Women cops step up
 

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 number of female personnel in the Afghan National Police has more than tripled in the past five years to 1300 officers, according to recent statistics released by the Afghan Interior Ministry. The government aims to increase the number of women in the security forces to 5,000 by 2014.
“The role of afghan female police in a traditionally male society in the past has been very low.  But in proportion to previous years, women's presence in the police has improved,” Khadija Nabizadeh, a female officer in the Interior Ministry told Afghanistan Today. Officer Nabizadeh added that the presence of women in the criminal and intelligence department in particular is “very high.” 
Noria Yousefi is a 30-year old active officer in the Herat police. Officer Yousefi, who experienced providing security for voters in parliamentary elections two years ago, said the number of women recruited into the police has improved. Indeed, the increased number of on-beat women in public places such as hospitals, schools, universities and airports is markedly visible, she added. Sumaia is a current cadet on a two-month training course.  She says she joined the police force “to serve the homeland and our people.” 
The Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) have set the recruitment of female personnel as a key priority, hoping that more female officers will not only reduce the number of alleged crimes officers within the ANSF commit, but also to engender a more a gender-sensitive approach to policing.  The results are already being felt in departments such as the Family Response Unit, where in many cases female officers are more effective than male officers who are forbidden by cultural codes to enter a household and discuss details of gender-specific crimes with women. 
Women effective in fighting Taliban
Ruqia Ahmady, an academy training officer, says women play a vital role in providing national security too. “Policewomen have a positive influence in fighting the Taliban because the Taliban use tents and female clothing to disguise for attacks and the insurgents are aware that policemen are not allowed to check women”, said Ahmad, adding that women in the force are also employed in fighting human trafficking and child kidnappings.  General Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has repeated that strengthening the number of women in the Afghan security forces is a key NATO priority.  ISAF has a number of initiatives, such as LOFTA - established in 2002 - to encourage families to allow their daughters to enter the police and work alongside their male colleagues. 
However cultural and gender attitudes remain a major obstacle to swelling the ranks of female officers. Sayed Omar Sabour, vice-president of the department for Women, Children and Human Rights at the Interior Ministry, told Afghanistan Today: “The poisoning of girls and burning of girls schools has had a negative effect on recruitment of girls to the police. Many families do not give their daughters permission to go to school, so it is clearly an obstacle for daughters to join the police.” Sabour added that women continue to play an important role in logistical, administrative and research roles, however. But most female officers still 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, says Sabour. Shakila Rahimi, a member of the Afghan National Police Women’s Association (ANPWA), which meets monthly, says immense obstacles remain for female officers. “We have a low status, are threatened by the Taliban and we are often culturally alienated for our work,” Rahimi told Afghanistan Today. 
Violence against women on rise
In 2011 alone, The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documented 1,891 cases of violent acts against women (but the real number is believed to be far higher). 
Commissioner Dr Soraya Rahim Sobhran, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told Afghanistan Today:  “Unfortunately the government, the international community and the Afghan Human Rights Commission have failed in their efforts to prevent violence against women.” The statistics for 2012 show a further surge in gender-directed abuses: In two months this year alone, Dr 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,” added Dr Sobhran. Sediq Sediqi, an interior ministry spokesman, put it bluntly: “I think when a girl is born here, violence accompanies her until she dies.” 
"When a girl is born here, violence accompanies her until she dies." Sedid Sediqi, Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman. 
Tamana Rahil, a Kabul citizen, says that more policewomen would 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.  As a consequence, some women just don’t go where there is only male police,” Rahil told Afghanistan Today. 
National Major General Aziza Nazari, Deputy Chief of the Police Law Department, who has served the Afghan police and domestic security for over 38 years, believes that women have a crucial role to play in the security forces. “Obscene customs and traditions continue to be the cause of violence against women in Afghan society,” the veteran female commander told AT. 
EVAW not implemented properly
The controversial Shiite Personal Status Law passed in 2009 gave Shiite husbands near-absolute powers over the movement, education and labour choices of their wives.  However other laws passed by the Afghan parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, have led to optimism. “Fortunately the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, proposed and passed in 2009, provides some security for women,” said Major General Aziza Nazari. The EVAW law criminalises child marriage, forced marriage, selling and buying women for the purpose, 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," bemoans Major General Nazari. 

“If more policewomen in particular enact law enforcement, we will witness a dramatic reduction in violence against women,” added the general, stressing that a stronger female presence will be especially crucial after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops. 

 

“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.

Wide range of roles

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.

Greatest challenge of all

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. 

Conflicting moves of lawmakers

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.

Recruiters still struggling  

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.  

Marching ahead

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.”

 
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