Insight: Once a symbol of new Afghanistan, can policewomen survive?

KABUL (Reuters) - Shortly after Friba joined the Afghan National Police, she gave herself the nickname "dragon" and vowed to bring law and order to her tormented homeland.

Five years later, she is tired of rebuffing the sexual advances of male colleagues, worries the budget for the female force will shrink and fears the government will abandon them.

Women in the police force were held up as a showcase for Afghan-Western efforts to promote rights in the new Afghanistan, born from the optimism that swept the country after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Images of gun-wielding Afghan policewomen have been broadcast across the globe, even inspiring a television program popular with young Afghan women.

But going from the burqa to the olive green uniform has not been easy.

In Reuters interviews with 12 policewomen in districts across the Afghan capital, complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination and bitter frustration were prevalent.

President Hamid Karzai's goal is for 5,000 women to join the Afghan National Police (ANP) by the end of 2014, when most foreign troops will leave the country.

But government neglect, poor recruitment and a lack of interest on the part of authorities and the male-dominated society mean there are only 1,850 female police officers on the beat, or about 1.25 percent of the entire force.

And it looks to get worse.

Friba, who asked that her second name not be used, says it all when she runs a manicured finger across her throat: "Once foreigners leave we won't even be able to go to the market. We'll be back in burqas. The Taliban are coming back and we all know it."

Conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved significantly since the Taliban were ousted. Women have won back basic rights in voting, education and work since Taliban rule, when they were not allowed out of their homes without a male escort and could be publicly stoned to death for adultery.

But problems persist in the deeply conservative Muslim society scarred by decades of conflict. The United Nations said this month that despite progress, there was a dramatic under reporting of cases of violence against women.

Some female lawmakers and rights groups blame Karzai's government for a waning interest in women's rights as it seeks peace talks with the Taliban, accusations his administration deny.

"We have largely failed in our campaign to create a female police force," said a senior Afghan security official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"Mullahs are against it, and the women are seen as not up to the job," he added, referring to Muslim preachers.

Almost a third of the members of the female force work in Kabul, performing duties such as conducting security checks on women at the airport and checking biometric data.


Friba sat in a city police station room decorated with posters of policemen clutching weapons to talk to Reuters.

"I am the dragon and I can defend myself, but most of the girls are constantly harassed," she said.

"Just yesterday my colleague put his hands on one of the girl's breasts. She was embarrassed and giggled while he squeezed them. Then she turned to us and burst into tears."

On the other side of Kabul, detective Lailoma, who also asked that her family name not be used, said several policewomen under her command had been raped by their male colleagues.

Dyed russet hair poking out from her black hijab, part of the female ANP uniform, Lailoma wrung her hands as she complained about male colleagues: "They want it to be like the time of the Taliban. They tell us every day we are bad women and should not be allowed to work here."

Male colleagues also taunt the women, she added, often preventing them from entering the kitchen, meaning they miss out on lunch.

On several occasions, male colleagues interrupted Reuters interviews in what the policewomen said were attempts to intimidate them into silence.

One male officer entered the room without knocking three times to retrieve pencils; another spent 20 minutes dusting off his hat, only to put it back on a shelf. The women switched subjects when the men came in.

Rana, a 31-year-old, heavy-set policewoman with curly hair, said policewomen were expected to perform sexual favors: "We're expected to do them to just stay in the force."

The raping of policewomen by their male counterparts "definitely takes place", said Colonel Sayed Omar Saboor, deputy director for gender and human rights at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.

"These men are largely illiterate and see the women as immoral."

Insecurity, opposition to women working out of the home and sexism deter many women from signing up, said Saboor.

But impoverished widows sometimes have no choice. A starting salary is about 10,500 afghanis a month ($210).


The Interior Ministry and foreign organizations responsible for training the women police - NATO, the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - say recruitment poses the main challenge to the force.

"It is just difficult. There is no real history of women in the police force, there is no precedent, even having an open space for women in employment is a challenge," UNDP Associate Administrator Rebeca Grynspan told Reuters.

A recruitment campaign of television adverts and posters has not produced the desired effect in a country where there are huge social and religious divides between the rural and urban populations. Even fewer join the national army, where some 350 women serve amongst 190,000.

"Much of the male leadership don't want to have anything to do with women in the ANP. Commanders want them out of their units," Saboor said, adding that having 2,500 female police officers could be realistic by end-2014.

Of those who join, few have prospects for promotion. They often find themselves in police stations without proper facilities for women, such as toilets or changing rooms which are vital for the many who hide the fact that they work from their families.

The sprawling Interior Ministry has only recently started work on installing toilets for women. "Ten years of this war have passed, and we're only now building them a toilet," Saboor said with a wry laugh.

For First Lieutenant Naderah Keshmiri, whose humble yet stern approach helps her pursue cases of violence against women, life as a policewoman means being undervalued.

"My male subordinates quickly became generals. But not me. Where's my promotion?" she asked in a UNDP-backed Family Response Unit, which she heads.

The UNDP has set up 33 of the units countrywide, which help increase female visibility in the ANP, with plans to more than double them by 2015.

A Western female police trainer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said policewomen are almost always passed over for promotion by their male commanders.

U.S. lawmakers are hoping to amend a defense bill by year-end to protect the rights of Afghan women during the security transition. They want to reduce physical and cultural barriers to women joining the security forces.

Ethnicity also plays a role: 55 percent of women in the ANP are ethnic Tajik, Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group. Recruiting from the largest and most conservative ethnic group, the Pashtuns, is difficult.

The Taliban draw most of their support from the Pashtuns, who dominate the south of the country. Pashtun women make up only 15 percent of the force.

Hazaras, a largely Shi'ite minority who suffered enormous losses at the hands of the Taliban, are overrepresented amongst the women, making up 24 percent, according to figures from NATO's training mission in Afghanistan.

But many of the policewomen are wondering whether their force can survive.

Lowering her voice, Friba whispered: "As soon as the foreigners leave, they'll reduce our salaries. This will not happen to the men. Or perhaps they'll kick us out entirely."

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)

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