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Afghan policewomen battle sex abuse

New York Times - September 17, 2013

Alissa Rubin, Kabul An unpublished United Nations report on female police officers in Afghanistan found accounts of pervasive sexual assault and harassment by their male colleagues, according to Afghan and Western officials familiar with the report.

The report, which the United Nations has circulated only among senior Afghan officials at the Interior Ministry, found that about 90 per cent of the policewomen interviewed described sexual harassment and sexual violence as a serious problem, and that about 70 per cent of the policewomen said that they had personally experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence themselves, according to people who saw the report or had it described to them.

While a much smaller fraction reported either being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, the overall picture was of a police force in which women were constantly at risk.

Although the report has not been made public and was not made available to The New York Times, two other recent reports touched on similar problems, though they did not focus as closely on the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, who stepped down as interior minister in August, described the United Nations report's broad outlines, but questioned its findings. He said that after reading the report he sent a team to investigate the situation of female police officers and that none of the women his team spoke to complained of such mistreatment.

"If an Afghan policewoman is being raped or sexually harassed, they would report that they wouldn't keep it secret," he said.

The chief spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Seddiq Seddiqi, said he thought the report had "some exaggeration of the issues and the problems." Both men insisted, however, that the ministry was committed to improving the situation of policewomen.

Few subjects are as taboo in Afghanistan as sexual behaviour, and the victims of sexual attacks are often accused of immorality, shunned and sometimes jailed.

Women's rights advocates said that because Afghan policewomen were afraid of being penalised for revealing the problem, it was extremely difficult to get them to talk about abuse. That is all the more true if the person committing the sexual abuse is their commander or one of his close friends on the police force.

The women interviewed by The New York Times said they feared being fired or demoted, or being sent to work in a job that was far away from their home if they complained.

Most policewomen are low-level security screeners at checkpoints or government buildings, and in many instances they are the only person earning money in the family and desperately need their salaries usually about $260 per month.

A further disincentive to talking publicly about sexual abuse or coercion is that many Afghans already believe female police officers have loose morals simply because they are willing to work in public with men who are not relatives. If a woman admits that she is under pressure to have sex, conservative relatives might force her to quit or even kill her to expiate the perceived dishonour to the family.

Mr Patang said he had visited policewomen in all of the provinces and had never heard a complaint about sexual abuse. Most mentioned discontent with salaries or a lack of promotions, he said.

"I think the reason they told these things to the UN and did not mention it to my inquiry was that these were mainly illiterate women who thought they might gain more attention and support by making these claims," he said.

The situation for female police officers is made more difficult because there are so few of them barely 1 per cent of the roughly 155,000-member force.

A policewoman from eastern Afghanistan who spoke on condition of anonymity said she was the only female of more than 20 people working at her checkpoint. "I have asked to move, the men are not good there," she said.

"They were making bad cheap jokes every time I came in, and one man was leering at me every day saying, 'Talk to me, be with me.' What should I do?" she said.

Though they questioned the scope of the report's findings, Interior Ministry officials said they were trying to improve conditions for female officers.

"We are currently working seriously to make sure that the women are happy and women have the best environment to serve their country," said Mr Seddiqi, adding that the new minister, Umar Daudzai, wants to recruit 10,000 policewomen by the end of 2014. In addition, the ministry will strive to increase public awareness of the role of female police officers, Mr Seddiqi said.

The recruitment goal, while lauded by some, is in many ways a distraction from the problem. Even reaching the current goal of 5000 policewomen by 2015 is behind schedule, according to ministry officials. The latest bi-annual report to Congress by the Pentagon acknowledged that women's recruitment "will remain a serious challenge."

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