The government of Afghanistan should take immediate action to ensure that the country’s female police officers have access to separate, safe, and lockable restroom facilities in police stations, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.


Kabul’s police chief issued an order on April 10, for the province’s police stations to provide separate toilets and change rooms for women, but similar orders have been ignored in the past, leaving all but a few of Afghanistan’s 1,500 women officers without suitable and safe facilities.


Workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem in the public and private sectors in Afghanistan and female police officers are frequently the targets of harassment and assault, Human Rights Watch said. In recent years there have been numerous media reports of rape of female police officers by male colleagues. The lack of safe and separate toilets makes women particularly vulnerable.


“The Afghan government’s failure to provide female police officers with safe, secure facilities makes them more vulnerable to abuse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about toilets. It’s about the government’s recognition that women have a crucial role to play in law enforcement in Afghanistan.”


Already the number of female police in the ranks of Afghanistan’s security forces is small, slightly more than 1 percent of police officers in the country. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police force, has set a goal of 5,000 women by the end of 2014, but has acknowledged that it is unlikely to meet this objective.


Addressing the concerns of police women is necessary to address the rampant violence against women in wider Afghan society, Human Rights Watch said. Employing greater numbers of female police officers will improve access for women seeking to report violence and pursue justice, given the cultural sensitivity and stigma around reporting sexual and other violence against women. In 2009, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women created new penalties for violence against women, but the law has not been adequately enforced, in part because of the lack of female police officers to assist female crime victims, including other police officers.


“Harassment and abuse is an everyday experience for many Afghan women,” Adams said. “Without the consistent presence of female police officers across the country, legal protections for women will remain an unfulfilled promise.”


The lack of safe changing rooms and toilets can endanger the safety of female police officers, Human Rights Watch said. Many female police officers cannot travel to work in their police uniforms due to security threats posed by Taliban insurgents or others opposed to women police. As the number of women in the police force has risen, so have the allegations by female officers of having been raped, assaulted or sexually harassed by male colleagues. There appear to have been no successful prosecutions of these cases. This may reflect unwillingness by the Ministry of Interior to take these cases seriously, a lack of confidentiality and victim protection, and pressure on women to withdraw their accusations.


Providing proper facilities is critical to preventing workplace sexual harassment of female police officers and creating a non-discriminatory work atmosphere that respects their privacy and dignity, Human Rights Watch said. However, three orders since 2012 to install facilities in police stations have not been implemented despite the promise of government funds to pay for them.


An international advisor working closely with female Afghan police officers told Human Rights Watch that when sexual assaults of police women happen, they often occur in isolated locations such as unsafe toilets and changing areas: “Those facilities that women do have access to often have peepholes or doors which don’t lock. Women have to go [to the toilets] in pairs. Toilets are a site of harassment.”


No more than a handful of Afghanistan’s police stations have safe and accessible toilets, said experts working with female police officers. Female officers are forced to use toilets shared with men, which they find unsafe and stigmatizing in a culture where strict segregation of the sexes is the norm. Police stations in rural areas of Afghanistan sometimes have no toilets at all, and both women and men are forced to seek secluded locations outside.