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A two-way street

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July 24, 1997, 1 a.m. |
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Novice female cops hear catcalls, applause mmer afternoon, traffic officers are pulling over cars. Yet the acrimony normally associated with such encounters is missing. The officers are polite, the drivers smiling. Perhaps this has to do with the officers dress code. They are all wearing skirts. For the first time since just after World War II, women are officially pulling over cars and writing tickets in downtown Kyiv. The spectacle is downright unusual not only for the general public, but for the women officers themselves. One taxi driver said pretty girls are an entertaining diversion for him, and that the women officers particularly stand out in their summer skirts and caps. According to traffic police commanders, it is not uncommon for motorists to present the women officers with flowers. Larisa Vasyuta, the 28-year-old assistant to the commander of the citys female traffic police detachment, said the programs very uniqueness made it effective. Drivers dont argue because they think its inappropriate to fight with girls over traffic regulations, she said. When drivers are stopped by the police, they expect to see a man, so their first impression is not that its the police, but that its a girl. The detachment was established in March 1996, and now includes 36 women officers between the ages of 18 and 28. By some accounts, they are at the head of a larger drive to integrate women into the wider, almost exclusively male, uniformed city police force. Pyotr Boliliy, commander of the detachment, declared the program a success so far. My colleagues and I are very pleased with the [women officers], he said. They are even quicker to learn than the usual recruits. They are becoming very professional. He added that putting women in uniform made simple sense on the eve of the 21st century. Every civilized country promotes equal rights for men and women, he said. Most women officers on roadside duty declined to be interviewed without clearance from their superiors. But their basic reluctance to speak also seemed to suggest that they are becoming a little tired of all the attention. One officer who did comment, 19-year-old Lena Milarchenko, said there are distinct advantages to being a woman traffic cop. Drivers like it more when they are stopped by women, she said. Women are gentler and easier to talk to. A driver collecting his license from the station where Milarchenko is based agreed. He said one time when he really violated the traffic rules, the policewoman who stopped him let him go with a warning. I was lucky I was stopped by an inspector in a skirt, he said. If it had been a man, the result would have been different. The driver suggested that women were more lenient and fair than their male colleagues because they were more interested in enforcing traffic rules than in persecuting drivers and extorting fines. Vasyuta said the womens thorough knowledge of regulations disarms drivers disinclined to take them seriously. As for the gifts of flowers and flirtation, she said that while such behavior might be regarded as chauvinistic in the West, in Ukraine it considered simple old-fashioned courtesy. When I see drivers respecting me as a woman, I realize that there are still gentlemen in our society, she said. She went on to say that the return of female traffic officers to the streets is part of a long process of womens emancipation. In Tsarist times, women were viewed only as housekeepers and mothers, she said. Now we have women astronauts, miners ... it depends on the kind of society, how civilized it is. Vasyuta and Milarchenko said that they had no complaints about their male colleagues, who they said are more than willing to advise them. The older men treat us like daughters, and our male contemporaries treat us like sisters, said Vasyuta. Such is the family atmosphere that the women call their commander Uncle Boliliy. Although the women officers say they do exactly the same job as their male counterparts, in practice they are not expected to be as tough. They are excused from working the more dangerous night shift, and they do not carry guns. Both of these exceptions are now under review. The women said they expect to be issued sidearms shortly, and Boliliy said that when his charges acquire more experience, they will probably start working at night. Milarchenko said she and her female colleagues do not feel pressure to perform like male officers, but on the contrary bring their own feminine style to the job. We develop our own style of communication, because we are women in whatever kind of job we do, she said. Despite the downside of working long roadside shifts during freezing winters and scorching summers, directing traffic is proving popular with women. While there are five or six applicants for every slot reserved for male recruits, 30 women have applied for the two female slots presently vacant. The women currently on the force won their jobs against equally long odds. Recruits must meet simple requirements. They need a minimum of education, must be at least 165 centimeters tall and have to fit into a 146/7 size uniform. The starting salary for both male and female traffic officers is Hr 130 a month, and greater experience and higher rank can boost pay to Hr 300. For Vasyuta, who wants to crack the almost exclusively male officer corps, pay is not an incentive. She said she has nurtured a romantic view of a traffic police vocation ever since she was 10, and jumped at the opportunity to transfer from the juvenile section of the police to directing traffic. Milarchenko said that the job is popular simply because it is so new and many women wanted to try it. For the time being, however, women traffic officers remain an exception. Kyiv alone has over 1,000 male traffic police officers, and womens detachments exist only in a handful of other large cities. Whats more, male resentment remains a factor. Its not their job, one male traffic officer said of his skirt-wearing colleagues. One old-time policewoman concurred. Maria Chagunnaya commanded a detachment of 56 female traffic officers in Kyiv after the city was liberated from the Nazis. But she was perfectly satisfied to move to an administrative job with the police when all uniformed female police units were disbanded in 1947. Think about a young lady staying at her post eight hours a day, no matter what the weather is, inhaling all that poison gas from cars, she said. Women are created to give birth to children, and what kind of children will these ladies have? The expense of keeping these children and their mothers healthy will cover all the revenue, if there is any, that the women bring in. Its not their job at all.
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