AFGHANISTAN: As Nato Pullout Looms, Afghan Women Face Uncertain Future

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Zainab Aqdas for Dawn
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

A few kilometres north of Kabul, a 22-year-old woman collapsed to the ground. The man with an AK-47 gun continued to shoot as the crowd in the background chanted, “Long live the Mujahideen.”

The Chicago Summit Declaration on Afghanistan issued by the Heads of State, Government of Afghanistan and Nations contributing to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is clear on the ‘importance of full participation of all Afghan women in the reconstruction, political, peace and reconciliation processes in Afghanistan.' More recently, the Tokyo Declaration ratified on July 8, emphasised that ‘the equality of men and women, enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, will be key to achieving a more pluralistic society in Afghanistan.'

However, there was no mention of targeted commitments or projects to tackle violence against women and ensure progress, in either of the conferences. Nor was a specific budget allotted for this purpose. With such a plan in place, the future of Afghan women seems more uncertain than ever.

According to Shama, a female student at the University of Kabul, Afghan women face hardships throughout their lives. “A woman is trapped. As a child, when she is just 13or 14 she is given off in a forced marriage, mostly in exchange for money. Her husband beats her but she can't run away or seek a divorce as it will then turn her into an outcast in the society and her children will be taken away from her. So instead, she burns herself or commits suicide,” she says. The average life expectancy for a woman in Afghanistan lingers at a meager 44 years – one of the lowest in the world.

The nature of this latest video casts many doubts on the future of Afghanistan. While there is no denying that more Afghan girls are attending schools than before, the female mortality rate has gone down to a record low and more women are employed today than they were in 2001; these progressions have been extremely measured. The work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations has been pivotal in the last decade, however, these bodies are presently working under ‘war conditions' and with the foreign troops leaving in 2014, it remains to be seen whether the progress of Afghan women would continue to be a top priority.

“This is deep-seated issue and cannot be erased in a matter of years. Before the Taliban rule, half of the working population of Afghanistan comprised women. We were encouraged to go to school and pursue higher studies. In 1996, suddenly I could no longer go to college without a male family member. Women who were doctors and teachers were forced by circumstances to be beggars and even prostitutes. Although the restrictions were lifted in 2001, the damage was done in those five years. Since then, in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all, ” Shama explains.

The Afghan social structure has been vehemently dominated by religious extremism and tribal nepotism. After a decade of reform, the ideology remains strong. A major step was taken by the Afghan government in support of women's equality by enacting the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) in 2009. The EVAW law defines 22 different forms of violence against women and punishments for persons found guilty of committing such acts. Judicial officials in many parts of the country have begun to apply the law but its use represents a very small percentage of how the government addresses cases of violence against women.

According to official data, EVAW is most widely implemented in the cities of Herat and Kabul and least in Kunar and Logar. A possible reason for low reporting of violence against women in these border zone cities may be the influence of the Taliban with their oppressive ideology towards women. The reach of the central government in these regions is limited which restricts the availability of civic services such as schools, hospitals, courts, and police forces, compared to the rest of the country. Support programs for victims of domestic violence are lesser in number than in other cities as both local and international non-governmental organisations find it more difficult and dangerous to work in these areas.

“Women in Afghanistan are very humble and religious. In the beginning when I came here, there were no women to be seen in bazaars or on the street. Now they are getting trained to take up positions in the Afghan National Police (ANP). Foreign organisations have also employed more women as victims tend to open up to them better. But even now no comparison can be created between them and women in the west,” explains a British soldier deployed in Herat, indicating that there is a long way to go for Afghan women to enjoy the same freedom as women elsewhere in the world.

In March 2012, the Ulema Council's declaration regarding women, and Karzai's reverberation of the same declaration, led many to believe that that Afghanistan is once again moving towards the same era of Talibanisation. Part 1C, Section F of the declaration stated that women ‘should avoid mingling with stranger men in various social situations, such as education, shopping, the office and other affairs of life.' Part D goes on to say: ‘Men are fundamental and women are secondary; also, lineage is derived from the man.' The declaration, in addition, condemns violence against a women ‘without a Shariah-compliant reason' – not addressing the likelihood of domestic violence in response to a Shariah-compliant reason.

President Karzai publicly endorsed the declaration by the Council terming it as “reiterating Islamic principles and values.” Many believe that President Karzai's desire to end the Taliban insurgency through peace talks would cost women to compromise their hard-won rights of 2001.There exists a rising fear that if the Taliban are allowed to rejoin the Afghan government and society without accountability for their actions in the last decade, the country would once again see the public stonings, hangings and beheadings that marked their time in power previously.

“If Afghanistan sees a new era with warlords in the governmental system, we can't do anything for women rights as these warlords are the biggest violators and oppressors,” says Shama. Her words draw attention to the fact that although women have a higher stake in the outcome of peace negotiations with the Taliban and the development of government policy, their visibility in the process hardly reflects this.

Almost three decades of violence has given rise to a generation of widows and orphans. Dues to low life expectancy and early marriages, the two million widows in Afghanistan are mostly in their 20s or 30s. With 94 per cent of all widows being illiterate and shunned by society; they lead isolated and poverty stricken lives. A major obstacle in their rehabilitation is the conservative Afghan society allowing no males or foreign female social workers to support these widows. It remains to be seen how members of the lowest strata in the Afghan community will fare once the presence of non-governmental organisations and workers declines in the future.

The NATO Senior Civilian Representative, Dominic Medley, claims that Afghan women have made great progress on the socioeconomic and political front since 2001. “There is a government and constitution committed to women's rights; one quarter of MPs are women, and there are women in the armed forces. As long as the government continues to give assurances on this as a priority, women's rights will never be forgotten and certainly as long as the international community is involved, women's rights will not be sidelined,” she says.

Her statement is further validated by the fact that under the 2004 constitution, women have de jure rights equal to those of Afghan men. Women constituted approximately 40 per cent of the voters in the 2004 and 2005 elections, and now occupy 68 of the 249 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. Girls make up one-third of the six million children enrolled in schools.

“We must not and will not surrender the gains made by women in Afghanistan. The relationship with Afghanistan is one of mutual accountability – the protection and advancement of women's rights factors into that relationship. It would be hard to convince taxpayers in our own countries to continue supporting Afghanistan if the rights that are enshrined in the constitution are not protected and advanced,” reassures Dominic.

To ensure that the progress continues when foreign involvement and funding ends, initiatives need to be in harmony with Afghan values and frameworks that have local roots and wide acceptability in the society. The year 2014 marks the transfer of authority to the Afghan National Security Forces. More importantly, it calls for a transfer of the same commitment, resolution and institution, for the cause of women's rights, to the people of Afghanistan.