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FILLING A VITAL ROLE

Women play an essential role in Afghanistan law enforcement, searching females at checkpoints and the cars and homes of suspects who hide weapons in women's rooms, which male officers cannot access. Most recently, police women searched voters entering female-only polling stations. Their presence is vital to Afghan women, allowing them to access justice and report crimes.

There is a desperate need for more female police officers. The Afghan Ministry of Interior has only been able to recruit about 2,000 to the country's 147,000 member police force. The ministry plans to add 2,200 more female officers by the end of this year.

The shortfall has been alarming and disconcerting not only for the ministry but also its partners. EUPOL interviewed two of the very courageous and outspoken female officers – 2nd Sgt. Fatema Muqaddam and 1st Sgt. Fatema Khawary – about their work.


October 5, 2014
By Corrie Sloot

Women play an essential role in Afghanistan law enforcement, searching females at checkpoints and the cars and homes of suspects who hide weapons in women’s rooms, which male officers cannot access. Most recently, police women searched voters entering female-only polling stations. Their presence is vital to Afghan women, allowing them to access justice and report crimes.

There is a desperate need for more female police officers. The Afghan Ministry of Interior has only been able to recruit about 2,000 to the country’s 147,000 member police force. The ministry plans to add 2,200 more female officers by the end of this year.

The shortfall has been alarming and disconcerting not only for the ministry but also its partners. EUPOL interviewed two of the very courageous and outspoken female officers – 2nd Sgt. Fatema Muqaddam and 1st Sgt. Fatema Khawary – about their work.

Muqaddam has worked with the Balkh Provincial Police Command for six years. Khawary has been with the Herat Provincial Police Command for four years. Both women aspired to be police officers from early childhood.

Muqaddam is a high school graduate but Khawary has studied for 14 years, which is counted as a college graduate in Afghanistan. Muqaddam was inspired to join the force by watching documentary films about foreign police officers. Khawary became interested in the measures and counter measures police take against criminals and offenders.

Two of Khawary’s sisters are police officers, making it easier for her to sign up. “My family is broadminded and my two sisters were already in the Herat and Kabul police forces, so I had no problems getting my family’s approval.”

It was more difficult for Muqaddam. She ran into three female police officers who were recruiting in the Hazrat-e-Ali Shrine, famously known as Rawza-e-Sharif (the sacred shrine) in Mazar-e-Sharif. Muqaddam spoke to them, got their contact info and returned home to ask the permission of her family.

The biggest resistance came from Muqaddam’s oldest brother. His justification was “Decent women do not join the police. Only morally-corrupt women join the police.”

Muqaddam did everything she could to persuade him, even weeping days and nights for almost a year, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, Muqaddam asked the three female recruiters to talk to her brother.

After a lengthy discussion, one asked her brother this question. “Look, we work for the police. Do you think we are bad or morally corrupt women?” That won Muqaddam a ticket to the Afghan National Police. She maintains that the three decades of war has tarnished the image of female officers in the country. She ended up being one of the first 14 female police officers in Balkh province in the current regime and the first sergeant in 30 years.

Training female Afghan police officers has been a high priority for the EUPOL mission. Senior Training Adviser Christine Edwards developed a 10-day leadership and personal development course covering communication feedback, image, assertiveness, networking, mentoring, motivation, team building, goal setting, leadership and problem solving.

To ensure Afghan ownership and to move towards transition, Edwards trained the trainers who took over from her and taught the course for the last three times very successfully. She described the trainees as “keen” and “enthusiastic to learn.” Zulhejja, a female police officer (who goes by one name, like most Afghans), described the course as “useful” and said that she was particularly pleased to learn how she could “lead and motivate a team.”

Muqaddam says security agencies gave her a hard time after her recruitment because she had lived and studied in Iran. The situation for women has improved significantly over the years. For example, the ministry approved the Afghan National Police Code of Conduct in 2011, which requires male police officers to commit to nondiscrimination, especially against gender. The then chief of Kabul City Police, General Ayoub Salangi, signed a decree in 2013 to provide female police officers with better working conditions, “preventing their mistreatment and improving gender equality.”

Treatment of women as co-equals and colleagues, however, will probably take some time in a war-torn country where women’s mistreatment is almost interwoven into the social fabric.

“Education is important,” Khawary maintains. When illiterate women who badly need a source of income join the force, they are assigned janitorial tasks when they are not required to frisk women or search houses, she notes, adding that such officers can not do much due to their inability to read and write.

The human rights department at the Ministry of Interior handles complaints of mistreatment from female police officers, says Khawary. Her explanation of the procedures suggests complaints are handled in a very traditional way in the absence of a proper anti-sexual harassment policy.

Female officers also face difficulty being promoted. Since headquarters has to approve promotions, evaluation forms are sent to the Ministry of Interior. Both Khawary and Muqaddam are not pleased with the time this takes.

Low police salaries are another complaint. “The prices rise but their salaries remain the same,” notes Muqaddam.

Another problem the two officers face is personal security. Khawary and Muqaddam both say they cannot travel to or from work wearing their uniform. They leave it in the office, only putting it on after they clock in. However, that doesn’t mean that they do not work after hours. They travel to perilous districts to search homes and women and even stay in the districts for a few nights, if required.

Khawary is driven to work in the same old vehicle that was targeted with a hand grenade. She says it was taken away for several days after the incident but returned with few changes and still has a hole in the floor where she puts her feet.

The Interior Ministry is working hard to recruit educated women. One of the challenges is the cultural stereotypes associated with women’s work on the force. Afghans have to be made aware of the need for more female police officers and the ministry’s efforts to improve their work environment.

More improvements are needed, such as personal security, good income and job satisfaction (transportation, safe working environment etc.) to attract more women to the force.

BIO

This is an edited version of an article that ran in the September 2014 EUPOL Newsletter. To learn more about police work in Afghanistan, follow Head of Mission Karl Ake Roghe on Twitter (@EupolAfg_HoM) and/or follow EUPOL on Facebook (facebook.com/EUPOLAFG).