Afghan women police need to be doing more than just making tea

As Oxfam publishes a major report on Afghan women in the police, Liz Cameron highlights that it’s more than a numbers game.

Twelve years since the international intervention into Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban there have been several gains for Afghan women, and among them is the fact that the number of women police has been growing slowly. Today, there are 1,551 women serving in the police, yet this makes up less than 1 per cent of the overall force. 

The Afghan Government has an ambitious plan to grow the number of female police to 10 per cent of the total force by 2024. The infographic above shows the change that will be needed over the next decade to meet that target.
Oxfam’s new report argues that whilst a critical mass of women is needed within the police, it is more than just a numbers game. Afghan female police are a vital part of the solution in tackling the endemic levels of violence against women in the country and providing women with access to formal justice. In order to do this, however, female police need to be doing more than making tea. 

Afghanistan is a socially conservative country where men’s and women’s interaction is tightly regulated by social norms. It is not appropriate for women to go alone to police stations and report crimes to men. This leads all too often to women suffering abuse – often at home – in silence: as the fear and shame of reporting crimes against them to a male police officer is often as terrifying to them as the violence they have experienced.  

For this to change, women in the police, and new recruits, need to be placed in jobs where they can make a real difference to Afghan women’s lives.

Afghan women police officers receive firearms training. Credit: Ellie Kealey/Oxfam 2013

The introduction of Family Response Units (FRUs) in 2006 went some way to addressing this problem. The three person units, with separate rooms from the police station, were set up with the intention of supporting victims of violence more effectively and also to help raise the status of female police by giving them a specialised professional role. However, of the 184 FRUs in Afghanistan, only 11 are headed by female police.

Until there are more policewomen, ordinary Afghan women’s access to justice will remain limited. But getting women to join the policeforce is an uphill struggle. Being a policewomen is not well-respected and most policewomen choose not to wear their uniforms on the way to and from work for fear of being targeted and harassed. Many policewomen are also the victim of abuse from male colleagues.

Nadia and Tuba are two of the 22 policewomen in Afghanistan’s remote province of Kunduz.
“When I became a policewoman,” Nadia says, “I faced a lot of difficulties because our society does not accept women police. They haven’t realized the value of a policewoman and how she can be of importance in the society, especially towards other women. I have even heard educated people say that whoever works in the police is ‘loose’, I was crushed to hear this, but I am compelled to continue to work. The same way as a society needs women doctors, it also needs women police.”  

Tuba underlines the importance of women police to Afghan women. 
“There is always a need for a female officer so that the respect and dignity of Afghan women is saved,” Tuba says. “The people’s level of awareness and education must be raised. People must learn the importance and role of policewomen in the society through the media.”

Very few educated women join the Afghan police force, which has an overall illiteracy rate of 70-80%. The rate amongst policewomen is even higher as women have faced more breaks in their education.

More needs to be done to encourage educated women, through incentives (such as bonuses, family healthcare plans, and housing) to join and stay in the police. This will ensure the quality of female police improves, that they earn the respect of male colleagues and can in turn help to professionalise the policeforce; turning it from a paramilitary force into a civilian service over the coming years.

Our report contains a number of recommendations to the Afghan Government and the internationally community to urgently recruit, train and retain policewomen. It calls for the development and implementation of a national strategy to achieve this and urges that this issue be prioritized in current police reforms.

Read more

Author: Elizabeth Cameron
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.