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Remove the obstacles – Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work Campaign 2008-09

Working in a ‘man’s world’: women in the Fiji police force

There are higher proportions of women in public services worldwide, and an increasing number of equal opportunities policies exist globally. Nevertheless the ILO Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111) adopted in 1958 remains as relevant today as it was in the late 1950s – in the Pacific region and elsewhere. An interview with Kasanita Seruvatu, former Director of Training in the Fijian Police and now Training Advisor to the Samoa Police, who was spearheading initiatives in the two countries to create a stronger ethnic and gender balance and empower women to take up challenging roles in the police force over the last 10 years.

Article | 08 October 2008

ILO Online: In your opinion, which are the major obstacles to removing discrimination against women at work?

Kasanita Seruvatu: Major obstacles are the deeply entrenched beliefs and stereotyped attitudes towards women in the workplace. Culture, socialisation processes and religion play a role in this. Precolonial taboos and norms of the Pacific cultures draw a clear demarcation line between dominant men and subordinate women. The colonial and Christian value systems later reinforced traditional gender roles. These traditional gender roles have lost importance but still continue to influence modern societies in the Pacific region.

Another major obstacle to gender equality are women themselves. Sometimes we live up to the expectations of society – especially our male counterparts – by appearing helpless and non assertive, even when holding positions of authority and responsibility. Moreover, by accepting certain kinds of jobs women reinforce deeply entrenched beliefs that they are weaker than men and cannot perform the same duties as men.

What key measures were put in place in order to ensure a more balanced representation of women and ethnic minorities in the Fijian police force?

Kasanita Seruvatu: Appropriate measures were put in place in 2003 including the decision to widen the pool of recruits and to remove certain compulsory selection criteria concerning height, weight, age and chest size of the candidates that discriminated against ethnic Indians and Chinese. The same year, a policy was put into place that gave 35 per cent of places in the police to women and 65 per cent to men. The new human resources policies also promoted a more transparent and fair selection procedure, gave women front line operational roles, including elite units, established networks, and promoted zero tolerance of sexual harassment and positive media coverage of women in the police force.

A balanced recruitment is ensured in the Fiji Police by giving a certain percentage to all the ethnic groups that are in Fiji. The Executives and the Human Resources Department will decide how many new recruits are required for the intake. The number is then divided into percentages taking into account the percentage of the population that the group is a part of. For example, there can be 50 per cent Fijians; 40 per cent ethnic Indians and 10 per cent from other minorities. Of course, these percentages must also take into account the quota for women.

What about women who want to join the higher ranks of the police force?

Kasanita Seruvatu: Joining the higher ranks of the Fiji Police Force is not easy due to the entrenched attitudes and beliefs regarding women in general in policing not only in Fiji but in the Pacific region as a whole. Prior to Commissioner Hughes’ appointment into the Fiji Police, there was only one woman holding the rank of an Assistant Superintendent while the next highest ranking woman was a sergeant. There was no woman at the inspectorate level. It’s a man’s world. A significant change came about in 2003 when Commissioner Hughes appointed two women to significant operational positions. However, their work was made harder on the ground when they dealt with male counterparts who had deeply ingrained ideas about gender roles in society.

How can we change these ideas about gender roles in society?

Kasanita Seruvatu: There is a patriarchal attitude towards women in the world of work and sometimes women are given token positions to pacify the strong advocates in women issues and to more or less ‘keep their mouths shut’. Management should not only talk about gender equality but also follow up with action. Where policies exist in this area, managers should make sure that every attempt is made to facilitate the access of women police officers to upper management levels. They should ‘walk the talk’ instead of paying lip service. Women should be encouraged to take up front line operational duties and to move away from performing ‘administrative duties’. Promotion opportunities and key positions vacancies should be advertised and everyone encouraged to apply and the selection to be done in a fair and transparent way. Women should stop being ‘mute’, be assertive in their communication with men and dare to question the decisions of superiors especially if it is a man.

Integration and diversity in the police force also have a positive impact on society?

Kasanita Seruvatu: A gender and ethnically balanced police force reinforces the principle that all law enforcement agencies should be representative of and responsive and accountable to the community it serves. It also reinforces the fact that a police force should recognize and reflect the identity and concerns of every section of the population. When a police force can show the visible presence of members of the minorities and women in prominent positions, it can be a clear indication of its acceptance in the population.

What role can the ILO play in achieving gender equality and combating discrimination in the Pacific region?

Kasanita Seruvatu: ILO could and should play a major role in the region and help achieving gender equality in the workplace. This means breaking down the barriers of discrimination both at the organizational level as well as at the governmental level. The ILO could help through strengthening labour ministries in the region, facilitating dialogue among the interested parties and providing technical assistance in identified improvement areas. Here are some concrete ideas for policies promoting gender equality: giving scholarships specifically to young women and girls in traditional male jobs like engineering; reserving places for young women and girls on training courses; and ensuring that all girls and young women have open access to education.