There are 1,300 policewomen in Afghanistan, creating a valuable resource in tackling violence against women and in other areas of law enforcement. But while the government plans to almost quadruple the number of female personnel by 2014, cultural resistance and negative gender attitudes are still hampering the process.
Female recruits learn to search suspects, helping to prevent veiled and disguised attackers from penetrating security cordons. (Photos: Baraz)
They march in the midday sun, maintain and fire automatic rifles alongside the toughest of law enforcers, and are a key resource in countering insurgent infiltration operations.
This is the female officer element of the Afghan National Police, a remarkable achievement in a country where there are still only a handful of women drivers on the roads.
“The role of female police in a traditionally male society in the past has been very low, but compared to previous years, the presence of women in the police has improved,” said Khadija Nabizadeh, a female officer in the Interior Ministry.
With plenty of nudging and support from international partners, the number of female ANP has more than tripled in the past five years to 1,300 under a government drive to boost the role of women in the security forces to 5,000 by 2014.
The ANP currently has 149,000 officers, and with females a tiny percentage of the total, their male colleagues still rule the roost. Many policewomen perform administration, research or logistical functions, but the roles assigned are not limited to these areas. According to Nabizadeh, the presence of women in the criminal and intelligence department in particular is “very high.” And other doors are finally opening to the female recruits.
Nuria Yousefi is a 30-year old active officer in the Herat police force. Yousefi, who gained valuable experience in providing security for voters in parliamentary elections two years ago, points to a growing need for female officers in public places like hospitals, schools, universities and airports.
“We have a low status, are threatened by the Taliban and we are often culturally alienated from our work.” Policewoman
Women play a vital role in providing national security too, said Ruqia Ahmady, a police academy training officer in Herat:
“Policewomen have a positive influence in fighting the Taliban because the Taliban use burqas and female clothing to disguise themselves for attacks," she said. "The insurgents are aware that policemen are not allowed to check women.”
Female officers are also becoming increasingly used in combatting human trafficking and child kidnappings, Ahmady said.
Security chiefs anticipate that a greater presence of female officers will additionally help reduce the number of offences committed by male members of the security forces. But most importantly, it is hoped that female officers will help turn around the high incidence of violence against women in Afghan society.
There is a huge amount of work to be done in this field, as was demonstrated by the recent high-profile case of a Taliban execution of a 22-year-old woman accused of adultery. In 2011 alone, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documented 1,891 cases of violent acts against women. The real number is believed to be far higher, since the vast majority of cases go unreported.
“Unfortunately the government, the international community and the Afghan Human Rights Commission have failed in their efforts to prevent violence against women,” the head of the rights commission, Soraya Rahim Sobhran, told Afghanistan Today.
“When a girl is born here, violence accompanies her until she dies.” Interior Ministry spokesman.
Statistics already available for 2012 show a further surge in gender-directed abuse, although possibly also because women now feel more able to come forward to report incidents. In just two months of the year, Sobhran’s office recorded 960 acts of violence against women. “Most of those who commit crimes escape with impunity. The rule of law is just not strong enough on women’s issues,” she said.
“Obscene customs and traditions continue to be the cause of violence against women in Afghan society,” added Major General Aziza Nazari, the deputy chief of the Police Law Department and a veteran of the security forces, with 38 years of service under her belt.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi put it more bluntly: “I think when a girl is born here, violence accompanies her until she dies,” he said.
In terms of legislation to counter this, Afghanistan tends to see-saw between progressive efforts and others that draw instant condemnation from abroad.
The controversial Shia Personal Status Law passed in 2009 gave Shia husbands near-absolute powers over the movement, education and labour choices of their wives. However, other laws passed by Parliament have created optimism.
“Fortunately the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, proposed and passed in 2009, provides some security for women,” said Major General Nazari.
EVAW criminalises child marriage, forced marriage, selling and buying women for the purpose of or under the pretext of marriage, coerced self-immolation, baad (trading a woman or girl to settle a dispute) and over a dozen other acts of violence against women, including rape and domestic violence.
“The problem is a lack of correct and timely implementation," the officer added. “If more policewomen in particular enact law enforcement, we will witness a dramatic reduction in violence against women,” Nazari said, stressing the greater role of the police following the 2014 withdrawal of most NATO troops.
Positive results of the female policing policy are being felt in departments such as the Family Response Unit. Here, policewomen are far more effective than male colleagues, who are forbidden by cultural codes to enter households and discuss details of gender-specific crimes with women.
Female recruits must be able to handle weapons like their male colleagues.
But the same cultural constraints and prevalence of violence against women also act as a brake on efforts to enlist more of them.
“The poisoning of girls and burning of girls' schools have had a negative effect on recruitment of girls to the police," said Sayed Omar Sabour, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's department for Women, Children and Human Rights: "And many families do not give their daughters permission to go to school, so this is clearly an obstacle for daughters to join the police,” said Sabour, noting that most female officers operate in urban districts.
Strengthening female recruits in rural areas, where honour killings and gender-destructive rituals are concentrated, remains a key objective and challenge, he says.
Other hindrances were voiced by Shakila Rahimi, a member of the Afghan National Police Women’s Association (ANPWA). “We have a low status, are threatened by the Taliban and we are often culturally alienated from our work,” Rahimi said.
But the ball is rolling nonetheless, and the changing composition of the ANP is welcomed by most Afghan women.
Kabul resident Tamana Rahil believes that more policewomen will encourage women to come forward as victims and to feel safer in the street.
“In many places where women are concerned, there are no female police right now and security is provided only by male officers," she said. "As a consequence, some women just don’t go where there are only male police.”
Perhaps as encouraging as the identification of areas where women can help protect other women is the general commitment of new recruits to the common cause.
Sumaia is a cadet on a two-month training course in Herat. Between drills, she gives a simple response to questions about her motivation, saying she joined the ANP solely “to serve the homeland and our people.”