In Cox’s Bazar, gender-responsive policing efforts build trust with Rohingya women and girls
Author: Miho Watanabe
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh is home to over 880,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Most Rohingya women and girls in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps are either survivors of, or witnesses to, gender-based violence.
“In the Rohingya camp, community members have come from another country after experiencing tragedy and atrocities, so our behaviour towards them must be humanistic and tolerant,” says Atiqur Rahman, Commanding Officer of Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion 14, one of two battalions that serves Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.
“We are here to ensure the security and safety of all people in the camp, though we know that some people in this community hesitate when opening up to police,” Rahman says.
To address the high rates of violence against women and girls in the camps and the complexities of policing in a humanitarian situation, UN Women has supported the Bangladesh Police since 2019 to strengthen gender-responsive policing in Cox’s Bazar, improving the availability, accessibility, and quality of police services, in alignment with its "Essential services package” for women and girls subject to violence.
Lack of trust and confidence in police discourage women and girls from reporting violence to the police. Photo taken on 5 March 2018 in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: UN Women/Allison Joyce. Gender-responsive policing in action “When we first started working in the camps and male police officers were deployed, there was an immediate challenge to communicating with the women in the Rohingya community. Rohingya women and children do not generally communicate with men outside their families,” says Rahman. “In response, the Bangladesh Police quickly deployed 60 women police to the camp.”
Following the deployment of women police, UN Women, leveraging its existing networks within the camps, arranged for women police to hold fortnightly community meetings with Rohingya women and girls.
“In Myanmar, we were afraid to talk to the police,” says Yasminnara, a Rohingya community leader and UN Women volunteer. “But, in meetings with the police in the camp, the officers ask if we have any problems, if there is gender-based violence, and they listen to our concerns. Women can easily tell women police about their problems. We have benefited a lot from the women police.”
In addition to the gender-responsive community outreach efforts, UN Women and the Bangladesh Police, funded by the Government of Australia, Germany and Japan, have also launched five help desks for women and children in the camps over the past three years. At the 24/7 help desks, staffed by trained women police, women and children who experience violence can access medical services, psycho-social counselling, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and referrals to other essential services. Five additional help desks for women and children are underway.
“Seeing the women police in uniform, we hope Rohingya women will feel that the police are here to help them,” explains Mili Biswas, a former Deputy Inspector General of Police and now a UN Women Police Advisor who provides day-to-day mentorship and coaching to the police in the camps.
“We are working on getting closer to Rohingya women—to gain their trust and build relationships with them, so they know they can rely on the police,” continues Biswas. “What I emphasize again and again to the police officers is to handle matters with a humane perspective. Now, fear surrounding the appearance of the police uniform is diminishing.”
Transforming police culture
While the increased presence and roles of women police is working to raise Cox’s Bazar residents’ trust in the police, long-term, comprehensive change is also needed to transform police cultures through better policies, structures, and practices. Since 2019, UN Women, funded by the Government of Australia, has provided gender-responsive policing training for 292 officers from the Armed Battalion Police and Cox’s Bazar District Police.
“We are rolling out the training continuously. Police officers become aware of their responsibilities and gain skills for working with women and children. Officers are trained on how to overcome language barriers and how to empathize with the camp’s residents, given the unique context of the situation and needs of the population,” Rahman says.
Today, 18 master trainers, who manage and lead front-line staff, are equipped with the skills to train other police officers on gender-responsive policing using scenario-based exercises and peer learning methods.
“Recently, we started sending our male police to community meetings, which helped us become acquainted with the community members and their needs. They shared security concerns and issues regarding their wellness,” says Rahman. “This has been a breakthrough for us.”
Building on the recently released “Strategy on gender-responsive policing” by the Government of Bangladesh, UN Women will continue to support the Bangladesh Police in Cox’s Bazar to build capacity and support institutional change, including the rollout of the recently published “Handbook on gender-responsive police services for women and girls subject to violence”. This handbook gives practical, in-depth guidance on how to respond during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, prevent violence against women and girls, and undertake investigations that meet the needs and concerns of survivors, with a greater focus on the actions of perpetrators.