Police-women in Afghanistan

In the field, Women's rights article written on the 10 Sep 2013

Only 1 per cent of the Afghan National Police is female. Although female police are vital for Afghan women to be able to report crimes and access desperately-needed justice, few women in Afghanistan will ever encounter one.

A report released by Oxfam today has found that Further action is urgently needed to recruit, train, retain and protect Afghan female police officers. This is critical for upholding the rights of Afghan women and girls and can contribute to sustainable peace and development efforts in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan‟s first policewoman took up her duties in 1967 – three years after Afghan women gained the right to vote. Yet, as with many aspects of the country‟s development, subsequent decades of political upheaval and conflict took their toll and when the Taliban swept to power in 1996, women were banned from serving in the police.

Over the past decade, the Afghan Government and international donors have worked hard to rebuild the country‟s basic institutions, including the Afghan National Police (ANP). The Government has launched several initiatives to recruit women into the ANP, resulting in a gradual rise in their numbers. In 2005, the ANP employed just 180 women out of 53,400 personnel. In July 2013, 1,551 policewomen were serving out of 157,000.

All Afghans stand to benefit from more effective and responsive law enforcement in which policewomen play their part – but none more so than women and girls in a country where domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual assault, and honour killings are shockingly common.

Official figures are distorted by underreporting but in reality as many as 87 per cent of Afghan women suffer at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological abuse, according to a credible 2008 survey, with more than half experiencing multiple kinds of violence and abuse.

Significant underreporting – which contributes to the lack of prosecutions and a culture of impunity – occurs partly because social norms prevent most Afghan women from approaching male police officers. Despite the gradual progress in female staffing, policewomen still only represent 1 per cent of ANP personnel, with very few deployed in rural areas. Consequently, few Afghans ever see a policewoman, leaving most women and girls unable to report crimes and threats against them.

Compounding this, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that many honour killings and sexual assaults against women have been committed by the police themselves. Such crimes undermine public trust in the ANP and, by association, the legitimacy of the Afghan state. Effective, independent oversight of the ANP is required to improve accountability, police behaviour and public trust.

Oxfam is investing in support and awareness, working with Afghan partner organizations to change attitudes towards violence against women, both within communities and the police force. Oxfam’s projects help to train male and female community leaders on using the formal justice system rather than informal systems, which often do not deliver justice for women.

As a major donor and with an Australian police presence in Afghanistan, Australia has a vital role to play in addressing this issue. Yet out of the more than 3000 police Australia has trained in Afghanistan, only a handful were women. If Australia wants to make a lasting positive difference to Afghanistan, it’s time Australia puts serious commitment and resources behind Afghan policewomen.