After the US killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1, the organization Women for Afghan Women reported an eerie quiet in Kabul, the capital of strife-torn Afghanistan.
"Police are patrolling the streets," Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, wrote to her supporters the day after the Al Qaeda terror boss was shot dead following a 40-minute gun battle with the US Navy Seals in the army town of Abbottabad in Pakistan. "But very few people are walking around, and even at the office, people aren't talking about the news that is ricocheting across the world - Osama bin Laden has been killed."
Naderi instructed all staff members "to lie low for the next few days," Offices would remain open, but travel would be avoided, she said. Since bin Laden's death on May 2, little has changed outwardly. Given the society, it is unsure what will happen.
"We simply cannot know whether the death of bin Laden is or is not good for the Afghan people, but we are worried about what will happen next," Naderi wrote. "Will Al Qaeda and the Taliban be weakened? Will negotiations with the Taliban be stepped up? Will this decade-long chapter in Afghanistan's history end with the foreign troops hastening away?"
Naderi advocates for women in a country that recently took the limelight for a reason other than its Taliban sphere of influence. Afghanistan came last on Save the Children's latest annual global rankings of countries on the basis of maternal health. The best place in the world to be a mother, according to these rankings, is Norway, where the average maternity leave is about one year.
The reasons for Afghanistan's last place - 164 out of 164 - are no doubt numerous, but Naderi writes about the group's difficulty of setting up shelters for battered women highlights women's lack of autonomy there. Women continue to be subjected to kidnappings, widow sales, child marriages, forced marriages and sexual assaults in different parts of the country.
Subjected to forced marriages and deprived of their rights, many women seek refuge in suicide, escape from home and divorce, says Fawzia Amini, in charge of the human rights department at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, confirming that girls are banned from going to school and university.
"The government still wants shelter clients to be handed over to any family member who comes to claim them," Naderi said. "WAW will never agree to such a clause because it negates the whole purpose of a safe house. With the continued support of all our allies and supporters, we will prevail in this case as well."
In closing her note to WAW's supporters, Naderi said that bin Laden's death has done little for the girls and women in this country. "They still live in a country that is ravaged by poverty, corruption, violence and terror. They still must cope with a conservative culture that does not uphold their human rights."
The condition of Afghan women is horrific at best. Hundreds of women set themselves afire last year out of despair over their condition despite the Afghan government's alleged commitment to equal rights, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said on Sunday. Nearly 2,800 cases of violence against women and girls were reported to the rights watchdog from different parts of the country, AIHRC official Latifa Sultani told Pajhwok Afghan News.
The incidents included 144 self-immolations, 261 attempted suicides, 237 forced marriages, 538 beating and 45 murder cases. The self-immolation attempts left 75 dead and 20 others disabled. Twenty-two individuals recovered after treatment, according to the AIHRC. Of the rights violations reported to the commission, 2,269 pertained to violence, including 119 self-immolation, 23 suicide, 134 murder and 909 severe beating cases.
Dr. Arif Jalali, a doctor at the Herat Civil Hospital, said the hospital had received 90 women who committed self-immolation in the western zone. Fifty-one of them succumbed to their injuries.
In the solar year 1388 (AD 2009), 85 women resorted to self-immolation in western Afghanistan. Fifty-nine of them lost their lives. Most of them were aged between 15 and 25 years. As many as 69 women lost their lives to domestic violence and family feuds in 1389, compared to 64 such deaths in 1388, the report said
Sociologists noted high self-immolation rates among women refugees who returned to Herat from Iran, where living conditions were much better, the report said. On coming back to Afghanistan, their husbands failed to meet their expectations and respect their rights. As a consequence of frustration, they tended to end it all, the experts explained.
AIHRC Commissioner Nader Naderi viewed women's inadequate access to judicial redress as a major factor behind the increasing violence. "As long as relevant laws are not implemented, the scourge can't be eliminated." Urging religious scholars to preach respect for women, he said, violence against females had pushed up the overall crime graph.
Fawzia Amini said the human rights department at the Ministry of Women's Affairs registered 6,765 cases of violence against women and girls across the country. During the previous year, such cases stood at 6,692.
But acting Minister of Women's Affairs Husn Bano Ghazanfar believes the violence against women has not risen, according to the report. In fact, Husn said, women have gained greater awareness of their rights and are increasingly reporting their cases to the ministry.