International Women of Courage awardee, Second Lieutenant Malalai Bahaduri, recently met with USIP staff, members of civil society and the U.S./Afghan Women’s Council to speak about how she became a successful police officer in Afghanistan and the new challenges she expects to face with the 2014 withdrawal of the coalition forces.

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Afghan police Second Lieutenant Malalai Bahaduri survived a lot to arrive in Washington recently as one of nine recipients of the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award this year: Life under Soviet occupation, secret studies for her and other girls under the Taliban regime, and later death threats and ‘night letters’ from the local Taliban, drug lords, and smugglers.

And her story of perseverance isn’t over yet. In a March 8 roundtable at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), Bahaduri met with Kathleen Kuehnast, USIP’s director of the Center for Gender & Peacebuilding, USIP staff and Army Fellows, civil society members and members of the U.S./Afghan Women’s Council, to discuss her personal and professional life experiences. Bahaduri said the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will bring with it many new dangers and uncertainties for her and all Afghan women, especially those women who strive to lead by example.

The International Women of Courage Award recognizes women from around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for equality. The award acknowledges the strong opposition, oppression and physical danger often faced by women like Bahaduri, whose given name honors a national folk hero in Afghanistan who helped lead her people to victory in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of the late 1800s.

Other award recipients this year who joined Bahaduri on stage at the State Department ceremony came from Honduras, Nigeria, Russia, and Somalia. Three other honorees -- from China, Vietnam, and Syria -- were unable to attend because they have been detained for their work or are in hiding. The final awardee, an Indian woman known simply as “Nirbhaya,’ or Fearless, was honored posthumously. She died two weeks after her brutal gang rape on a bus in New Delhi, and her case has galvanized a movement to end the abuse of women and girls in India.

In Afghanistan, Bahaduri made the decision to pursue a career in law enforcement in 2002, after the U.S. and its coalition partners toppled the Taliban regime in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon. She became the first female  member of the Afghan National Interdiction Unit.

For five years, Bahaduri has participated in counternarcotics operations in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.  The U.S. State Department cited her hard work and professionalism as one of the keys to her success and to gaining the respect she has won from her male colleagues.

But being a policewoman in Afghanistan remains dangerous work, regardless of efficiency and the respect of co-workers, Bahaduri said. The threats she has received from Taliban leaders, drug lords, and smugglers became all the more real after the assassination of Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar by the Taliban in 2008. At the time, Kakar was the highest-ranking female officer in the Afghanistan police forces. 

Despite the daily risks to herself and her family, Bahaduri continues her work and for the last six years has been an instructor at the Interdiction Unit, where she teaches technical skills, checkpoint procedures, intelligence, and evidence gathering to all-male classes or to her colleagues on the force. She was proud of the fact that she also leads them, and can match them, in weapons and physical-fitness training.

The police lieutenant made a point of noting that a key factor for the success of women and girls, not just in Afghanistan but anywhere, is access to basic and higher education. At the same time, she said, increased education for men can generate increased support of education for women.

Education for both sexes in Afghanistan remains a problem. College especially is out of reach for many young women due to its cost. The continuing drawdown of coalition forces and international support from Afghanistan also raises doubts as to the continued support and availability of education for girls at all levels, Bahaduri said.

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