Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Women putting their lives on the Line to make Afghan history

Thirteen extraordinary women are quietly making history in the most conservative corner of Afghanistan.

Fearlessly, the first thirteen female Afghan National Police recruits in Helmand Province now stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts in their fight against crime and the Taliban insurgency

Fighting the Taliban on a daily basis is a dangerous job, but these women have the added burden of having to work undercover, terrified that their neighbours and, in some cases, their families might find out what they do with potentially lethal consequences.

Having carefully made their way to Task Force Helmand HQ under the cover of burkas they speak openly about their jobs from behind the safety of the camp walls. “I tell my neighbours that I work at a clinic. If they found out what I did, I would be reported to the Taliban. They would have me killed within seconds. My job is a secret from everyone; not even my husband knows”, says Zaazanga.

Zaazanga is 36 and married with six children. Her husband is 90-years-old and she works to support her children because her husband is elderly and infirm. “When I leave the house to go out on patrol I don’t know whether I’ll be coming back. It is dangerous work.”

Malaaley, 22, has been in the ANP for five months. She joined, not because of financial worries, but because she was educated and could see a future in the police force. She is the first-ever officer-ranked policewoman in Helmand Province. “I have so much enthusiasm for the police. I want to progress up the ranks. Someday, I’ll be a General.”

And Malaaley has already shown she has what it takes to get to the top. Just months into the job she tackled a Taliban fighter singlehandedly: “We heard that some terrorists were leaving a compound so we went into the area to stop them. The women police officers often go into the compounds first so that they can search the other women. When I got in, I caught a man who had narcotics and grenade bombs strapped to him. He was Taliban so I arrested him. He was sent to prison.”

Malaaley knows that she risks her life daily to make Helmand safer for the Afghan people and, in particular, women who are often subject to domestic abuse and assaults. “I know that I make a difference. In the neighbourhood where I live there are Taliban. I sometimes worry something will happen to me but nothing will make me leave. I’m proud of what I do.”

So taken with life in the Afghan National Police, Malaaley persuaded her 37-year-old mother to join. Paalwasha is immensely proud of her daughter: “I worry about her when she is working but I have three girls at home and I would encourage every one of them to join the ANP. It is very interesting. Just last week I was out on the range learning to shoot a pistol. I never thought I’d do that.”

All of the women hope to forge a different future for their children. Paalwasha speaks for them all when she says: “All we want is the elimination of terrorism and for Afghanistan to be free. If we can have development we can have a future.”

Miriam is the oldest of the recruits at 57. She spent 30 years living in Iran before she moved to Afghanistan with her husband. Initially they struggled to eke out a living and three years ago Miriam joined the ANP to ease their dire financial problems. She is open about her job with her neighbours: “They all know. Some of them are scared that I am a spy for the British Forces. I reassure them that I am not and they begin to trust me.”

“I encourage myself to be the best and although there are only a small number of us I know that we can boost the level and morale of women in Afghanistan. What we are doing is good for the future of women here.”

Recently, the women went onto the firing range for the first time to hone their shooting skills, something they had never previously been allowed to do. It was a move championed by Isabella McManus, an MOD police officer, who recently deployed to Afghanistan and immediately saw promise in the small group of women who sat in the corner of the Police Headquarters, untrained, unnoticed, without uniform and without motivation.

Isabella said: “It wasn’t my job to start mentoring the women specifically but they struck a chord with me. They were ignored entirely at the Police Headquarters and it wasn’t right. They needed a uniform giving them some status and they needed training and equipment. I’ve fought those battles with them every step of the way and we are getting somewhere. The women are empowered and it’s great to see.”

On their first occasion out on the firing range the women were greeted by sneering men, who doubted their ability with weapons. But their scorn quickly dissipated when the first woman got all five shots bang on target.

Miriam said: “I think of myself as equal to the men. The men don’t agree but I feel right doing this job. I have no fear and I am happy.”

With the guidance and support of Isabella the women are achieving truly extraordinary things. One of the women, Wooranga, has a fierce reputation within the police force. After spending 20-years in the Army during the time of the Russian invasion, she is a force to be reckoned with and a figurehead for the other women in the ANP.

The 39-year-old is married to a 100-year-old man and is the breadwinner in her household. She openly tells people about her work in the ANP and claims to be afraid of nothing. This was evident when during a night raid on a compound near Nawa she came face to face with a Taliban fighter. “I went into the compound first, while the male police officers waited outside. As I stood on a wall I saw one of the enemy pointing an AK47 towards me. I launched myself off the wall, landing on top of him and wrestled the weapon from him. Then I called to the men to help me. The Taliban fighter was surprised by what I did.”

Thirty three-year-old Gulaley, a mother of six, also came into a close scrape when she attempted to search a woman at a checkpoint on the way to Herat. Having checked a bus full of people Gulaley watched as the woman got off the bus and took something from a man waiting outside. “I noticed it happening so when she got back on the bus I asked to search her again. She disputed that I needed to, saying that she had already been checked.

“As I searched her the second time I found a pistol hidden at the back of her neck under her burka. She fought with me and punched me in the face, smashing my glasses.”

Despite suffering injuries to her face, Gulaley said she felt emboldened by the experience. “My son is in the ANP as well. He has suffered injuries while on duty but we wear the scars with pride. I am not scared.”

Wooranga is also credited with stopping two suicide bombers from detonating devices and, on a separate occasion, karate-kicking a remote control from the hands of a terrorist intent on detonating a device in Lashkar Gah market, for which she received a reward from the Police Headquarters.

But the danger of their job is not lost on the women. No one knows this better than Najiba, a 34-year-old mother of seven children, left widowed when her husband was shot dead alongside his brother at a police checkpoint in Helmand. “They were sleeping when the Taliban came in and shot them. I was two-months pregnant at the time. My children were orphaned and I needed the money so I joined the ANP. I am worried sometimes but I have to do this for them. My hope is just that my children will be able to eat. They are so small; I want them to have a future.”

The women have come a long way in the last few months since Isabella began to champion their cause. Later this month they hope to have a uniform for the first time thanks to Isabella’s persistence. “I sat down with the women and we designed something that would be culturally acceptable but would allow them to wear their rank with pride. They are starting to feel valued and the number of recruits has almost doubled since I’ve been here.

“It’s an incremental process but in a Province where women are often expected to be seen and not heard, what these women are doing is truly amazing. Last month they helped to provide security for the election polling stations. They are literally making history. They are few in number but they are paving the way for Helmandi women to have a very different future.”

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