Facilitating the meeting of the minds was Brig. Gen. Anne MacDonald, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan assisting commanding general for police development, and Michele Leonhart, acting administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency. General MacDonald’s focus is police development and one of the big pushes right now is how to make the police force a safer, more appealing place for women to serve.
Earlier this year, President Hamid Karzai mandated that an additional 5,000 women would be added to the police force by 2014; currently there are roughly 1,000 women serving. Lack of familial support, corruption, cultural beliefs about men and women working together, low pay and dangerous duties are just some of the issues facing the brave few who choose to enter the police force.
Each woman got to tell a little about herself and her personal experience and as I listened, I heard the same struggle over and over again. Some, who were policewomen before the Taliban came into power, recounted tales of violence toward women, financial hardships and freedoms destroyed. Younger women spoke of lack of respect from male colleagues, lack of promotions and of being forced to administrative tasks rather than real police work.
Michele Leonhart shared some of her experiences first as a uniformed police officer, then as a DEA agent. Like the other women at the table, she had her own challenges to face as a woman police officer in the 1970’s: low numbers of women in the police force and negative attitudes from her fellow policemen and even their wives. But she made it to the top of her game and while I’m sure it was frustrating and difficult at times, something she said really struck me. She told the women that ‘it didn’t matter if you were a male or female, people are just looking for good leaders.’
I think that was something these Afghan women really needed to hear, to know that they weren’t alone and that while it may take some time, things will improve. I think it helped them to see that even in a country as modern and advanced as the U.S., women still faced similar attitudes and obstacles, and not that long ago. Their struggles are something I can’t even imagine, that I don’t have to imagine, because people like them and Ms. Leonhart, paved the way.