Photo courtesy of Praja

In October 2020, Bimshani Jasin Arachchi was appointed as Sri Lanka’s first female Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG). Six months later, she was removed from her duties by a three-bench panel by the Supreme Court. Her removal was in response to a petition filed by 33 male Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs), stating that Arachchi’s appointment was erroneous as it violated the standard procedures followed in the promotion of senior police officers. The appointment was erroneous as the provisions that allow for the appointment of DIGs, do not include the word “woman.”

A women purely because of her sex cannot rise to a high rank in the Sri Lankan police.

While women were allowed to be a part of the police force in 1952, the National Police Commission (NPC) indicated that there are only 8,878 women officers in the police. Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR) conducted a study examining gender equality in Sri Lanka, found that among these 8,878 women officers, 91.2% of them are non-gazetted officers holding the ranks of Constables and Sergeants. For the remaining 779 officers that are gazetted, 769 were junior gazetted officers who belonged to the ranks of Chief Inspector, Inspector of Police and Sub Inspector of Police.

Only 10 women are senior gazetted officers, this makes up for a stunning 0.01% of the total cadre. Until Bimshani Jasin Arachchi’s appointment as DIG, no woman had been promoted beyond the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police. The minimum quota for women police officers has been recommended at 15%, only 11.7% of the total cadre comprises of women. This was made possible by a 2006 Cabinet decision (presided by President Mahinda Rajapaksa) who allotted 15% of vacancies in every rank to women.

Where does this discrimination begin?

The Constitution of Sri Lanka promises, “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such ground.” Yet, the police force has not made provisions for women to rise to higher ranking posts based purely on their sex.

Regardless of your sex or gender, all trainees go through the same training. During the training phase, every individual is placed on the same pay scale. Post this equitable treatment comes to a grinding halt. Two cadres are created, male and female. Women officers have to use the prefix “W” before their designation, as for men, they can just be men. By creating this distinction women are only allowed to progress within the bounds of the female cadre.

In 2020, women officers were allocated eight SSP positions, while 162 SSP positions were reserved for men. Once the 8 positions for women were filled, a woman couldn’t file for a vacancy in the 162 positions, regardless of her qualifications since these are reserved solely for men. Essentially, women will see male colleagues being promoted, climb up the career ladder despite being equally or more qualified than them.

The discrimination doesn’t stop there, since women can only grow within the female cadre they can never rise above the rank of SSP. The senior position of DIG, Senior DIG and IGP (Inspector General of Police) are the sole territory of men, there are no women allowed. This is why Bhimshani Jasin Arachchi was removed from her duties as DIG.

Efforts to address the discrimination

In 2016, several Women Assistant Superintendents of Police filed a petition in the Supreme Court, asking for an increase in cadre positions for women from the rank of Superintendent of Police and above. Colleagues of Bimshani Jasin Arachchi, all belong to the 1997 batch of Sub-Inspectors. In their petition they highlight the, “unfair and inexplicable discrimination” against female police officers even though they perform in a comparable manner to their male colleagues and have served in the police for the same number of years. They had a simple request, to address structural barriers that do not allow women to rise in the police force. This case was scheduled to be heard in June 2021.

In 2019, the National Police Commission (NPC) ruled that the Police Department must grant nine positions to women. These women were offered “leftover” male cadres positions, after all the qualified men were promoted. No real changes or provisions were made to address the overt discrimination and structural barriers that stop women from being promoted. The reality is that the official police recruitment scheme still only has 16 roles for women Assistant Superintendent of Police, 4 for SPs, 1 for SSP and zero for the ranks above. In contrast, 162 vacancies are reserved for male SPS, 169 for SSPs, 46 for DIGS and 12 for SDIGS.

The simple truth is nothing has been done to address the structural sexism in the police department. In reply to a 2019 campaign by senior policewomen, the NPC ordered the Police Department to create four cadre positions for women DIGS. The IGP sent a proposal explaining the reasoning for this to the Department of Ministry of Finance. Instead of this proposal being authorized it was returned to the Ministry of Law and Order for further clarification. It is still sitting with the Ministry. The long process has highlighted the bureaucratic nature of the battle, things are being proposed to make it look like the police department is amending its ways. Reality is that the bureaucratic nature of the organization makes it impossible for any change to come about immediately. As a NPC member, Savithri Wijesekera explains, “The men in the department don’t want these women to rise to those levels, Nobody is really interested.”

What can be done?

Ideally, the Sri Lankan Police should not discriminate on the basis of sex. People regardless of sex, should be allowed to rise up the ranks based on merit and experience. Currently, Sri Lankan women make up 50.7% of the population in Sri Lanka, yet they account for only 11.7% of the police force. Beyond this there is limited evidence to understand the kind of tasks women officers are carry out in their roles. Much work is needed to change the sexist traditions being upheld by the Sri Lankan Police Department.

A starting point would be to remove forms of blatant discrimination based on one’s sex. The removal of Bimshani Jasin Arachchi from her position highlights the Police’s stance on not amending their organizational culture to create more room for women; instead it stands firm in reinforcing age old sexist traditions that continue to create barriers for women. Globally, police forces are regarded as spaces exclusively for men. We link masculine stereotypes such as macho, strong, tough with the police. Women are associated with words such as caring, gentle, nurturer usually linking them to roles in caregiving jobs such as a teacher or nurse. We need a cultural shift. We need to start challenging sexist stereotypes that create barriers in the workplace on the basis of sex and gender. If the constitution promises citizens to be protected from discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, then structures such as the Sri Lankan police cannot uphold age old provisions that do not allow for the for the appointment of women DIGs.