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AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Women Train as Police to Take on the Taliban

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
London Evening Standard
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

In Block 08, an anonymous sand coloured building in Helmand's Police HQ, seven veiled figures play out each afternoon their very own drama of the No 1 Afghan Ladies Police Academy.

The women, aged from 18 to 33, are the first recipients of a new scholarship to train as female police officers. At present there are less than 20 serving female officers in the Afghan police in Helmand.

“I wanted to come to the course because of what it offers in education — history, geography, literacy skills, English and information technology,” said Roya, 19, who did most of her schooling as a refugee in Iran.

“Of course my family supported me when I decided to come here,” she says with a bold stare.

“I find the English a bit difficult, but really like the IT,” said Palwasha, at 18, the youngest. She is the most animated of the group, with the broad cheekbones of a Hazara, a minority from the North once persecuted by the Taliban.

When she was at school in Masar-er-Sherif she told the class that she would join the police but her parents forbade her. Then the family moved to Helmand and they relented. Her brother is already a policeman with an elite special operations unit. Their scholarships are funded by Britain through the Conflict Fund. Each gets $100 a month for attending class and $5 a day for food.

They are mentored by Cat McBeath, of the MoD police force, who says her pupils have surprised her.

“When we started last November, I thought they would be timid and subservient — after all they all had to get express permission from their husbands and families to join the scheme. But they have turned out to be very vocal and forceful, and never afraid to express their opinions. They loved the baton training and quite a few of them turned out excellent shots with pistols and small arms.”

They are needed particularly for searching women at checkpoints. On her first day out, one policewoman found a woman concealing a radio switch for a roadside bomb strapped to her arm.

The Police Training Centre, funded principally by the UK, is now training up to 1,500 police a year, many have been sent back for retraining.

In charge of the latest batch of 600 is Major Jake McKay, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. He recognises that the Afghan police have a lot of catching up to do and a lot to live down.

In some parts of rural Helmand they have been seen as corrupt and brutal, on a par with the Taliban. Rogue policemen have turned on their British military mentors twice in the past year, killing six UK soldiers.

“About 15 per cent of the present intake has proved positive for hash,” said Major McKay. “They can rejoin the course but the two per cent shown to have used opiates are out altogether. Mind you, those statistics are miles better than for many parts of Glasgow on a Saturday.”

The police trainees point towards a new future for women in education in Afghanistan. And they mean business.

“I would really like to get involved in Intelligence,” said Palwasha. It really interests me.”

But isn't she daunted about facing the Taliban, who destroy schools, hate education, and believe women should be kept at home?

“Once I get the opportunity to arrest a Taliban, I would want to kill him — because Taliban are against education, and women.”