Across Southeast Asia, law enforcement agencies are adjusting to rapidly changing crime and security dynamics resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and border closures have changed trafficking patterns while simultaneously accelerating crimes committed online and in private residences – areas where women law enforcement officers can help responses.
With 450 million internet users in Southeast Asia, cybercrimes have increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Philippines alone, there was a 64 percent increase in social media use in the month of April, increasing exposure to online scams, phishing and malware.
Organized criminal networks have also leveraged the internet – open and dark web – and social media to extend their reach for trafficking and distribution of synthetic drugs during the pandemic. Human trafficking is another cyber-enabled crime where changes have occurred incredibly quickly. Perpetrators have been spending more time online, leading to increases in sexual exploitation and abuse committed through online channels. Women and children are now at higher risk than they were just months ago.
In all countries where populations are under confinement or practicing self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, media, civil society and law enforcement agencies have reported a surge in intimate partner violence. Social isolation, coupled with anxiety related to job and financial security, are some factors that may be intensifying violence in the home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder that the nature of policing, crime and criminal investigations evolve at a rapid pace. Increased focus on the gender dimensions of criminal conduct, victim impacts, and the operational capabilities required for law enforcement to serve communities and countries is needed. To contribute to these reflections, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), UN Women and INTERPOL recently completed a comprehensive study on the role of women in law enforcement in the ASEAN region.
Too often, law enforcement agencies rely on stereotypes of a suitable officer as male, physically strong, and able to work long hours or away from home when choosing who to recruit, deploy and promote. This ideal restricts the opportunity for a career in law enforcement to half of our population, and to half of the talent and the skills available.
In countries where men occupy 80 percent to 90 percent, or more, of law enforcement roles, transitioning towards a more gender-equal workforce is essential for the ASEAN community’s pursuit of a future-focused, outward-looking security sector that can respond to the security needs of the region. Recruiting and retaining more women in law enforcement are important steps that ASEAN countries need to consider.
Recruitment campaigns should encourage women and girls to consider a career in law enforcement by challenging stereotypes and showing that women are not only suitable, but vital for successful public security. For example, to celebrate 70 years of women in policing, Singapore developed an innovative campaign showcasing women officers working in a wide range of police divisions, from investigations and intelligence to tactical operations – an important message for women considering law enforcement careers, as well as current officers thinking about career pathways.
Leaders also have a crucial role in developing a well-rounded police force to tackle 21st century national and transnational crimes. As directors of culturally and gender-diverse teams, we ourselves have experienced first-hand how important it is to provide staff development opportunities to contribute to the work undertaken by our organisations. In a law enforcement context, the deployment of more women police to front-line positions is key to improving police-community engagement and detecting unlawful activities including gender-based violence crimes.
The joint UNODC-UN Women-INTERPOL study has clearly found that women police in the ASEAN region want more opportunities to address emerging law enforcement challenges, for example in cybercrime or counter-terrorism investigations. Investigators require focus, patience and analytical skills – valuable skills and qualities that women bring to law enforcement.
COVID-19 has also forced law enforcement agencies to strategically reassess how they respond to vulnerabilities, whether through cybersecurity or personalised responses. Women’s insights into different threats contribute to a complete picture of the crime and security environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds all of us of the importance of having a police force that is agile and flexible, and reflective of the community around it. It is time for law enforcement agencies in the ASEAN region to seize the opportunity to fast-track gender mainstreaming and to become more diverse and adaptive.
Jeremy Douglas is United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Mohammad Naciri is UN Women regional director for Asia and the Pacific and Jorge Fainstein Day Gastrell is acting director of capacity building and training in the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.