe that they are under constant pressure to constantly prove that they are on par with their male counterparts in order for them to get the respect they know they deserve. In fact, many of them try to suppress their more 'feminine' behaviours in order to fit in.

So why did the women officers apply for a police job? Pokhrel, an English Literature graduate, once devoted her days to  delving into books and working as a full-time teacher. From dissecting books to dissecting a crime scene, she has come a long way. "I wasn't an outdoors woman," she says. Her decision to join the Nepal police is something out of a movie, some might say. Five years ago, on a Friday morning, Pokhrel had come across an article in Hello Shukrabar (a weekly supplement of the Kantipur daily). Little did she know that it wasnt just another article, and that it wasn't just another Friday morning--for her life was about to take a different course. The article was on young women who had decided to stay back and do something in Nepal, instead of seeking a future abroad. "These young ladies were my age, and they were already carving a niche for themselves in the police force," says Pokhrel. "That got me thinking. And I decided to apply in the police force." 

SP Mira Chaudhari

Pokhrel was soon training every single day in the scorching sun. She spent the summer of 2013 running long distances until she was nigh exhausted, and the winter within the four walls of her room preparing for the Lok Sewa exams. In 2014, she was recruited as an Inspector of Nepal Police. All of this would not have been possible without the support from her parents, who see her as "no less than a hero". Many female police officers and potential recruits do not have such supportive families. The majority of women applicants, especially from rural areas, face opposition even from their own communities. "Policing is often seen as a disreputable job since many people believe it requires a woman to wear a man's clothes, talk like him, sleep in the same barracks as the men," says Pokhrel.

"This is why I married a fellow male police officer," says MK Tamang, who joined the police force in 2001 as a police constable. "Men outside of this profession do not understand the nature of our job. They think we wake up every single morning to go to a fancy dress competition," says Tamang, with a frown. Now a sub-inspector, Tamang joined the force only because she fancied the blue uniform as a kid. She chuckles as she reminisces about her naivety.  She now knows that the job is so much more than its uniform--more so after becoming a mother. Tamang drops her two-year-old son at her sister's house before heading over to the Nepal Police Academy, where she is working at the Inspector Basic Wing. Had it not been for her sister, she would either have to quit her job, or place her kid in a daycare centre--which would cost her a fortune. 

Inspector Chetana Pokhrel

There are only a few daycare centres for the children of police officers. Such facilities would allow female officers to focus more on their jobs. "I can't wait till the clock strikes five," says Tamang. "Because that's when I get to see my son at the end of the day."

There are some male officers who know that women officers have the will to overcome many of the challenges of working in the force. In his 11 years of working in the Nepal Police Organisation, Deputy Superintendent of Police Rameshwor Paudel has never seen a single female recruit quit during field training. Field training is all about transitioning into a full-time law enforcement officer. Paudel has witnessed "big men" falter at field training. "You might think men have higher pain thresholds than women because they are supposed to be physically tough," says Paudel.  He says you can't dispute with nature--that men are born physically stronger than women. "But the women I have seen in the field make me question what we consider to be ironclad laws of nature," he says. So many years into his job and he still remains in awe of women and their undying will to fight--come what may.

It's been 66 years since Chaitamaya Dangol became Nepal's first policewoman. Over time, the police force started recruiting women for their officer openings, and not just to fill the lower ranks. Over time, Nepali women started to view a career in the police force as a viable, rewarding option. That said, women police officers make up barely eight per cent of the officer ranks, and Nepal has yet to see a female police chief. Making up the numbers will take time because Nepali society still regards police work as a man's job. Sixty-six years on, it still takes a special kind of woman to join the police force and devote her life to both country and family.