Kabul, Afghanistan - Second Lieutenant Negara, one of Afghanistan's 1,500 female police officers, was leaving her home for work when two assailants on a motorcycle pulled up and opened fire. Negara, 45, took a round in the neck, and died in a hospital in southern Helmand province on Monday.
The attack follows the targeted killings of two other women officers in recent months, including Negara's predecessor. Third Lieutenant Islam Bibi was gunned down in July in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, also by motorbike-borne assailants as she drove to work.
Negara, who like many Afghans uses one name, recently told The New York Times that she was receiving death threats, but would not be deterred from her work despite the killing of her colleagues.
"I love this job and I see my countrymen in trouble and the country in a critical situation, and I feel women's role is important in policing," Negara said. "The smugglers and terrorists are threatening me, saying I should give up. But I tell them that I am an Afghan woman, and I won't leave the job as long as there is blood in my veins."
Further action is urgently needed to recruit, train, retain and protect Afghan female police officers. This is critical for upholding the rights of Afghan women and girls.
No one claimed responsibility for the killing. Sidiq Sediqi, the Interior Ministry's spokesman, said a police team was dispatched to investigate, adding it was too early to say who was responsible.
Militants have stepped up attacks against female police and other women in positions of authority in recent months. In August, an armed group ambushed the convoy of a female Afghan senator, seriously wounding her and killing her eight-year-old daughter and a bodyguard.
Despite the dangers faced by policewomen, a recent report by nongovernmental organisation Oxfam International said more female officers need to be integrated into the country's police ranks in order to stop domestic abuse, so-called "honour killings", and forced marriages.
Women represent only one percent of the Afghan National Police, according to the Oxfam report. Not only do women officers face threats and attacks from militants, but they are often stigmatised by their own families in this male-dominated country.
While Afghanistan is one of the harshest countries for women, only 6,000 cases of domestic abuse were registered in 2012, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Social norms make it difficult for females to approach male police officers to file complaints, and with the shortage of women on the police force, abuses are widely underreported, Oxfam said.
The Human Rights Commission said incidents of violence against women have shot up over the past two years. Many here worry the Taliban's influence could rollback many of the rights Afghan women have gained since the ouster of the hardline Islamists in 2001.
The Oxfam report comes almost a year after a nationwide recruitment initiative known as the "Afghan Surge" reached completion. About 352,000 Afghans have joined the ranks of police or the army to defend their country. With foreign forces withdrawing on December 31, 2014, the need for more trained Afghan security personnel is imperative.
The proportion of policewomen has risen from 0.33 percent in 2005 to 1 percent today - a significant achievement in a country where many women are forbidden to work by their relatives. However, the figure is not enough to help bring justice to Afghan women, the Oxfam report said.
"Further action is urgently needed to recruit, train, retain and protect Afghan female police officers. This is critical for upholding the rights of Afghan women and girls, and can contribute to sustainable peace and development efforts in Afghanistan," it said.
Many of the 1,551 policewomen recruited so far are illiterate or widowers, drawn to the job out of necessity such as the case of Nafisa Mohammed Anif. After her husband died in a suicide attack that killed 13 people in front of Cinema Pamir in Kabul, she ignored her relatives' criticism and joined the police academy and is now an officer.
|Female police officials are recruiting more women [AP]
"I had no choice but to work," the 50-year-old told Al Jazeera. "My eight children couldn't feed themselves."
Anif earns 12,500 Afghanis (US$225) a month. She started her career carrying out house searches in Kandahar province, where there are currently 52 policewomen. Now assigned to Kabul's city gate in Pul-e-Charkhi, Anif and another policewoman search female passengers coming into the city, often pulling them aside to look beneath their burqas out of sight from men.
Female body searches - once a rarity in Afghanistan - have gained prominence after male insurgents began disguising themselves with burqas. Cultrual mores dictate that men - including law enforcement officers – cannot speak to or search females that they are not related to.
In recent years, the Taliban have exploited this security loophole. In an attack last summer on a popular tourist resort near Kabul that killed more than 20 people, militants dressed as women to conceal weapons under burqas and passed through checkpoints undetected.
Today, female bodychecks are compulsory in front of every government building and are carried out by women security officers. Even Afghan Special Forces commandos - trained by US Special Forces - have incorporated a female team. Women of the Cultural Support Unit handle, search and arrest women and children during Special Forces house raids.
Despite ongoing female security force recruitment initiatives, hiring women and retaining them has proven a challenge.
Lailamah Walizadah said she recruited three women in the first week of September alone, the first time she's done that in her career. She has worked three years as a police recruiter, first in Takhar province and now in the northern province of Parwan.
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However, Walizadah said it remains extremely difficult to convince women to join law enforcement, especially now that anti-government militants have regained momentum in Parwan.
"Even when I give them financial incentives to join, they often refuse saying it is too dangerous. They are afraid of reprisals," Walizadah told Al Jazeera over the phone.
She faces another hurdle - social stigma. Because policewomen work alongside men, a career as a police officer is not deemed an acceptable profession by many in Afghan society. As one of nine policewomen in the provincial capital Charikar, Walizadah insisted that women would "change their minds if they tried it," but some of their relatives disapprove of policing.
The police force remains a dangerous place for women internally as well. Reports of abuse against female officers by male colleagues have surfaced, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has accused the Afghan National Police of not doing enough to protect its female staff.
Asked about it, Anif says she has never had any such problems.
"The men in my unit are so young that they are like my sons," she said, in front of her commander. "Our responsibilities are distinct and we use separate facilities."
Anif said proof that there wasn't a problem with male harassment and bullying against female officers is found in the number of women with husbands now seeking employment with Afghan security forces.
"More married women are joining, and they should not be afraid to do so," Anif said.