Women's Rights Endangered in Afghanistan

Even before the drawdown of NATO troops is expected to begin in 2014, there are increasing concerns that the hard-won political, economic and social gains attained by women in Afghanistan are already being eroded, according to a report issued today by the International Crisis Group.

It is abundantly clear that women face threats not just from the Taliban but from whatever government takes over the country once the military departure begins in earnest. Other reports in the past have indicated that the vast majority of Afghan women – as many as 90 percent – are terrified that the Taliban, which ruled the country after the fall of the Soviet Union occupation until 2001, would return.

“Afghanistan’s stabilization ultimately rests on the state’s accountability to all its citizens, and respect for constitutional, legal and international commitments, including to human rights and gender equality. There will be no sustainable peace unless there is justice, and justice demands that the state respect and protect the rights of women, half its population,” according to the Brussels-based human rights organization.

“Following the Taliban’s ouster, Afghan women worked hard to reverse the damage wrought by more than two decades of a civil war that deprived them of the limited progress towards gender equality experienced in earlier times,” the International Crisis Group said. “As a result of international support, donor aid and their own efforts, women are now an essential part of the post-Taliban order and have played a major role in reconstructing the state and its institutions.”

Some 40 per cent of all schoolchildren are girls, women now comprise more than 27 percent of Parliament and work in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the Afghan National Security Forces, and are lawyers, entrepreneurs, journalists and civil society activists, the report notes.

But while women’s legal status has improved considerably, and laws exist criminalizing rape for the first time as well as protecting women from violence, “women still struggle to avail themselves of their rights and to consolidate and advance their progress.”

Women’s political, economic and social rights are constantly being threatened, with women in positions of authority regularly intimidated. Many have been killed by insurgents, who have attacked girls’ schools, students and staff, so that qualified female teachers and health workers are reluctant to work outside relatively secure urban centers, undermining rural women’s and girls’ access to education and basic health services.

With responsibility for security transferred from NATO to the Afghan national security forces earlier this year, not only have insurgent threats to women increased, their rights are also under attack from warlords who are powerbrokers both within and outside government.

“The reversal of progress is already evident,” the report notes. “With presidential and provincial council elections due in April, the latest electoral law has reduced the quota –guaranteed seats – for women in provincial assemblies from a quarter to a fifth.

“If passed by both houses of parliament, a change in the Criminal Prosecution Code disqualifying relatives of the accused from testifying against them would severely constrain women’s ability to take abuse cases to court.”

Conservative members of parliament have strongly opposed the law protecting women from violence, calling it un-Islamic when it was introduced in parliament in May. Though it remains valid at least until a vote in parliament, the attention its detractors have received could undermine its already limited use. A wide range of Afghan and international women’s rights organizations have urged President Hamid Karzai, who enacted it by decree in 2009, to speak in favor of the law and endorse its implementation.

The International Crisis Group called on the international community to continue to support women activists and NGOs and in the interest of sustainability help such NGOs gain financial independence by giving core, as well as project-based funding and to refuse to accept the erosion of women’s rights.

Women, the report says, as much, if not more concerned about the efforts to broker peace with the Taliban. “They have been sidelined in a process that will determine their future and that of their country. The role of female representatives in Kabul’s High Peace Council and Provincial Peace Councils is largely limited to public outreach. It does not extend to talks with the insurgency. Given their exclusion and the opacity of the negotiations, there is reason for concern. The government and parliament may be tempted to backtrack on pro-women constitutional provisions and laws to assuage conservative powerbrokers within and outside the armed insurgency.”

Women activists and parliamentarians are not comforted by rhetoric from Kabul and the international community, including U.S. and EU assurances that any peace settlement would be based on respect for the constitution and women’s rights. Agreement on protecting the rights of women must be a prerequisite rather than an elusive desired outcome of any reconciliation process.

The report called on the current Afghan government to increase women’s and girls’ access to health care and education, with particular emphasis on service quality, by creating incentives for qualified female staff to work in rural areas, including by adequate fiscal support for accompanying male family and protecting staff and beneficiaries.

Among a long list of other recommendations, the ICG called for strengthening the formal justice system and announcing a timetable for establishing prosecution units staffed by qualified female prosecutors in every province and major district to carry out the anti-violence law.