How Afghanistan Is Beginning to Deal With Workplace Sexual Harassment

Women make up only a small part of the Afghan workforce — perhaps many fear the behavior of the men they have to work with

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SHAH Marai / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan women and male laborers pushing wheelbarrows walk down a lane in Kabul on Feb. 19, 2013

As the razor wire, the blast walls and the security checks around Kabul’s presidential palace clearly suggest, Afghans employed by the government have a lot to be concerned about just by walking to the office. But for Afghan women employees there is an additional hazard: the security officers there ostensibly for their safety as well as the drivers of government vehicles. According to one female employee of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) — located just 200 m from the presidential palace — the women are constantly accosted by the “suggestive gaze, the nonstop whistling, the catcalling, the unnecessary coughing” of the security officers as they make their way to work. Indeed, many of the 35 women who work at IDLG — who make up less than 10% of the total staff — are often forced to avoid the main path to their offices.

Sexual harassment at the workplace — as well as lack of mechanisms to address complaints arising from it — is one of the main impediments to female participation in the workforce. And the behavior is rampant. In civilian institutions, there are constant reports of verbal and physical harassment, blackmailing for sexual favors and the use of authority to coerce sex, according to interviews with several female workers, activists as well as independent studies. A report by Women for Afghan Women found “a complete lack of policies and procedures with respect to sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination” in government ministries. It is no surprise that women make up less than 1% of the police force: senior staff demand sexual favors for women to receive promotions and grants of leave. Junior police officers have, in private conversation with activists, reported groping and touching by male superiors, but they can’t officially file complaints fearing repercussion.

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“Women who work in public offices tell me that there is a growing sexual demands at the workplace that never existed before … even the women who had been working there for like years,” says Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women Peace & Security.

A majority of the current workforce is young men and women in their 20s or 30s. In their lifetime, female participation first dwindled due to the civil war and the Taliban’s subsequent ban on the women in public sphere. While educational opportunities have increased since the overthrow of Mullah Omar’s regime, the new government imposed a policy of gender segregation — with girls and boys studying in separate classrooms, indeed separate schools — to appease conservative leaders. As a result, for 12 formative years young men and women do not interact in academic environment as equals. At the university, there is more opportunity for cross-gender interaction, but by then the ideas of the sexes and the traditional power dynamics have become rigid already. Added to this is a flood of TV channels showing popular Western media, romantic soap operas — where women are equally represented as men — as well as a vast availability of cheap pornographic material in the market. The society’s conservative values have not changed to accommodate the influx of such media. Says Aarya Nijat, the capacity-and-institutional-development director at IDLG: “I don’t blame men. They simply don’t know how to interact with women at this level — they haven’t had to.”

Nijat, however, has been active in addressing the problems of her female co-workers at the directorate. “We brought up the issue in the leadership meeting several times — about the harassment by the palace guards, the drivers,” says Nijat, who is the only female in the organization’s 15-member leadership committee. “It’s fortunate that they [leadership] saw this as a systemic issue rather than individual cases. We shouldn’t be putting the individual intentions at focus — but see this systemic issue.”

After nearly three months of work, IDLG launched a “zero tolerance for harassment” policy guideline — a small but unprecedented move to make the workplace conducive to women. The results have affected not just the offices in Kabul but the entire country. All new employees of local governance — the 34 governor’s offices, the hundreds of district governor, municipality and provincial council offices around the country — will be required to sign the policy upon employment, which details all forms of unacceptable conduct. The effort is aimed at “doing away with the shame tied to discussing harassment,” Nijat says.

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IDLG officials hope the measure will encourage more female participation in local governance. Even in central Bamyan province, led by the country’s only female governor, female participation in the local government is at 11%. In Ghazni, just two hours drive from Kabul, the governor admits there is not a single female worker in his office. “We are gradually seeing women beat the competition to positions that people thought naturally belonged to men,” says Matin Bek, the deputy director of IDLG. He points to the female mayor in Daikundi and the district governor in Jawzjan, who are “not token representatives” but have won their position by merit. “But for increasing and encouraging participation, we need to put in place mechanisms for a healthier work environment,” Bek reiterates.

For Nijat and her colleagues at IDLG, a similar movement in neighboring Pakistan serves both as an inspiration as well as a reminder. In Pakistan, it took over a decade of activism — and bottom-up work at the corporate and government sectors implementing their own policies — to pass anti-sexual-harassment legislation at the national level. The bill was repeatedly struck down for having the work sexual in its title — something Nijat and her colleagues avoided in their compromise.

A longer-term solution may be co-education. Dr. Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the first female Cabinet member in the government of President Hamid Karzai, said she had the courage to speak out in the company of powerful men because she was co-educated in a school in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province. “Co-education plays an important role — it gives courage from an early age,” she said. “But on the other hand, we know that in many places they won’t let their girls go to school after fourth grade if the teacher is male. Our priority is education and raising capacity of women at any cost.”

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