Women in the Afghan National Security Forces

With the future stability of Afghanistan in question, does the answer lie in the incorporation of more female troops?

By Natasha Taylor for RUSI.org

As the International Security Resistance Force's (ISAF) troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanisation, the Afghan National Security Forces' (ANSF's) ability to maintain security in the face of insurgent forces is in doubt. Women only account for less than 1 per cent of security forces in Afghanistan, despite the fact that female members of the ANSF play a crucial role in this sector. This number must be increased.

Women, who form half of the Afghani population and are subject to extensive cultural and religious norms, need to have their interests represented if there is to be stability in the country. Furthermore, women are able to provide many practical functions that men would not be able to undertake with the same level of success.

A woman's place

Under the Taliban, Afghan women were given no freedom or rights, rather, they understood to be second-rate citizens and often treated with violence, abuse and derision. This attitude remains entrenched in contemporary Afghanistan.

In order for NATO to adhere to its stated priority of protecting women's rights in Afghanistan, defence of female interests must be greatly improved in the country. [1] An efficient way to positively tackle this issue is by developing a culturally acceptable female role within the ANA and ANP, whilst building on ongoing improvements for women in Afghan society. Although the constitution states that men and women have equal rights before the law, this recent legislation is frequently challenged and ignored. Insufficient enforcement efforts have encouraged disrespect for gender equality law, and clear, practical, long-term solutions are desperately required to prevent the injustice to women endemic in  all sections of society. If the current system is maintained; the inefficient justice system, lack of law enforcement and corrupt government will continue to present a very real threat to the basic safety of all Afghan women.

Within the ANSF, female members face the same dangers prevalent to all women and girls in Afghanistan: constant risk of intimidation, violence,murder threats, and attacks from the Taliban, neighbours, and even extended family members. Between 2008 and 2009 three police women were murdered and others seriously threatened. [2]

Improving female standing

Nevertheless, Afghan women are increasingly learning to stand up for themselves. Having lived often impoverished lives, in a segregated and conflicted society, they have developed considerable strength of character. This attitude is encouraged through the existence of strong and determined women, indicating that the development of the  female role in the ANSF is not merely wishful thinking. Such characters include General Khatol Mohammad Zai, Afghanistan's prominent female parachutist.

In training and developing the female presence in the ANSF, the centrality of Islam to these women's lives must not be forgotten. General Zai often wears a Burka over her uniform, and the notorious female warlord of the 1990s, Bibi Ayesha, was always accompanied by a mahram, an unmarriageable male kin. Incorporating women into the ANSF must not alienate potential recruits by rejecting the involvement of religious and cultural practices.Rather it should follow the 'models' of countries such as India, Iran and Pakistan who, despite their imperfections, all have a female military presence whilst remaining sensitive to religious beliefs.

Women in the ANSF

Currently, women in the ANSF perform menial tasks, and mostly act as support for male roles. According to Western standards this could be perceived in a negative light, but women gain crucial skills in this position. Female forces are currently involved in logistics, medical support, and finance; badly needed skills in ANSF. ANA women learn First Aid, computer skills, languages, leadership, drill, ceremony and weapons handling. In most cases, women are separated from men and work in compounds out of sight, which, in light of the current security situation, is a reasonable compromise to ensure safety. While it must be understood that real progress can be slow to the point of taking generations, being able to participate and be active in the military sector is still a sign of hope and inspires strength for Afghan women. Performing essential tasks and proving to be a crucial element in security and reconstruction can help deter potential Taliban recruits by showing the utility of women in traditionally male roles. As active participants women can contribute to the development of Afghanistan and be an essential resource in reconstruction efforts.

Practical solutions

An increase in female representation within the Afghan security forces is essential in improving the accessibility of services for women. Currently, many criminal offences towards women go unreported because justice is often unobtainable and police stations are not considered safe; a greater female presence within the forces may improve this public perception. Research on women's policing style demonstrates that women rely less on physical force than men, favouring communication to diffuse a situation or soothe violent confrontation. As a result they are often successful in earning the trust and co-operation essential for community policing.[3]

Female police presence is also important in increasing access to public space for women, particularly for those more vulnerable, such as widows, who may have no male family member to accompany them.. Women are not permitted to interact extensively with men (other than close male relatives), if at all, and will therefore not approach a male dominated security force for assistance.

Female ISAF soldiers are also used in the crucial searching of women and their homes to counter the insurgency and drugs trade, which men are not permitted to do. This allows for a level of dignity and local custom to be maintained whilst ensuring that such precedents are not abused to the detriment of peace efforts. In such a gender-segregated society, women-only units are a necessary investment. Thirteen Family Response Units are already taking the right approach: they work  to persuade victims to come forward through culturally sensitive measures, such as the inclusion of a separate entrance to the facilities, which bypasses the need to approach male officers in the main buildings.

Practices such as these could be further improved by developing the ability to report abuse and violence over the telephone, further easing intimidated women's passage to justice.

A long way to go

ANSF women still face an extraordinary struggle in achieving equality, recognition and acceptance across Afghanistan. Most female ANSF members are located in Kabul, and it will take considerable time and effort before they are able to operate in certain provinces where the Taliban is strong, and justice and law-enforcement is weak at best. Nevertheless, initial developments are contributing towards an end to the mistreatment of women, and are hugely important to the future of basic female rights within the country. Women are more likely to seek justice from a security service with a higher proportion of female members, members who do not need to act in combat roles or in other areas currently unacceptable in Afghan society.. Rather, they can meaningfully contribute to basic security, safety and adequate living conditions for Afghan citizens through a variety of other capacities, such as acting as an intermediary between security forces and the public.

There is already an institutional framework for this to happen. The Afghan National Development Strategy emphasises goals of increased female participation in public affairs, gender equality and increasing the number of qualified female staff throughout the security sector. [4] According to EUPOL this includes assisting the Ministry of Interior in recruiting 5000 additional female police officers by 2014.

Moreover, this would go some way in satisfying the call by UNIFEM to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325: the full participation of girls and women in peace-building to accelerate conflict resolution and recovery in the country. [5]

With the ISAF withdrawal approaching, and focus shifting from combat operations to political stability, it seems that female engagement in the ANSF will bring increased capabilities and practical benefits to the process of creating a more stable, democratic and prosperous country.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.


[1] NATO <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBWg_7oN7cM> MoD

[2] Serving Afghanistan, 'Human Rights and Gender are Very Important Topics for EUPOL Afghanistan,' EUPOL, 16 Jul 2009. Available online at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cmsUpload/EUPOL-Serving%20Afghanistan%2015_09.pdf

[3] 'Hiring & Retaining More Women: The Advantages to Law Enforcement Agencies,' National Center for Women & Policing, a Division of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Spring 2003. Available online at: http://www.womenandpolicing.org/pdf/NewAdvantagesReport.pdf

[4] 'Afghanistan National Development Strategy,1387 - 1391 (2008 - 2013), A Strategy for Security, Governance, Economic Growth & Poverty Reduction,' Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Available online at: http://www.embassyofafghanistan.org/documents/Afghanistan_National_Development_Strategy_eng.pdf

[5] 'Afghan Women's Leaders' Priorities for Stabilization: Statement and Recommendations,' Afghan Women's Network, 27 Jan 2010. Available online at: http://www.unifem.org/news_events/story_detail.php?StoryID=1020


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