According to a recent news article  in the BBC (1) (and the Guardian (2)) citing a report by Human Rights Watch(3), “Women – who make up 1% of the police force – are often targeted by predatory colleagues while using shared toilets. Many facilities have peepholes or no locks, so female officers stand guard for each other.”

APPRO has been following the conditions of policewomen since 2009. In two subsequent studies – currently ongoing – that follow up on APPRO’s earlier work, the lack of basic amenities is a recurring theme, viewed by women as a major obstacle to feeling comfortable at work.

To deny the absence of adequate amenities or to suggest that it is unimportant is at best oblivious. But to be shocked about the absence of adequate sanitary facilities for women in the police is simply naive. To be clear, APPRO is in favor of every woman, man, boy and girl having access to proper facilities. But for perspective,  it has taken 12 years to start paving the main roads of Kabul.

It is equally naive to read too much into statements like this: “Kabul’s police chief recently issued an order for the provision of private toilets for women in provincial police stations, but the New York-based rights organisation says similar directives have not been implemented in the past.”

It would be great if all such directives were to be followed to the letter, but that does not take into account the realities of doing business – and living – in Afghanistan. Things move very slowly around here but they move.

No sanitary facilities is not only a women’s issue, it’s a general issue. The vast majority of schools across the country lack adequate toilet facilities for boys and girls (4). As recently as 2011, only 37% of the entire population has access to safe sanitation(5) (to keep perspective, only 48% of the country’s population had access to clean drinking water that same year (6)). None of the micro or small-sized traditional enterprises APPRO has been working with closely for the last four years have access to proper sanitary facilities.

In other words, both women and men (and girls and boys) suffer from inadequate sanitary facilities and not just in the police.

The BBC states, suggestively, that “There was no immediate response from the government or police.”(7) Of course there wasn’t. Afghans are deeply offended by being picked on for not having proper toilet facilities for their women folk. They are even more offended at hearing that women “are often targeted”(8) when they dare to relieve themselves in their workplace. And who wouldn’t be offended? Next time you are traveling in Eastern Europe, Middle East, Turkey, or Central Asia, Africa, China, and India, try using an ordinary toilet and you can immediately see how hard it is for women as compared to men. Then try shaming them for not having proper toilets but make sure you can make a quick getaway.

At the formal level, since 2001 there have been all manner of policy, legal, and structural provision made to institute women’s rights in Afghanistan. A major weakness in the vast majority of these provisions is the absence of a visible and contributory role by men in improved gender relations – building structures, including toilets, is usually done by men in Afghanistan. Arguably, this absence is not only because men have resisted these efforts but also because gender mainstreaming, as interpreted by the vast majority of donor-supported gender specialists working in Afghanistan, has become synonymous with women’s rights activism.

While activism plays a crucial role in drawing attention to the need for social change, advocacy is the instrument through which systemic – and sustainable – social change can be effected. And for changes in gender relations to be systemic, men must be included. Gender mainstreaming must involve making gender issues an integral part of development organizational thinking and practice (Trocaire 2010 (9)). Gender mainstreaming also requires challenging traditional views of hegemonic masculinity from within autochthonous patriarchal structures, particularly in Afghanistan, while advocating for and defending women’s reproductive, hereditary, social, economic, and political rights.

It is imperative to keep things in context. “’Safe toilets needed for Afghanistan’s female police” makes a great headline, but draws attention to superficial rather than structural problems, which are that after 12 years of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in Afghanistan – most of it with a “gender component” – some Western organizations are still confusing gender screaming with gender mainstreaming.

Afghanistan should have adequate sanitation facilities for all – especially women and girls.