(Kabul) – The government of Afghanistan should take immediate action to ensure that the country’s female police officers have access to separate, safe, and lockable restroom facilities in police stations, Human Rights Watch said today. Kabul’s police chief issued an order on April 10, 2013, for the province’s police stations to provide separate toilets and change rooms for women, but similar orders have been ignored in the past, leaving all but a few of Afghanistan’s 1,500 women officers without suitable and safe facilities.
Workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem in the public and private sectors in Afghanistan and female police officers are frequently the targets of harassment and assault. In recent years there have been numerous media reports of rape of female police officers by male colleagues. The lack of safe and separate toilets makes women particularly vulnerable.
“The Afghan government’s failure to provide female police officers with safe, secure facilities makes them more vulnerable to abuse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This is not just about toilets. It’s about the government’s recognition that women have a crucial role to play in law enforcement in Afghanistan.”
Already the number of female police in the ranks of Afghanistan’s security forces is small, slightly more than 1 percent of police officers in the country. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police force, has set a goal of 5,000 women by the end of 2014, but has acknowledged that it is unlikely to meet this objective.
Addressing the concerns of police women is necessary to address the rampant violence against women in wider Afghan society. Employing greater numbers of female police officers will improve access for women seeking to report violence and pursue justice, given the cultural sensitivity and stigma around reporting sexual and other violence against women. In 2009, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women created new penalties for violence against women, but the law has not been adequately enforced, in part because of the lack of female police officers to assist female crime victims, including other police officers.
“Harassment and abuse is an everyday experience for many Afghan women,” Adams said. “Without the consistent presence of female police officers across the country, legal protections for women will remain an unfulfilled promise.”
The lack of safe changing rooms and toilets can endanger the safety of female police officers. Many female police officers cannot travel to work in their police uniforms due to security threats posed by Taliban insurgents or others opposed to women police. As the number of women in the police force has risen, so have the allegations by female officers of having been raped, assaulted or sexually harassed by male colleagues. There appear to have been no successful prosecutions of these cases. This may reflect unwillingness by the Ministry of Interior to take these cases seriously, a lack of confidentiality and victim protection, and pressure on women to withdraw their accusations.
Providing proper facilities is critical to preventing workplace sexual harassment of female police officers and creating a non-discriminatory work atmosphere that respects their privacy and dignity. However, three orders since 2012 to install facilities in police stations have not been implemented despite the promise of government funds to pay for them.
An international advisor working closely with female Afghan police officers told Human Rights Watch that when sexual assaults of police women happen, they often occur in isolated locations such as unsafe toilets and changing areas: “Those facilities that women do have access to often have peepholes or doors which don’t lock. Women have to go [to the toilets] in pairs. Toilets are a site of harassment.”
No more than a handful of Afghanistan’s police stations have safe and accessible toilets, said experts working with female police officers. Female officers are forced to use toilets shared with men, which they find unsafe and stigmatizing in a culture where strict segregation of the sexes is the norm. Police stations in rural areas of Afghanistan sometimes have no toilets at all, and both women and men are forced to seek secluded locations outside.
The budget for Afghanistan’s police force is primarily provided through the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), which is funded by international donor countries and administered by the United Nations. The 2013 LOTFA work plan includes provisions to establish separate toilet and changing room facilities for female police across the country. The plan is awaiting approval by Interior Minister Mujtaba Patang, and will require a significant allocation of resources from the trust fund.
“The drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan poses risks for the rights of women in the country,” Adams said. “Having effective Afghan police forces to protect their security will require sufficient female police officers as an urgent priority.”
Background: Unsafe work environments limit ability of Afghan police to protect women
Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women were largely kept out of the work place, including the police forces. In the years since the Taliban fell in late 2001, the Afghan government and international donors have worked together to strengthen Afghan security forces. While there has been some effort to recruit female police officers, the progress has been far from adequate.
Female police officers, while crucial to effective law enforcement in any country, have particularly important roles in Afghanistan, where segregation of the sexes is extreme and security threats are acute. A key task for female officers is body-searching women at check points and entrances to government facilities. Given cultural sensitivities, these searches cannot be conducted by men, and there have been repeated incidents of male suicide bombers exploiting this limitation by disguising themselves under the concealing burqas worn by Afghan women. Female officers also have a crucial role to play in house searches, where they are required for searching female areas of houses and interviewing female occupants.
The need for female police officers, however, goes far beyond their crucial role in counter-insurgency efforts. Violence against women is endemic in Afghanistan. Crimes of violence against women are rarely reported to the police and even more rarely lead to investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.
The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women
In 2009, under intense pressure from Afghan women’s rights activists, key Afghan parliamentarians, and the international community, President Hamid Karzai took an important step by signing the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law). This law created an essential new tool for police and prosecutors, by criminalizing a range of different acts, including forced marriage, underage marriage, sale of women and girls, rape, and domestic violence.
Four years later, however, the impact of the EVAW Law has been disappointing. Prosecutions under the law have occurred, aided in some provinces by the creation of internationally funded specialized EVAW prosecution units within the Attorney General’s Office. But the number of prosecutions has been small, the number of convictions far smaller, and in many provinces the law has yet to be invoked. Abusive practices, such as the jailing of women or girls who flee domestic violence or forced marriage on accusations of “immorality,” continue unchecked. Violence against women continues to be an epidemic; Afghanistan’s national human rights commission recorded a 30 percent increase in reported cases of violence against women last year over the previous year.
Female police officers are an absolutely crucial ingredient in the effort to enforce the EVAW law. In Afghanistan’s deeply gender-segregated society, many women, especially those from the most disadvantaged parts of society, refrain from reporting violence because they are hesitant to speak to male police officers. Women might even risk violent or abusive consequences from their family should they speak to a man who is unrelated to them or discuss violence with anyone outside the family. Because of these cultural sensitivities, the presence of female police officers is a crucial ingredient in the enforcement of the EVAW Law.
Failure to Recruit Female Police Officers
The Afghan government, with the support of international advisors and donors, has tried to address this problem through the creation of specialized units in police stations called Family Response Units (FRUs). FRUs are designed to provide a separate space staffed by female police officers within police stations where women from the community can come to seek help, but their effectiveness has been seriously hampered by the lack of female police officers available to staff them. As a result, many FRUs are staffed primarily or entirely by male officers, effectively defeating their purpose.
Recruitment of female police officers has not been a high enough priority for the Afghan government or donors. The number of female officers has increased, from 180 in 2005 (at that time 0.3 percent of the police force), to 1,195 in September 2011 (1 percent of the police force at that time), to 1,500 today, but that number still remains only 1 percent of the police force, which has grown to about 150,000 officers nationwide. The small number of female police are not evenly distributed across the country, but are concentrated in urban areas (315 in Kabul alone), meaning that women in rural areas are especially unlikely to encounter female officers.
The Ministry of Interior, to which the police belong, has set a goal of increasing the number of female police officers to 5,000 by the end of 2014. In spite of this goal, however, the ministry has not taken steps to improve the recruitment and retention of female police officers. In an interview in late 2012, a senior police administrator told Human Rights Watch that the solution to the problem needed to come from the community. “Families don’t want to send their daughters to the police,” he said. “Civil society organizations and religious leaders need to go to the communities and tell families that they should send their girls. Until then we can do nothing.”
He acknowledged that the lack of safe toilets and changing facilities might be barriers to women joining the police force, but knew of no plans by the ministry to address the problem.
Need for Monitoring and Accountability
The lack of safe toilets and changing rooms directly endangers the safety of female police officers. As the number of women in the police force has risen there have been numerous incidents in which female officers have alleged that they have been raped, assaulted or sexually harassed by male colleagues, although there is no public record of any successful prosecutions of these cases. An international advisor working closely with female Afghan police officers told Human Rights Watch that when sexual assaults of police women happen, they often occur in isolated locations such as unsafe toilets and changing areas.
The Afghan authorities should take various measures to prevent and punish workplace sexual harassment of female police officers. Even though the government has issued orders to police stations saying they should create separate toilets, Human Rights Watch found that there needs to be further practical guidance to ensure that separate toilet facilities do not replicate the problems that exist now. For example, to be safe, toilets and changing rooms should be designed with the security of female officers as a key consideration. Toilets and changing rooms should be built of materials that prevent men from creating peepholes or breaking in easily. The facilities should be located in areas that are not isolated from the police station, so that women can walk to and from them safely, including at night. Locks should be installed that allow women using the facilities to lock them from the inside when in use. Facilities should not be locked from the outside unless a functional system is in place to ensure that female officers and female visitors to the police station can easily access the key at any time.
The authorities should install a system of monitoring to prevent male officers from using toilets and changing rooms provided for women. These measures should include tasking a separate body with supervising the progress on preventive measures as well as progress on responding appropriately to complaints of sexual harassment. Toilet and changing room facilities should be inspected on regular basis to ensure that they remain reserved solely for use by women. A recently established steering committee on the needs of female police headed by Deputy Interior Minister Mirza Mohammad Yarmand could be the body best suited to oversee these matters.
Government Initiatives to Improve Safety and Accessibility of Toilets for Women
In addition to the establishment of a steering committee on the needs of female police, there are other small signs of progress in addressing these problems. On July 24, 2012, following a consultation with representatives of female police officers at Interior Ministry headquarters, Deputy Minister Ghulam Ali Wahdat issued an order to police managers: “As is observed, a considerable number of our sisters who serve as officers, junior officers or civilian administrators in units [under your supervision] face serious difficulties from a lack of toilets and changing rooms.” The order then directed police managers to “as quickly as possible” set aside toilets and changing rooms for female police officers. In February 2013, the ministry’s facilities department issued two reminders to managers, clarifying further that each facility should set aside, from existing facilities, a changing room and a toilet for use by women only.
On April 10, 2013, Kabul Police Chief Lieutenant General Mohammad Ayoub Salangi issued an order instructing that all police stations under his command in Kabul province that employ women must immediately provide a separate and private changing room and toilet for women officers. The order stated that where additional resources were required to establish these facilities, police officials may request assistance from Salangi’s office.
The steering committee headed by Deputy Minister Yarmand should oversee creation and use of these facilities. The committee should also identify and implement other measures to promote the well-being of women police officers, including ensuring prosecution in any case in which a female officer has been assaulted or harassed by a male police officer.