Afghan women swap burka for uniform

Women police recruits head for training camp Keystone

More and more Afghan women are breaking with tradition in their male-dominated society, taking jobs and participating in public affairs.

This content was published on August 9, 2011 minutes

They include 1,300 or so who have joined the police force who, despite facing discrimination, make an “immense” contribution to improving the welfare of other women, Marie-Thérèse Karlen, of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), tells

After three decades of war, international troops are due to withdraw in 2014, leaving the Afghan government with full responsibility for keeping order. In this context, the police force and army will be more important than ever.

Karlen is Deputy Country Director for Afghanistan and is based in Kabul. Policewomen are often regarded with scepticism in many Western countries. What about Afghanistan, a traditionally male-dominated society?

Marie-Thérèse Karlen: As in any other work that brings women to the forefront of society, policewomen face many difficulties not only before and during the recruiting process, but also in their daily work. Especially in the rural areas, many families oppose their daughters joining the national police for security and cultural reasons.

On duty, women face harassment and denial of merit and promotion from their male colleagues.

However, the contribution these women make to improve the situation for other women is immense: being in charge of the police family response units they serve as an access point for women to talk about incidents of domestic violence and file formal complaints.

Furthermore, as part of investigation teams, policewomen can access the female family members during house searches, which is hardly possible by a purely male team. Because of these important contributions to women and the country’s overall security, the perception of at least part of the population towards policewomen is gradually changing in a positive way. According to a recent global survey, Afghanistan is the worst place in the world for women. One of the reasons: targeted violence against female public officials. How can you change this situation?

M-T. K.: Targeted attacks against female public officials is indeed a problem and prevents many women from participating in politics or public affairs.

Since 2002 the SDC has been contributing to the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality through various projects with its partners in the governance and livelihood sector.

In parallel, the SDC has been part of several coordinating bodies and helped to ensure that women’s rights and gender equality are included in the national priority programmes. What is the main focus of your projects in gender equality?

M-T. K.: On the programme level, the SDC mainstreams gender through projects in the governance sector such as promoting women’s rights, capacity building, supporting and monitoring gender-sensitive legislation, and enhancing women’s participation in sub-national and national policy making.

In the livelihood sector, the SDC supports gender-sensitive initiatives to promote equitable distribution of resources. Project components include income generation, kitchen gardening, health promotion, literacy, support of women’s shuras [councils] and awareness-raising among male community elders.

In addition, the SDC has “women-only projects”. These are small-scale actions to address specific needs of women such as supporting driving lessons for women and community-based vocational and literacy training, fistula awareness-raising, the establishment of kindergartens or the provision of equipment for female sports tournaments.

On the coordination level, with other donors, SDC participates in and contributes to meetings, strategies and initiatives and uses these national and sub-national platforms for advocating for a national dialogue on gender. You’ve been living in Afghanistan for a few years. What is your perception of security? Do you feel safer than a couple of years ago?

M-T. K.: When it comes to security, we have to differentiate between the regions and between the rural and the urban areas. The situation in the north, where the SDC implements  rural development projects through partner NGOs, has become more tense.

This requires an intense security set-up by our partners. We have to adapt our way of work as well: for example we do not travel to the field by road but fly into the provincial capitals. However, activities are on-going and it is still possible to implement development projects there.

Kabul has gone through a time of increased tension with several major incidents over the last couple of months. This requires a constant assessment of the situation, measures for adaptation and a lot of flexibility from all sides. How is the SDC contributing to improving security in Afghanistan?

M-T. K.: Switzerland has a purely civilian involvement in Afghanistan with the SDC’s development programme as the main component. The SDC’s overall goal is to strengthen governmental structures at national and local level and to support the institution-building process of selected organisations.

We also support the activities of civil society and human rights organisations.

The SDC has the overall goal of contributing to a more stable and peaceful environment through its engagement in Afghanistan.

Security in Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama has announced that all US combat troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The Afghan army and police will then be responsible for security.


The Afghan government has decided to increase the police force from 122,000 to 170,000, including 5,000 women.

The Law and Order Trust Fund (LOTFA), set up by the international community in May 2002, coordinates contributions in support of the national police force.

Since 2003 Switzerland has contributed SFr 5 million ($6.7 million) to the fund. 

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Women in Afghanistan

The Afghan constitution ensures equal rights for both Afghan men and women.

A new law on the Elimination of Violence against Women protects women’s rights.

The Afghanistan National Development Strategy and the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan aim to promote the development of democratic processes and institutions in support of women.

Afghanistan also has a Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Quotas have been allocated for women in parliament: 25% of seats in the National Assembly are currently held by women.

Of six million children currently in school, more than 35% are girls.

However, there is a high drop-out

rate, due partly to early marriage, and also to a lack of women teachers at secondary level.

The illiteracy rate among women is 85%.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reports that violence against women is increasing, and in most cases escape prosecution.

Afghanistan has some of the world’s worst health indicators. A women has a 1:11 chance of dying of complications in pregnancy.

It has the second highest rate of infant mortality in the world after Angola, estimated at 149 per 1,000 live births. (In Switzerland the rate is 4 per 1,000).

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