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More female police officers are needed to end violence against women in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has only one female police officer for every 10,000 women. And they face a particularly brutal form of stigma. This has to change.

Ten years after the fall of the Taliban, and as the end of a war which was supposed to be waged, in part, to liberate them looms, Afghan women are still not safe in their homes or their country.

Abused, harassed, discriminated against, raped, forced into marriage and jailed for so called “moral crimes” such as running away or sex outside marriage, women in Afghanistan need protection more than ever before.

I recently met a teacher called Mariam who had been sexually abused by her own husband. She went to her local police station three times and each time turned back because she could not bring herself tell the male officer what was happening to her. Every time she returned home, the violence continued.

After it escalated further and caused the pregnant Mariam to miscarry, a friend encouraged her to again go to the police. When Mariam explained she had tried many times before her friend found a female officer from another police station who listened to her situation, investigated her case and referred it to a prosecution unit. The eventual prosecution happened because of the presence of this female police officer; Mariam was finally able to get help she needed and her life was saved.

Over the last few years it has become clear that Afghan women need a police force that will give them the justice and security they need. Most importantly, they need more women police.

An Oxfam report released today shows that many women who join the police are faced with abuse and discrimination from colleagues and superiors; they lack proper training and female-only facilities, even basic equipment and uniforms.  Much more needs to be done to ensure policewomen are effective and safe in their jobs.

One of the key findings from the report is that Afghanistan has only one female police officer for every 10,000 Afghan women.  Many Afghan women will never see a policewoman, let alone be able to report a crime to one.

But this is not just an issue of justice for women.

Peace and security will be impossible in Afghanistan until the police gain the trust of communities—and policewomen are crucial to obtaining this trust. Policewomen are more effective in dealing with families and communicating with women and children. They are seen as less threatening, can help de-escalate conflicts in arrests and house searches, and ensure greater cooperation with the police.

Public confidence in the police in Afghanistan is extremely low.  With the police focus on counter-insurgency for so many years, they are perceived as a paramilitary force by ordinary Afghans. This is compounded by the fact that the police are often seen to be the cause of so much violence in the communities they are supposed to protect.  

The contempt of the police mixed with society’s disregard of women means that police women face a particularly brutal form of stigma in Afghanistan.  They are not respected, nor is their job deemed respectable.  Many are threatened and abused, even by their own families because of their work, and some have been killed.

This has to change, and it can if the right steps are taken. Reforms are already putting a focus on community policing. If more women join this reformed force, and are seen to be dealing with crime and helping stop violence, they will be viewed as valuable members of the community.

While the majority of NATO forces will withdraw next year, NATO countries will continue to hold the purse strings for the Afghan security forces. They must take responsibility and ensure that the Afghan government commits to reforms of the police force and the urgent recruitment and training of more policewomen.

The next 18 months are critical for Afghanistan, and especially for Afghan women. A simple change to the way we police our communities and keep women safe has the potential to lead Afghanistan in the right direction.