Let Women Protect Afghanistan

July 31, 2010

A dozen women wearing olive-green uniforms and black head scarves picked up Hungarian AMD-65 rifles in the late morning Kabul heat, and marched toward their targets. Surrounded by soaring mountains, they crossed a vast swath of grass the Soviets once used for their own military exercises.

Razia, 28, shot and then surveyed her bullet-ridden paper target. A smile exploded across her narrow face while she flashed a thumbs-up sign at her Italian instructors. The policewoman-in-training had just scored 38 out of 40 in target practice, an exceptional score for any trainee, male or female.

“My uncle is not in favor of me being here, but I really did not ask his permission to come,” says Safia, a 25-year-old police trainee.

“My family helped me to come here,” Razia said after receiving her teachers’ congratulations. “My husband was in the police and he was shot in the leg years ago, so he can’t work. He has really been encouraging me; he is very proud.”

This mother of four is one of 19 women now taking part in the Afghan National Police’s latest eight-week training course for female officers in Kabul. The program, which launched in 2008, is part of NATO’s push to train an Afghan police force strong enough to assume responsibility for the nation’s safety. The goal is to add 5,000 women to the police ranks over the next five years, in part because in a gender-segregated society, female police are better equipped to serve female crime victims.

Despite a widely seen billboard and TV advertising campaign urging women to join the police, Afghan wives, daughters, and sisters who wish to sign up still face an uphill battle in winning their family’s permission.

Many families in this conservative society are not keen to have women patrolling the streets or facing the security risks that accompany police work, particularly as Afghan National Police forces are being targeted by anti-government forces. This is especially true in the southern and eastern regions of the country, where the Taliban is most active and even male police officers face significant safety threats.

Those women who do sign up for police training often wear their regular clothes when they leave their homes, only changing into their police uniforms once they reach the safety of their classroom. And nearly all of the students in the training course have hidden their new line of work from at least some of their male relatives.

“My uncle is not in favor of me being here, but I really did not ask his permission to come,” said Safia, a 25-year-old trainee whose late father was a colonel in the police force. “My mother approves. She is in favor of me joining.”

The women’s training is exactly the same as their male colleagues’, aside from one night shooting course. The sessions are led by Afghan senior police officials along with Italian military police who work with students in the classroom and on the shooting range.

Female police officers can investigate people and places no man could in conservative Afghanistan. Last June, male suicide bombers toting rocket grenade launchers dressed as women in burqas during a national reconciliation conference in Kabul. But during this year’s event, women police patrolled roads and conducted searches.

Women are also needed for house-to-house searches—since men cannot enter women’s rooms—and for staffing family response units that address issues such as domestic violence.

So far, though, the work is going slowly. As of June, there were only 1,100 women in a police force of 107,000.

Recruiters also must contend with the Afghan National Police’s reputation for ripping off its own citizens.

“To eliminate corruption it is going to take time. All that we can do is to train people and find leaders who are going to set a good example,” says Army Brig. Gen. Anne Macdonald, who until July served as the Assistant Commanding General overseeing police development and says the training program is much improved. “The Afghan police officials want their reputation to change. They are crushed by the idea that their institution is so badly slandered.”

Afghan police corruption came into focus in the U.S. again this week with the publication of a batch of classified military documents published by WikiLeaks. The notes outline in detail reported incidents of police bribery, shake-downs and thwarted internal investigations.

Gen. Macdonald was among the 62 women to graduate from West Point’s first female class in 1980. She says working with policewomen in Afghanistan has brought back her own memories of what it was like to lead the way among American women 30 years ago.

“The idea of being given the opportunity to learn and to perform and of being given the opportunity to be a leader, I think that is the same as it is for the women here,” she said. “Because I know what it is like to be on the edge of change I encourage them and hopefully I say words they want to hear. … They need to understand that it is a challenge to be a ‘first.’”