Baroness Hodgson pledges support for Afghan policewomen

Baroness Hodgson of AbingerDear IAWP members,

I am delighted to write to you to support your campaign to raise awareness of the violence and intimidation faced by women working
in the Afghan National Police and to lobby the Government of Afghanistan to put systems in place to ensure that they are safeguarded.

When the West invaded Afghanistan in 2001 Laura Bush declared “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”. I have visited Afghanistan – and it is heartening to see that there has been much progress over the last 13 years – with around 3 million girls in education, reduced maternal mortality, and women taking their place as Parliamentarians, lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers, business women and many other things beside – however, it started from such a low base and there is still a long way to go. In spite of all the progress, it remains one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman!

We are all familiar with the pictures of the women of Afghanistanin their blue burqas, and these garments in many ways symbolize the restrictions that their society imposes on them. The tiny window of mesh restricts their vision, the fabric makes it hot and difficult to breathe in summer and it is hard to move as you cannot see downto where you are treading. It was not always like this – if you see the pictures of Afghan women in the 1970s in Kabul, they looked similar to their European counterparts. However the ethos of the Taliban years typified by their saying ‘a women’s place is in the house or the grave’ became embedded in their culture and for many men, women being in public spaces is still unacceptable.

The Afghan women I have met are so truly courageous. It is hard for us to imagine what they have to put up with – just for walking down a street they may be sworn at and treated with hostility. I am not a particularly nervous person, but the short time I spent on the street I felt very uncomfortable and there were reports of women being killed and the police not even bothering to log their deaths. And nearly all the women that I met were very anxious about what will happen once the West withdraws troops at the end of this year.

Change has been slow in Afghanistan and the progress is fragile. Still today many girls drop out of education, prevented by their families from going to secondary school; many women in rural areas still do not have maternity care due to lack of money and distance to health facilities, and many suffer from untreated depression. Maternal mortality remains high with 1 in every 50 women dying of pregnancy related causes; and only 20% of women have access to modern contraception.

It is estimated that there are 2.5 million widows, mostly young and illiterate, in a country where a woman depends on her husband, and you can see them begging on the streets in Kabul. There are a handful of women’s refuges, but they were denounced as brothels and have had difficulty remaining open.

Domestic violence is estimated at 87% of all women, and we all know how impossible it is for a woman to function if she is being beaten and intimidated behind closed doors. I have met strong able women who suffer at the hands of their husbands and much of this stems from the fact that the women are still regarded as second class citizens. This was exemplified by the Code of Conduct issued by the Ulema Council in early 2012 which described men as “fundamental” and women as “secondary”.

You cannot have women’s rights if you do not have a strong police force. It is perhaps hard for us to understand as in the UK a woman can just walk into a police station, but in many parts of Afghanistan it is forbidden for a woman to talk to a man outside her family circle, and the majority of the Afghan police are male. Thus it is so important to have women in the police force there, so that women can access the law.

These are very brave women who join the Afghan police, because in some cases their communities will reject them and subject them to violence. To date many of the women who have joined the police have either been constrained to menial tasks or they have been abused by their fellow officers. They cannot report these officers because they fear reprisals, either from their own families who may be considered that they have ‘brought dishonour on the family’, which means that they may be beaten, thrown out of their home or at worst, killed; or they risk being sent to prison for having engaged in ‘illicit sex’.

If the women in the police cannot be safeguarded, it will be impossible to provide access to justice for the women in the country and thusit will be hard to improve their situation. Moreover, we need to seean end to the culture of impunity and the perpetrators being held to account to send a strong message that violence should not be tolerated.

At the moment there is only one female police officer for every 10,000 women of the population. Much good work is being done in trying to recruit more women into the police, offering good training and trying to put systems in place that will ensure their protection.

Transformations do not occur overnight, but with time this will make a very real difference to the Afghan women. So I am absolutely delighted to support this campaign, and to offer it all the support that I can.

With all good wishes,

Fiona

The Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, CBE

Westminster, London SW1A OPW

* Baroness Hodgson is Chair of the Advisory Board of GAPS (Gender Action in Peace and Security), a member of the Association of Oxfam, the Conservative Human Rights Commission, and a Trustee of the Chalker Foundation. She has also been a delegate at the Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the UN in New York for the past five years. She was made a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2012 for her work on gender equality.

August-October 2014. Women Police/23