Around the world, policing is a male-dominated profession. In an effort to address this in post-conflict contexts, the UN Security Council has released several resolutions (of which 1325 and 1820 are the most important) that promote the recruitment of female police officers in these settings.
Many post-conflict communities have experienced violence (including gender-based violence) at the hands of police. When the police are viewed with mistrust and fear, and in some cases have been perpetrators of violence before, during, and after conflict, women may seek to avoid the police.
In addition, established gender roles and expectations toward women (as homemakers, caretakers, teachers, nurses) prevent many women from joining the police. Long and irregular working hours and the physical nature of the work creates a cultural conception of policing as a ‘masculine’ occupation, that many considered to be irreconcilable with being a woman.
Policewomen may also face discrimination at work with strict gender norms and stereotyping will be omnipresent in their work environment. Women may be misused, being forced to clean the police station and cook for other officers rather than doing police work. Policewomen are also typically given responsibility for crimes related to women and children, and administrative tasks. Many women report feeling the need to adopt a tough and violent “masculine” demeanor to be accepted, receive more operative police work, and access higher decision-making positions within the institution.
Police work may be unsafe and risky for women. They may face sexualization and sexual abuse by peers, and by the general public. In some countries, there are also reports of women police being raped and trafficked.
Often, international agencies supporting post-conflict police reforms have their own strategies and targets for the implementation of COP, including the recruitment of women in the police. But to what extent do they include an awareness or appreciation of local context? Our Digital Story from Afghanistan shows the importance of collaborating with local actors and building on their knowledge about the local context. It also tells us why solely focusing on increasing the number of women in policing may be a dangerous strategy. Recruitment of women must go hand in hand with ensuring safety in the workplace by fighting discrimination through training and awareness campaigns. In addition, it requires establishing an internal leadership culture that upholds the safety of women in the workplace.
When the recruitment of women into the Afghan police began in the early 2000s, their working conditions were challenging. They faced a lack of basic facilities, limited training opportunities, discrimination, sexual harassment and violence by their male colleagues. As a response to the growing complaints by policewomen, the General Directorate of Gender, Human Rights, and Children was established, and policy-level and other measures were taken to support and protect policewomen in their workplaces. A hotline was established for those experiencing harassment or violence, and in 2013 Policewomen’s Councils were established throughout the country. These Councils held monthly meetings and workshops to both listen to the situation of the policewomen, who then numbered about 180, to provide them with information on their rights, and to lobby the leadership for improvements in their working situations and educational opportunities. Some of the issues discussed in these councils are promotion of policewomen, provision of education opportunities and workplace harassment. These councils help policewomen to have a collective voice in the system. Before these councils, except for the hotline, there was no place for policewomen to go to submit their complaints.
These efforts have resulted in the appointment of policewomen to higher ranks/positions within the Ministry of Interior. In 2018, a woman police officer was appointed Deputy Minister for Policy and Strategy – the first time in Afghan police history a woman was appointed to such a high position. In another case a young policewoman, who had graduated from the Police Academy in Turkey, was appointed as section director in one of the most conservative provinces of Afghanistan – the only woman among 500 male colleagues. There have been more policewomen daring to come forward and talk about the sexual harassment they face in their workplace. One policewoman used social media to accuse her former boss of sexual harassment. This triggered a nationwide reaction from social media users as well as Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and MOI. But while policewomen may feel bolder in confronting their harassers, the internal complaint system is not yet able to process these cases such the rights of both the accuser and accused are protected, and punitive measures are seldom enforced. Nevertheless, these Policewomen’s Councils are important arenas of support for women who challenge conservative gender norms and join the Afghan National Police.