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For Afghan Policewomen, Danger Often Comes From Colleagues

It seems almost trivial at first: the latest Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan says female police officers need their own toilets. Sure, who's going to argue with that. But why is it a big deal?

Here's how it unfolds.

Female police officers are experiencing high levels of harassment, sexual assault and rape — often at the hands of their male colleagues. Where is most of this activity taking place? In police station bathrooms and changing rooms.

"The lack of access to safe, locking toilets is a factor that makes women more vulnerable," says Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

She says there are virtually no separate, locking bathrooms for policewomen in the entire country. Male officers do everything from making peepholes to cornering and assaulting them in bathrooms.

Barr says this is one of the main reasons there are only 1,500 female officers in the country, accounting for roughly 1 percent of the national police force.

It's obviously difficult to recruit women when the evidence shows they are very likely to experience sexual abuse. So, building secure, segregated bathrooms and changing rooms would go a long way to reducing the sexual assault and motivate more women to join the police force.

Barr says there are a few idealistic women who want to make a difference, but for the most part, they simply want to feed their families.

"I think for a lot of women it's really economic desperation; it's the only job that's really available to them," she says.

Human Rights Watch says that in a society so heavily segregated by gender, female officers are needed to conduct body searches of women, to speak to women when searches of homes are taking place, and to hear crime reports from women.

"It's really unthinkable for most women to imagine telling a male police officer they've been raped," says Barr.

She argues that the lack of female officers means fewer women are willing to come forward and report crimes committed against them, which in turn means crimes against women will persist.

Barr says her group has been raising the issue with the Ministry of Interior for more than a year and there have been directives sent down to police commanders to build separate toilets, but there's been no visible action.

"I don't know if the Afghan government really wants women in the police force," says Barr. "I don't think that there's been much of a genuine appreciation at the local police commander level, and perhaps at the Ministry of Interior level either, of why it's really necessary to have women in the police force."

Human Rights Watch said it has found no evidence of a single male officer being prosecuted for assaulting or harassing a female colleague. That's the deeper issue that ultimately has to be addressed, Barr says. Overall, the justice system is doing little to prosecute men for crimes against women, whether it's in their homes, on the streets or in police station bathrooms. Which is why building secure toilets for female officers is a necessary step to improve security for all women in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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