Watching Afghanistan fall back under Taliban control so quickly, so easily, and after so much loss, has been shocking, upsetting and anger-inducing. For many of us, a focus of that anger and heartbreak is what this step backwards will mean for women in Afghanistan. And for the politicians, it’s the teachers and schoolgirls whose futures are now more uncertain than ever and whose lives are undoubtedly at risk. The Taliban may have made vague promises about respecting women’s rights, but stories have already emerged suggesting that a return to a repressive regime where women aren’t allowed out unaccompanied or can’t work in the jobs they’ve waited decades to be in is already underway. For them, the return of the Taliban isn’t just about politics or religion. It’s about life or death.
As a news reporter I visited Afghanistan several times during the British Army’s involvement there – in 2011, in 2013, and again in 2014. Those experiences have stayed with me and are forefront in my mind as I watch the news today. In particular, I remember on one of those trips being taken to a training centre for the Afghan National Police force just outside Lashkar Gah. There I was introduced to the handful of women who had joined up as recruits, training to be fully-fledged police officers.
Around that time, Oxfam reported that Afghanistan’s sparse number of female police officers meant there was just one for every 10,000 women. Women in that job were few and far between, and here I was with the opportunity to meet some of them. While our conversations were limited by the need to communicate through interpreters, the language barrier didn’t prevent me from seeing their passion, their resilience and their hope. They were proud to show what they’d learned, from drills to how to load and fire guns. They stood tall, smiled warmly, and appeared unphased by the magnitude of what they had taken on by even joining up.
It felt positive, but even then it would never be plain sailing for those women. Over the past decade, the number of women in law enforcement in Afghanistan has remained low. Is it any wonder, when the obstacles for women in Afghan society taking on such roles range from social taboo to the threat of being killed for their job? In April this year the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said at least 14 women working in Afghan security forces had been killed in targeted attacks since January, with at least 22 others wounded. Those statistics came hot on the heels of an announcement by the Afghan interior minister that they planned to increase the number of women in law enforcement from around 4,000 to 10,000 in the following three years. An increase that was unlikely then and clearly impossible now.
As I’ve watched the situation unfold in Afghanistan, the women I met that day keep returning to me. I wonder where they are now, what’s happened to them and what future they face. And not just them, but all the women who felt that same sense of hope at the chance to get a job, pursue a career, attend university – even attend school. They were promised a different society by us in the west, but the return of the Taliban means that’s all gone.
Of course, nobody can say for certain what will happen to women in Afghanistan, or what their future holds, least of all me. But one thing I am sure of is that the look of hope I saw that day will have disappeared from those women’s eyes. As it undoubtedly has for hundreds of thousands of Afghans across the country. And that is one of the biggest heartbreaks of all.
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