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In Afghanistan, women's rights remain a focal point for the West. It's one of the reasons often given for a lasting American presence there. One strategy to protect women from violence is to employ them in the security forces. But that also hold risks in a culture which is not fully comfortable with women working outside the home. An investigation by NPR in one major city has uncovered disturbing allegations of systematic sexual coercion and even rape of female police officers by their male colleagues. NPR's Quil Lawrence has that story.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif has escaped much of the insurgent violence that plagues southern Afghanistan, and it shows: buildings are under construction, traffic lights adorn new highways and roundabouts. NATO does extensive training of the Afghan army and police at a huge base outside Mazar. That includes female police.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: These women look anything but vulnerable as they learn to assemble and load assault rifles. American officials regularly extol the hundreds of women who've joined the Afghan security forces. But some of them here won't even admit to their families where they work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Except my very close family members, no one really knows that I'm a police officer, says one. Instead, she tells most of her family that she works at a foreign aid organization. That's because the rumors about sexual abuse in Mazar's police force are so widespread that many of these women are ashamed to say they're cops. In Afghanistan, simply wearing the wrong clothes, sitting in the front seat of a car, working outside the home, any one of those is enough for a woman to get labeled a prostitute, even in the most modern parts of the country. The law reflects that.

With sexual assault, the woman is often sent to jail along with her rapist. The assumption is that any woman who puts herself in a situation to be vulnerable to rape must be immoral. That seems to apply even to police officers. Here at the training course, mixed men and women, very few would speak openly. None wanted their names used.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Some women are being promoted only if they agree to give sexual favors, says one. Most of the women here have many children. Most are poor. And though they say they want to serve their country, just as many say they joined the police because the money - about $300 a month - is better than working as a maid or a teacher. The threat of losing this job is a powerful one. No one in the classroom would talk about being the victim of sexual coercion. But privately, several policewomen told shocking stories. A woman we'll call Ann(ph) admitted to being raped by her male colleagues. Interviews were conducting inside a car moving around the city.

ANN: (Through Translator) It's a fact. Women in the police are being used for sex and as prostitutes. It has happened to me. Male cops ask for sex openly because they think women join the police just to work as prostitutes.

LAWRENCE: Ann said on one occasion her house was invaded by a group of men who stayed all night, raping her in front of her young children. She recognized some of them as police. She didn't report the incident for fear of public disgrace and because, she says, she believes the police chief already knew. A second woman we'll call Jane(ph) says she was also forced to have sex by her superiors. They threatened to take away her job and the only income supporting her several children.

JANE: (Through Translator) Put it this way: If there's a young woman and she wants to remain in her post, she accepts being used this way.

LAWRENCE: The women say the abuse is widespread across the department, that female officers are practically trafficked when they're transferred from one district to another. Pay and promotion depend on sexual favors. Ann says she would never encourage a woman to join the police.

ANN: (Through Translator) I have daughters of my own, and I would never ever want them to join the police force.

LAWRENCE: Another woman arrived for an interview hiding her police uniform under her burqa. She said that after almost 10 years on the force, police officers stopped demanding sex from her but forced her to procure prostitutes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Anywhere you ask for a job in the police force, they either ask you to give yourself or bring them girls, she said. She named several policewomen who act as madams for cops in the city. Afghan officials in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul denied all the charges made in this story. Sadiq Sadiqi is the spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry.

SADIQ SADIQI: (Through Translator) The women police are working closely alongside their Afghan brothers. I totally reject any report that they're being abused by their male counterparts.

LAWRENCE: But advocates in Kabul say the problem is not limited to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Georgette Gagnon is the head of the United Nations human rights office in Afghanistan.

GEORGETTE GAGNON: We've received many reports of abuse of Afghan women police in various parts of the country. We are very concerned.

LAWRENCE: Gagnon says the U.N. is currently trying to gauge how widespread the problem is, especially as the international community draws down and starts handing over control to Afghan forces. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

BLOCK: An Afghan employee of NPR contributed to that report.

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