Earlier this week I read an excellent article in the NY Times by Carlotta Gall about Bamian, Afghanistan. Gall writes that women are driving cars, working as police officers, and there is even a woman governor there. As violence has diminished in this corner of the country, peace it seems, opens doors for women to stage “a quiet revolution.” But it is still not easy for women to take on non-traditional roles outside the home. One police lieutenant, after five years on the force, says “I had some problems at the beginning.” I’ll bet she did, and probably continues to. But at least the Taliban are not active in Bamian: Last month in Kandahar they murdered Malalai Kakar, a well-known female police captain.
It’s easy to see the parallels to other male-dominated societies trying to recover from conflict. When I was in El Salvador last year researching my report on the campaign against gender violence Oxfam America supports there, I met with Sub-commissioner Blanca Lidia Figueroa, a woman psychologist with 15 years on the force, who said it is very difficult for women to succeed in the National Police. Each year the police academy graduates about 250 officers, and usually only about five are women. In San Marcos, where Sub-commissioner Figueroa works, there are about 260 officers, only 25 are women.
El Salvador needs more women police officers, because it is the women of El Salvador who are being murdered at a shocking rate: more than 11 for each 100,000 women in the country in 2005. There were more than 400 women (total) murdered in 2007. This in a country the size of Massachusetts, where I live. It would be utterly unacceptable here, as it is in El Salvador, yet the murders continue. Having more women on the police force would help the police deal with domestic violence, and other factors that lead to the vulnerability of women, but the police are as prejudiced against women as the rest of society. “You have to have a lot of courage to work as a police officer as a woman,” Sub-commissioner Figueroa said, sitting behind her desk, a firearm on her hip. “We are not in Switzerland here.”
Sub-commissioner Figueroa is part of a civil society initiative to help communities improve security for women in El Salvador, and ensure women have a voice in decisions about public spending and policies meant to reduce violence and inequality. “We want to open minds, change beliefs and attitudes, and change the way of life here,” Sub-commissioner Figueroa told me. “I feel this work in my heart.” Like the police officer in Gall’s NYT story, who also works on domestic violence, the road will be a long one for Sub-commissioner Figueroa, but with more and more women in positions of authority around the world slowly emerging, I am sure they will succeed, because they must.