April issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

It speaks volumes that one of the two rooms in the Artillery Maidan police station to which the sole women’s police station in Karachi has been relegated was once a toilet.  Although the bathroom fittings have been removed, a foul stench hangs in the air, rendering the place completely unusable.  “It’s as if a decomposing corpse is lying there,” mutters one policewoman in disgust.  Her remark can be applied to the pathetic state of the women’s police station as a whole — an entity that, never very robust in the first place, has finally been allowed to go to seed.

The other, larger room at their disposal, which serves as interrogation-cum-common room for 35 women personnel, was previously in use as bachelors’ quarters for policemen.  One could easily mistake it for a storage room today.  Broken chests of drawers are piled on top of each other.  Discarded telephone wire trails across the floor.  Battered wooden benches are placed haphazardly in the room, leaving scarcely any room to walk.  Curled up in a chair sans legs lies a cat, sound asleep.  A couple of women constables sit around lackadaisically.  One has received orders to report for duty at the Malir police station, but she can only do so when conveyance is available.  The one mobile at the disposal of the women’s police station has not been returned to them after it was sent for repairs three months ago.  They are now dependent on the transport belonging to the Artillery Maidan police station.  As for washroom facilities, they have to make do with the toilet inside the lockup for women detainees, a comical situation were it not so mortifying.

The decline of the women’s police station, launched with much fanfare in 1994, has been an ignominious one.  In 1993, following concerted efforts by War Against Rape (WAR), a women’s cell was established in each of the four districts of Karachi (district Malir was not in existence then) to investigate crimes involving women, whether accused or victim.  The demand for a separate women’s police station was granted soon after on June 2, 1994 during Benazir Bhutto’s tenure when the district south women’s cell in the Artillery Maidan police station was elevated to the status of a full-fledged police station and given the adjacent, and far larger, building for the purpose.  Then in 1997, during  SHO Marium Qazi’s tenure, the premises of the male and female police stations were switched.  Marium Qazi’s husband, a police officer himself, was detained at the station in connection with Murtaza Bhutto’s murder, and she reportedly decided in a fit of pique that she no longer wanted to remain on the same premises.  Says an officer, “The switch was made merely on the basis of an entry in the roznamcha (daily record).  The station had been established through a notification issued by the home department, and permission for shifting its location should have been sought from there.”  Then, it was decided to establish a police telecommunications centre in the smaller building to which the women’s police station was shifted; so on March 6 this year, the already truncated station was unceremoniously moved to its present location.  Not bag and baggage though.  Says one officer, “We have to keep case files, as well as items recovered as stolen property and retained while the case is pending, under lock and key in a maalkhana.  As we don’t have a room here where security can be ensured, these are still on the old premises, requiring us to shuttle between both places.”

The women’s police station, unlike the cells, has the authority to register First Information Reports (FIRs) for any crime committed in the city in which the victim or the accused is a woman.  FIRs in some cases are lodged directly at the station while others can be transferred here from any of the 100 regular police stations in Karachi.  Several months ago, the station’s authority to lodge FIRs was circumscribed by requiring personnel to first seek permission from the SSP South,  before doing so.  This has inevitably led to delays in some instances when the women personnel have been unable to contact him.

Cases of female victims who approached the women’s cells could also be referred to the women’s police station.  Although the cells had certain shortcomings, most notably their inability to lodge FIRs directly and a shortage of personnel — with sometimes a single female SHO amid up to 20 males comprising cell personnel — they were nevertheless, welcomed by human rights groups as a step in the right direction.  However, it seems to have been a case of one step forward, two steps back.  Over the past year, three of the four cells (district Malir was also given a cell when it came into existence) have been closed down and only one, located in the New Town police station in district East, is still functioning.

And this despite the fact that in 2001, there were 352 cases of rape alone brought to the Civil Hospital for medical examination.  Of these, the majority — 56 to be precise — had been sent by the women’s police cell in district west.  Inexplicably, this cell, like the others, was also closed down about a month ago.  Meanwhile, at the women’s police station, ostensibly established for the express purpose of dealing with women-related cases, a total of only 22 direct FIRs pertaining to different cases were registered in 2001, in addition to between 20 and 30 cases that were transferred from other area police stations.  During this period, at the Civil Hospital, cases of domestic violence alone, including burn victims, numbered 356.

To add insult to injury, although the women’s police station is given short shrift where it comes to investigating cases that naturally fall within its ambit, the services of its lockup are blithely utilised by male police, even from stations other than Artillery Maidan, to house female accused.  The reason: there is no allowance given to the police, male or female, for detainees’ meals, and the expense has to be incurred by police personnel themselves.  A young woman accused of fraud is brought from the Keamari police station, and placed in the women’s station lockup.  “The men will deal with the case, which should have been filed or at least transferred here, while we will have to feed her,” says one policewoman ruefully.  With salaries ranging between 4000 and 7000 rupees among them, there is precious little to spare.

“The problem is that male police stations continue to have the power to deal with cases pertaining to women,” says Amanullah, socio-legal officer and project coordinator at WAR.  “This authority should have been taken away when the women’s police station was established.  Women police should be made solely responsible for dealing with these cases so that when any such case arrives at a male police station, it has to be transferred to the women’s station.  Of course, this also means that a lot more women need to be recruited in the police and the services of those already in the force utilised more efficiently.”  For the record, in Karachi, with a population of 13 million, the total sanctioned strength of women police is a paltry 991, and even this quota is far from exhausted; there are only 190 policewomen for the entire city.

In Amanullah’s opinion, without entrusting the responsibility for women-related cases to the women’s police station, merely reopening the women’s cells will not be sufficient as their role had been limited to investigation, that too when the area police stations deigned to transfer cases to them.  This usually took place where it was clear that no money could be extorted from either party.  He cites the instance of the now defunct district Malir women’s cell in the Quaidabad police station.  Closed down in 1998, it was reopened a year later, but was given only about four cases to investigate during the entire year.

Several senior male police officials maintain that cases are not given to the women’s police station as they are not capable of carrying out proper investigations.  Amanullah responds to this contention by pointing out the shortage of women personnel at the station, further compounded by their posting elsewhere, such as on court duties or at the Central Police Office.  “Furthermore, given that they no longer have any official transport, how can they even go and arrest anyone?” he asks.  “It’s not that  they can’t do their job; they’re simply not being allowed to do it.”  Incidentally, when the women’s station was first established, WAR had demanded three mobiles for its use.  Only one was supplied, that too after considerable delay and repeated requests.

Several NGOs led by WAR have launched a campaign to reverse the decline.  On their agenda are meetings with senior police officials to press for redressal of grievances in this respect, failing which they intend to approach law ministers.  As a last resort, they do not rule out the possibility of filing a petition in court.  “We want a women’s cell in each and every police station,” says Nuzhat Sheereen, coordinator of Aurat Foundation legislative watch programme in Karachi.  “Women’s mobility is already a problem in our society.  Moreover, these cells should have the power to lodge FIRs as well.  What has been happening so far at the women’s cells is that even if a victim is questioned by women, the police station’s moharrir — the person who records her statement in the FIR — is male, and his choice of words can make or break her case.”  According to Amanullah, “Each district should have its own women’s police station.  With 100 regular police stations covering all of Karachi, designating five for women is hardly asking for too much.”  He adds that an investigation department should be established in Karachi on the pattern of the one in Lahore, where female Deputy Superintendents of Police (DSPs) are responsible for referring any case pertaining to women to the Lahore women’s police station or the four district cells.  The investigation department in Lahore, comprising 45 female personnel, also has the authority to lodge FIRs.

There is compelling evidence for the need to empower the  institutions of the women’s police station and women’s cells.  Women balk at the prospect of approaching a police station where most personnel are male, and with good reason.  The recent gang rape in Alladin Park illustrates the ordeal rape victims are often subjected to at the hands of male police.  The young woman victim was called in for interrogation by policemen at the Gulistan-i-Jauhar station no less than 30 times over the next 10 days, even though the FIR had been lodged after four days.  Her humiliation was exacerbated by the fact that she was made to wait at times for up to 12 hours at the station before questioning.  Little wonder then, that she and her family are no longer pursuing the case even though it is pending trial.

Hesitation to report a crime, particularly in cases of rape or domestic violence, can cost the victim dearly.  “The first 24 hours are vital for gathering medical evidence,” says Amanullah.  “If a rape victim is married, the medical examination should be carried out within five hours or at the most, 24 hours.  If unmarried, then this period can extend to 72 hours.  If the victim is a minor, sufficient medical evidence may be obtained up to four weeks after the rape.”  According to him, both male and female police  personnel, as well as victims, are unaware of this urgency.  Victims also usually do not know that they can have a medical examination for rape carried out even before an FIR has been registered.

A case of blackmail that occured in 1999 also highlighted the manner in which female victims can be further brutalised and exploited by male police.  A gang of about five men, under the guise of recruiting models for an advertising agency, had used hidden cameras in changing rooms to film unwary young women, and then threatened them with exposure to extort payment from them.  One of the women went to the Mominabad police station, and the gang was  apprehended.  WAR repeatedly pressed for the case to be transferred to the  women’s police station, but their demand was turned down.  The film as well as a diary containing the names, telephone numbers and addresses of the girls in question came into the possession of a male sub-inspector at the station.  He, along with other police personnel, began to harass the victims, which resulted in their families deciding to wash their hands off the case  entirely.  Says Amanullah, “In such cases it’s necessary for the complainants to remain involved, otherwise the prosecution’s case falls through.  I’m sure that by now the accused must be out on bail.”

Victims aside, female accused are equally vulnerable in regular police stations; there are umpteen instances of custodial rape of detainees.  Until the numbers of women police personnel are substantially increased, and a proportionate number of them appointed to positions of authority, such cases are likely to be the norm rather than the exception.

However, the glass ceiling is a bitter reality in the women’s police force.  While the Punjab boasts one Superintendent of Police (SP), with another to be notified shortly, in Sindh a woman has yet to be promoted to a rank higher than DSP.  Moreover, even the nine female DSPs in Karachi are reported to be largely posted to jobs with little or no community responsibility.  “A DSP has the authority to cover four police stations — so why aren’t any women DSPs placed in such positions?” asks Amanullah.  In the women’s cells and the station, a Station House Officer (SHO) is the highest ranking officer to be found.  “I have talked to policewomen who are still at the SHO level although they have been in service for 10 to 20 years, ” says Nuzhat Sheereen.  “If, as the police authorities claim, they have certain shortcomings, then why are there no training workshops held for their capacity-building?”  The lack of any real authority wielded by the women police is obvious.  Some time ago, Aurat Foundation attempted to send a fact-finding team to the women’s police station to enquire about their problems and suggest ways in which the NGO could provide any assistance.  The SHO of the station, Sajida Jamali, contended that she could only meet with them if they took permission from the SSP South.  According to Nuzhat Sheereen, “We tried to contact him, but were told time and again by the lower staff that he was very busy.  Finally we received a letter of regret saying that due to the situation in the city, we could not be allowed to meet the women police personnel.”

Representatives from WAR, Shirkatgah, Aurat Foundation and Amnesty International recently met with DIG Rana Altaf Majeed to discuss the miserable plight of the women’s police station and demands its empowerment as well as that of women’s cells.  The police official took great pains to reassure the group that he would attempt to address the problems in this regard but reiterated that the newly instituted police reforms — which incidentally make no reference to the women’s police station — had placed additional burden on available resources.  Given that downgrading has occurred most prominently in the women’s cells and the women’s police station, it is clear where the priorities lie.