The night that women’s rights activist Dorothy Njemanze was arrested and assaulted by the police – physically, verbally, and sexually – she had been investigating the growing issue of police violence against women in her hometown of Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria.
Along with three other women, she was accused of being a prostitute and unlawfully detained simply for being on the streets at night.
“What happened to me is general practice in terms of how police interact with women in Nigeria,” says Njemanze, who now runs a foundation that partners with WILPF Nigeria and other women’s rights organisations to raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country. “There’s no respect for women’s human rights.”
Njemanze’s experience is just one example of the police brutality increasingly perpetrated against women in Nigeria – and just one example of a little-known epidemic impacting women globally, in countries of all socioeconomic statuses.
Local perspectives on a global issue
Globally, police brutality targeting women is both an everyday reality and an invisible issue – particularly in countries affected by conflict. A report by the World Health Organization notes that although “sexual violence during conflict perpetrated by militia, military personnel or police is an important aspect of non-partner sexual violence” against women, very few studies have been conducted on the issue.
Police violence against women is also difficult to quantify because it’s not exclusive to physical and sexual assault. “It often manifests as systemic violence, with police refusing to get involved in cases of domestic assault, refusing to file reports, or denying women access to justice through legal channels,” says Njemanze.
In many highly militarised countries, cultural attitudes toward police and police systems can prevent meaningful public dialogue from taking place about police brutality. In Colombia, for example, “a large part of the population still considers the police as the heroes of the nation,” says Alejandro Parra Macías, founder of the Colombian Collective Action for Conscientious Objection and partner of WILPF/Limpal Colombia.
“A lot of police violence against women actually happens right within police stations, but public perceptions of the police and codes of silence among police prevent them from being held accountable for their actions,” he says.
Police violence against women is an invisible reality even in so-called peaceful countries.
In the United States, for example, police brutality is rooted in systemic racism and impacts both genders. Although narratives around police violence in the US largely focus on Black men — the demographic with the highest lifetime risk of being killed by police — Black and Indigenous women are significantly more likely to be killed by the police compared to white women.
“Awareness of the level of police violence that Black women experience is exceedingly low,” says American scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in a TED Talk. “As a consequence, reporters don’t lead with them, policymakers don’t think about them, and politicians aren’t encouraged or demanded that they speak to them.”
In 2015, the African American Policy Forum — co-founded by Crenshaw — launched the #SayHerName campaign to draw attention to the largely unrecognised issue of police violence against Black women in the United States. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Crenshaw pointed out that the campaign remains urgently relevant today: “[Breonna Taylor’s] name didn’t really get lifted up until after George Floyd was killed,” she said. “Had Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd not been killed, would we be saying the name of Breonna Taylor?”
Women rise up against police brutality
The world may not be taking notice of the growing epidemic of police violence against women, but feminist activists are raising their voices louder than ever. And they intend to be heard.
In Nigeria, recent protests against police brutality in the country have been led by women and women’s groups, including Njemanze’s foundation and members of WILPF Nigeria. “It’s the feminist coalitions that are organising rallies and raising funds to sustain the protests,” she says.
Similarly, women in Colombia are actively speaking out against police violence after enduring years of abuse. Despite the constant threat of harm and even death, in September women activists led protesters to campaign in front of 14 police stations throughout the capital city of Bogotá — the sites where so many instances of police-perpetrated violence against women have taken place.
In Pakistan, women have been organising to speak out against the police system’s disregard for gender-based violence. In Kenya, women activists like Wanjira Wanjiru have been demanding an end to the persistent and growing issue of police violence in the country.
And in the United States, the movement is being led by Black women seeking justice for the generations of violence they have endured at the hands of police.
Hope triumphs over fear
As a leading activist on the frontlines of Nigeria’s women’s rights movement, Njemanze says that her life is constantly at risk – but that she’s inspired to keep moving forward by the women who continue to persist in their quest for peace. “My biggest hope for change is that we’re going to keep talking,” she says.
There’s reason for hope elsewhere, too. In Colombia, Verónica Recalde of WILPF/LIMPAL Colombia says she’s optimistic about the growing chorus of women’s voices speaking out against violence.
“Feminist activists and organisations have been talking loudly and breaking the silence,” she says.
“They’re taking matters into their own hands.”
Women-led activism against police violence is closely connected to a larger movement to protest militarism and the proliferation of weapons around the world, which has long been recognised by feminist groups — including WILPF — as directly and disproportionately impacting women, girls, and other marginalised groups. Learn more and get involved today by visiting wilpf.org.