16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

Cecile Plunet (Global Coordinator of AIRCOP) on Gender Mainstreaming in Law Enforcement Agencies at international airports 


16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls. The campaign runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day.

On this occasion, we highlight the UNODC's initiatives to mainstream gender and achieve women's empowerment in the areas of law enforcement and justice.



AIRCOP is a multi agency project based on the cooperation between UNODC, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organisations (WCO) that is aimed at strengthening the capacities of participating international airports across the globe to detect and intercept drugs, other illicit goods and high-risk passengers in both origin, transit and destination countries with the overall objective of disrupting the illegal criminal networks and contributing to the fight against terrorism.

AIRCOP is inspired by the Secretary General’s Report on Women in Peace and Security (S/2017/861) which highlights that: “women’s meaningful participation measurably strengthens protection efforts, accelerates economic recovery, deepens peacebuilding efforts and leads to more sustainable peace”.

UNODC ROSEN sat down with Cécile Plunet, Global Coordinator of AIRCOP, and regional director ad interim of UNODC Office for West and Central Africa  to discuss her work, and gender mainstreaming law enforcement agencies in international airports.


How well are women represented in the law enforcement agencies present at airports ? 

Cecile Plunet: The intended direct beneficiaries of AIRCOP are officers from law enforcement agencies operating in the different airports. Currently, approximately 20% of law enforcement officers in AIRCOP units in Africa are female. But in some of the Caribbean Joint Airport Interdiction Task Forces (JAITFs), more than half of the staff are female. We also have had four women as heads of task forces in both Africa and the Caribbean, namely in Barbados, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Jamaica.

Although the number of female law enforcement officers is increasing, this is an area largely dominated by their male counterparts. Various reasons explain this situation. There is an intense pressure from society, family and friends considering that women shouldn’t be involved in law enforcement and a strong cultural bias, whereby law enforcement is considered as a “man’s profession”. Such bias is rarely counter-balanced as there is a lack of information and campaigns on women’s role in law enforcement. 

Recruiters also over-emphasize the importance of physical strength, which leads to biased recruitment policies and practices. In the workplace, there is also often a lack of policies and programmes that target women as well as issues such as sexual harassment or lack of proper infrastructure, including separate toilets. Female police officers are also likely to feel isolated, especially since the teams are often made up of exclusively male officers. Overall, real opportunities to succeed as a woman in law enforcement are rare.

What have you noticed in terms of gender roles when it comes to airport-linked crimes ?  

Cecile Plunet: AIRCOP takes a broad perspective of gender mainstreaming, not limited to women as law enforcement officers. For instance women as perpetrators.  Research, studies and analysis on women as criminals are limited, as organized crime has historically been seen as a masculine acticity with women involved only for purposes of exploitation, or as silent supporters of their partners' questionable activities.  Nevertheless, in recent years, closer attention has been paid to the role of women in organized crime activity. Women have been found to be leaders in organized criminal groups, including organizers of criminal activities and equal partners in crime. They have also been found to assume assistant and supporting roles, subordinate to male criminals as stable and often central support systems. Such tasks have included acting as drug mules or taking care of the finances of the organized criminal group.

In trafficking in persons cases, women have been found to act as the intermediary between perpetrators and victims, often through a "promotion" from a victim to a supervisory position. Other analysts have found considerable evidence that women had knowledge and awareness of the criminal affiliations of their male counterparts, and in some cases were active participants in maintaining and concealing criminal activity. Specifically, women’s participation in the drug trade is on the rise worldwide, especially among women who lack education, economic opportunity, or have been victims of abuse.

The data collected by AIRCOP JAITFs across the globe shows that out of over 2,000 people arrested, more than 400 were women, with a strong increase of these numbers in recent years. It is likely that additional investigations will yield more evidence of female involvement in organized crime. In particular, little data has so far been systematically compiled on women as perpetrators in West, Central and East Africa (while some studies exist on South Africa). 

Also, while transnational organized crime, and in particular drug trafficking impacts both men and women, specific aspects need to be considered. For example, at least twice as many men than women suffer from drug use disorders. However, once women have initiated substance use, in particular alcohol, cannabis, opioids and cocaine, they tend to increase their rate of consumption more rapidly than men. Even when women may not directly participate in drug use or the drug trade, they are often responsible for mitigating the associated risks for themselves and for their families, and they are forced to carry the double and triple burden of care when families break apart and community life deteriorates. 

What steps has AIRCOP taken regionally and globally to mainstream gender within its activites ?

Cecile Plunet: AIRCOP implements its activities in line with UNODC Strategy for gender equality and the empowerment of women for 2018-2021.

As a first step, there is a clear understanding among AIRCOP team members that when interacting with each other, we should stay clear from gender stereotypes or cultural bias. It is our role and duty to model the behaviours we would like to see in others and even if the team brings together people from over 10 countries, both women and men, from different professional backgrounds, I feel that team members respect and value each other without discrimination. This is an essential initial step. When needed, recruitment of new staff also helps to ensure that a gender balance is maintained, which is not always obvious in a law enforcement-focused project.

AIRCOP also supports the representation of women as law enforcement officers by ensuring, first of all, that nothing in the project set up prevents the application of equal access to the activities foreseen.

As AIRCOP advises beneficiary countries on their recruitment policies for JAITFs and on the development of standard operating procedures, UNODC strongly encourages the designation of women as members/team leaders of its Joint Airport Interdiction Task Forces (JAITFs), including by adding a paragraph on gender mainstreaming/balance in the Memorandum of Understanding and Standard Operating Procedures to be signed/revised between UNODC and governments. This also includes for example ensuring that specific facilities are available (separate locker room, separate toilets etc.) as needed. 

Specific efforts also aim to ensure that both genders are represented during shifts throughout the day/night at a specific airport setting, as illicit trafficking may be conducted by both men and women, and thorough checks on females may only be conducted by female law enforcement officers.

AIRCOP is also striving to reach out to more female trainers to ensure consistency and has recently started coordinating with agencies such as UN Women in the delivery of trainings covering gender aspects in particular.  In 2021, AIRCOP will organise its first Global “Women of AIRCOP” meeting bringing together women from each of the JAITFs across the globe, to more actively promote women’s roles in AIRCOP and work towards gender equality in the law enforcement profession.

How is gender mainstreaming received / incorporated by partners/donors ? 

Cecile Plunet: Donors are very much encouraging the UN in general, and AIRCOP in particular, to ensure that gender considerations are incorporated in our activities, while being mindful that we face specific constraints, in particular due to law enforcement agencies being ‘traditionally” male-dominated, and different countries having different cultural norms. Our efforts need to understand national circumstances to be able to address reluctances in a manner which is at the same time respectful and effective.

Beneficiary countries are usually open to discuss such issues, even if individuals might be reluctant or perplex. During initial discussions in particular, AIRCOP has, in some cases, relied on expertise from UNWOMEN, as the agency has an in-depth understanding of the national situation and specific reluctances. 

It is important to explain in detail why including women as officers, or taking special considerations of gender when dealing with suspects, witnesses and victims, is important, both for human rights reasons and for more efficient law enforcement. Indeed, when law enforcement is more representative of the population and better address the security needs of women, its credibility, trust and legitimacy increase. Gender-sensitive agencies are also in a position to take better-informed decisions and ensure a more effective implementation of law enforcement mandates, more operational efficiency and better accountability.    

What steps would you recommend to others to enhance female participation in the security sector ? 

Cecile Plunet: As for everything, there is no “one fits all” solution. I would recommend that the initial discussions start around understanding specific national circumstances. Indeed, as mentioned, it is important to understand reluctances to address them in a respectful, yet efficient manner. It is also important to explain in detail why including women as officers, or taking special considerations of gender when dealing with suspects, witnesses and victims, is important, both for human rights reasons and for more efficient law enforcement – as better operational efficiency might be a very appealing argument in many cases. It is important to identify male advocates to ensure that gender issues are not only brought forward by women, and that male officers are supporting their female colleagues.  

Steps should then be taken to include gender considerations in a multi-faceted manner, as I highlighted above (answer to question 2). Activities should tackle better representativity of women in JAITFs, but also equal participation in capacity-building activities or specific facilities in the workplace, as one angle only is insufficient in itself. 



More information on the AIRCOP Project can be found here.