By Quil Lawrence
The image of Afghan women wearing police and army uniforms is meant to inspire pride and hope for a future where the rights of women will be protected in Afghanistan.
So why would female police officers in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif be ashamed to admit they wear the badge?
"Except my very close family members, no one really knows that I am a police officer," said one woman at a NATO training session.
The woman, who asked not to give her name, says she tells most of her family that she works with a foreign aid organization. That's because the rumors about sexual abuse in Mazar-e-Sharif's police force are so widespread that many of these women are ashamed to say they're cops.
Protection of women's rights in Afghanistan remains a focal point for the West — and American officials regularly tout the fact that the Afghan security forces now include hundreds of women. In northern Afghanistan alone, about 300 women are serving in the police force.
But in a culture that is not fully comfortable with women working outside the home, these women face significant risks. An NPR investigation in the city discovered disturbing allegations of systematic sexual coercion and even rape of female police officers by their male colleagues.
The women at the recent training session at a huge base outside Mazar-e-Sharif hardly looked like victims as they assembled and loaded assault rifles. But none dared to give their names as they alluded to what is an open secret in the city.
"Some women are being promoted only if they agree to give sexual favors," said one female officer.
Most of the female police have many children, and most are poor. Though they say they'd like to serve their country, just as many say they joined the police because the pay — about $300 a month — is better than working as a maid or a teacher. The threat of job loss is a powerful one.
None of the policewomen on the training course — which consisted of a mix of men and women — would admit to being victims of sexual coercion.
Shocking Stories Of Rape
But privately, several told of terrifying experiences. The women agreed to speak on the condition that their names be withheld, and the only place they felt safe enough to talk with a reporter was in a car moving around the city.
"It's a fact. Women in the police are being used for sex and as prostitutes," said Ann — not her real name — who is in her mid-30s.
"It's happened to me. Male cops ask for sex openly because they think women join the police just to work as prostitutes," she said.
(To read full article, visit this NPR link )