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    Afghan Special Security Forces Women: Pushing boundaries, Breaking barriers

    Growing the Afghan SOF Female force

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Douglas Ellis | A Female Tactical platoon member fires during a night range near Kabul, Afghanistan,...... read more read more

    In a society where today only 19 percent of women work outside of the home, the women of Afghanistan's Special Security Forces are pushing boundaries for themselves and the next generation of Afghan women who follow in their footsteps.

    History

    When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, and the Taliban seized control of the government, Afghan women watched as the Taliban terminated their rights overnight. A country where women were granted the right to vote in 1919, a year before the United States, and guaranteed the right to education and to work in 1964, no longer allowed women to participate as equal members of society. During the restrictive male-dominated Taliban rule, they banned women from employment, education, and from appearing in public without a male chaperone. Forced to wear the burkha or face punishment, in almost every aspect of public society, women became invisible.

    In the seventeen years since the Taliban regime fell, marked improvement has been made in women's access to healthcare, education and employment although stigmas from the repressive Taliban rule remain. In 2004, the new Afghan constitution reinstated the rights women had previously, setting aside seats in the upper and lower parliamentary houses for women. During the 2014 elections, 308 women ran for provincial councils that have no set-aside seats; 39 percent of them won.

    As women regain public roles, there is room for hope. Of the nine million children enrolled in school in Afghanistan, 40% of those students are girls. More than three quarters of the population support women working outside of the home. Women serving in the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF), including the 120-plus women in the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF), have doubled their numbers in the last four years and now approx. 4,400 comprise 1.4 percent of the total ANDSF.

    Compared to other Muslim countries, this number is impressive. While women like Brig. Gen. Khatool Mohammadzai, who joined the Army as an enlisted paratrooper in the 1980s, served in the Army or police prior to the Taliban, once the Taliban seized control, women were forced out.

    NATO began tracking gender statistics in 2013 and four years later more than 2 percent of the Afghan National Police force is now female, and 0.6 percent of the Afghan National Army. Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, who has allowed women to serve in the military since 1947, only employs 1.4 percent in police and 0.6 percent in the military. While the numbers seem promising, they still fall well short of the ambitious 10 percent goal the Afghan Ministry of Interior, who oversee the Afghan National Police force, wants to reach by 2023.

    As U.S. General (Ret.) John Allen stated in 2016, "No society has ever successfully transitioned from being a conflict-ridden society to a developing society unless women were a part of the mainstream."

    U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 reaffirms women's rights, their role in conflict resolution, reconstruction and protection from sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict. In 2015, Afghanistan released its National Action Plan (NAP), viewed as tool to translate UNSCR 1325 into reality. The NAP upholds constitutional gender equality acknowledging "durable peace and stability in Afghanistan requires the participation of women in political and social life." The plan also admits that though there are increased numbers of women in police, military and civil service there are "not enough to respond to the emerging needs of women."

    Both NATO and the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan assign gender advisors to military operations. In the case of Afghanistan and Special Operations forces, these advisors perform their duties under the NATO Train, Advise, Assist (TAA) mission in Afghanistan, working to increase women's representation at all levels of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces while continuously lobbying for commitment and support for female participation and retention.

    According to a NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (NSOCC-A) Gender Advisor, one of the most rewarding aspects of these positions is "meeting the women serving in the ASSF and creating opportunities for them to share their ideas, experiences, concerns and needs. I call them superheroes. I really admire these women and their willingness to serve their country, despite the issues that make it more challenging for them than service in the police or military is for western women."

    Afghan Special Security Forces

    Recruiting women to security work remains a challenge, much less recruiting for ASSF. These are elite, special operations forces with higher requirements for entrance. Promoting quality over quantity, all ASSF members, male and female, are specially selected and trained.

    Recruiting women across Afghanistan to serve in security positions remains a challenge. This is especially true for the ASSF; the special operations forces are steadfast in efforts to promote quality over quantity, by specifically selecting and training candidates.

    Women operating as part of the ASSF may be policewomen with General Command of Police Special Units (GCPSU) assigned to the Ministry of Interior or military members serving with the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC) or the Special Mission Wing. The duties of many of the positions within ASSF require additional specialized training for sensitive mission-sets and are therefore harder to fill. In many cases, especially within the police forces, the women's training is continuous; the only time it's interrupted is for operational deployments.

    "My favorite part is the investigation and physical training," said one young policewoman from Kapisa. Another women from Ghazni said, "I heard about the mission and wanted to be a part of the operations. I enjoy the training and I've learned a lot of things. My favorite is Close Quarters Battle."

    While the overall numbers of women in ASSF are small compared to the whole of the ANDSF, their growth reflects a similar upward trend, doubling the number of women assigned in just over three years. Women serve in a number of capacities across the enterprise; as medics, administrative support, finance officers, and police. As their numbers grow, the overall capability for meaningful participation by women in non-traditional roles grows, hand-in-hand with increased opportunities for career progression.

    A NATO member who works the TAA mission with ASSF females in Afghanistan said, "Afghans see the value-added in a highly trained soldier. Regardless of gender, if we continue to assist in the training development and operational effects of women in the ASSF their successes will increase interest and acceptance over time."

    Successes

    Modeled on the Cultural Support Teams employed by the U.S. Army, Afghan Female Tactical Platoons are elite light infantry units that specialize in assaults on conventional targets. Trained in combat skills, marksmanship and cultural skills, the women in FTPs work alongside the men during operations that may require interaction or engagement with women and children.

    Additional opportunities exist for women serving with the ANDSF. Women can participate in the Ministry of Defense's Gender Occupational Opportunity Development (GOOD) program. GOOD offers additional training in English, Dari and meaningful job skills like computer literacy, which may enhance their career development. The program will soon expand to the Ministry of Interior to encompass even more of the women serving in the ASSF in the future.

    "In the future," said one FTP member, whose sister is also in the ANDSF, "I would still like to be an FTP…forever."

    "I believe their success can be attributed to the advisor support, the best trainers and equipment, a decent work environment and additional leave opportunities and pay," said an NSOCC-A Advisor who works directly with the FTPs.

    Challenges

    In many ways, the small number of women in the ASSF aren't just taking on the Taliban and other terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan today, they're also taking on their own culture. ASSF tashkils, which are the government's official list of personnel by position and rank, will see a large increase in female-only positions on over the next few years but the path to real parity may not be so straightforward.

    Literacy rates are low. When only 17 percent of women are able to read and write, the overall pool of qualified ASSF candidates shrinks significantly, although conversely, it follows that the women who are accepted will be better educated and more able to work in a wider range of duties. Enhanced literacy standards, under consideration at both MOD and MOI for women and men, will only add to the professional image of a female soldier or policeman.

    Sexual harassment and gender discrimination remains a problem within both the Afghan police and military. The MOI has a signed sexual harassment policy in place while the MOD policy is in draft format, but there are no compliance mechanisms and women are often hesitant to report attacks or discrimination for fear of disgrace or security. This is assessed by some women's organizations to be a major factor that hampers female participation within the ANDSF.

    Marked differences exist in Afghan tribal cultures. Pashtuns tend to be socially conservative, with Hazara and Tajik families more accepting of female relatives working in security. A number of the young women interviewed are Hazara and indicated their families were supportive of their work; one said her uncle actually encouraged her to join the ASSF.

    There are also contrasts between the rural provinces and urban population centers in how positively women are perceived when working outside the home, although there are indications that even conservative provinces are becoming more tolerant, with 72 percent of Afghans now supportive of women working outside of the home.

    The Way Forward

    Attractive recruitment and training initiatives are offered within Afghanistan's military and police forces. Within the ANDSF, almost 200 women are working towards Bachelor's degrees, and several women completed their first year of college under a scholarship program. There are special incentives for daycare, re-contracting bonuses, training and education allowances and opportunities for overseas training. Additional female-only facilities, such as barracks, bathrooms, gyms and classrooms are being built throughout Afghanistan to ensure the women can live and train in a safe environment.

    One key aspect of successful recruitment is messaging, not just for potential candidates but their families and the larger Afghan culture. Women working in ASSF are needed to conduct operations in ways that are respectful of Islam and the Afghan culture.

    High-profile instances of women breaking barriers in the ASSF and the larger ANDSF continue to inspire other women to volunteer to serve their country. Brig. Gen. Khatool Mohammadzai, the fearless Afghan paratrooper who has over 600 jumps to her credit and is the first woman in Afghan history to achieve general officer rank has proven women can carve out their own careers in the military, both as an enlisted paratrooper and later as a commissioned officer.

    Niloofar Rahmani, the first female pilot to be trained in the Afghan Air Force doubtless inspired young women across the nation to dream of slipping the "surly bonds of earth." As more women reap the benefits of educational opportunities, enjoy meaningful careers and help to support their families, they also pave the way for their sisters, daughters, nieces to shape their own futures.

    "I believe the time will come when women's sacrifices for the security of Afghanistan will be appreciated and their children and grandchildren can look back at them and be proud of these ASSF women pioneering in their fields," said a NATO Gender Advisor.

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 03.08.2018
    Date Posted: 03.08.2018 04:21
    Story ID: 268531
    Location: AF

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