Thursday, September 29, 2011

Afghanistan: Afghan Policewomen Complain of Unfair Treatment

female afghan police officerFemale ANP officers prepare for shooting practice. (Photo: US Navy/Brian Brannon)

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Policewomen in northern Afghanistan complain that they are passed over for promotion and forced to do the least desirable jobs, despite the promises of equal treatment they heard when they were recruited.

Female officers in the Afghan National Police, ANP, say their assignments commonly consist of low-level roles like serving at checkpoints or in prisons, even working in the force’s kitchens.

“Officials appoint women only because they want to show foreign countries that they respect women’s rights and that there are women in the police,” Sergeant Zeba, a recruitment officer at the ANP headquarters for Balkh province, said.

The reality was, she said, that few women could rise to senior positions because of widespread chauvinism, and also because they lacked the political connections and ability to pay bribes to gain advancement.

Colonel Najiba is the only women in the north to have reached senior rank, as the officer responsible for gender and human rights issues in the ANP’s 303 Pamir Zone.

She stresses that she is the exception, and that none of the 400 other policewomen in the north has risen to a senior role. Instead, they are routinely treated as inferiors, excluded from important security and strategy meetings, and passed over when praise is being handed out.

“Policewomen are treated like [common] soldiers. High-ranking officials talk to them as though they were speaking to their servants or cleaners,” Colonel Najiba said. “The rude way women are treated means they get fed up with their work. The spirit of patriotism and service goes away, and they only work for the money.”

She dismissed the argument made by senior officers that policewomen were limited in what they could do by the rule that they could not work night shifts. “In many cases,” she said, “women do work alongside men during overnight operations.”

Sergeant Fatima, attached to ANP headquarters in Balkh, said the 40 or more female officers employed in the province were all in low-level roles. “The highest position is held by a woman who works as a rank-and-file functionary in the passport department,” she said.

She said policewomen in other provinces were promoted to higher positions than those in Balkh, even though the relatively safe environment there should make that possible.

The sergeant also complained that female officers did not have the same access to police vehicles as men.

“Policemen can use the vehicles at any time,” she said. “They take them back to their homes at night and go out with their families in them at the weekend.”

Another police officer, Fawzia, said she and her female colleagues had to work harder than their male peers.

“For instance, when security checks are being conducted, 20 policemen take turns at searching vehicles,” she said. “But a policewoman must do so from morning till night, because she’s the only woman there and there’s no one to share the work with her.”

Women play a particularly important role as they can staff checkpoints to deal with the problem of male insurgents who disguised in burqas, and attend house searches where there are women present. (See Police Recruit More Women to Bolster Searches .)

“If there weren’t any policewomen, then the traditions of this country would restrict the work of policemen, because they can’t search houses or women in cars without policewomen being present,” Fawzia said. “So why do we get overlooked? They should give senior roles to women and see whether we are capable of working in those positions.”

The pressures have taken their toll on Fawzia, who said, “I’m very fed up. I want to leave this job.”

Fariba Majid, head of the provincial department for women’s affairs in Balkh, agreed that discrimination was a barrier for female police officers.

“Men always seem to think women are weak, yet they can’t perform most tasks unless there are women present,” she added.

Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, spokesman for the Pamir police zone, insisted the ANP treated men and women equally.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi also denied claims of systemic discrimination, arguing that since policewomen were such an essential part of the force, there would be no point in making them so unhappy they wanted to leave.

Sediqi said the ministry was placing even greater emphasis on recruiting women to the ANP.

Interior ministry figures show the ANP now has about 1,100 female officers, 500 of them in the capital Kabul. The current recruitment plan envisages the nationwide figure rising to 5,000 by 2014.

Some policewomen say institutionalised discrimination within the force colours the way they are perceived by the public.

One policewoman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues lost respect when they patrolled the streets on foot and wearing old uniforms.

“Policemen aren’t issued with pistols even though they really have to be able to defend themselves if they need to,” she said.

She said children made fun of her and other female officers, stopping them in the street to ask, “Mister commander, where’s your car? Where are your bodyguards?”

Abdul Latif Sahak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh province.