As the presidential election approaches in 2014, with the security transition at the year's end, Afghan women, including parliamentarians and rights activists, are concerned that the hard-won political, economic and social gains achieved since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001 may be rolled back or conceded in negotiations with the insurgents. Afghanistan's stabilisation 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.
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. 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. 40 per cent of all schoolchildren are girls. Women are more than 27 per cent of parliament. They are in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and are lawyers, entrepreneurs, journalists and civil society activists.
In the last twelve years, women's legal status has improved considerably. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution. The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law criminalises rape for the first time. The state is now legally bound to protect women from violence. The ministry of women's affairs (MOWA) and the government's National Action Plan for Women (NAPWA) place empowerment at the heart of state building. Yet, women still struggle to avail themselves of their rights and to consolidate and advance their progress.
The implementation of laws to ensure women's rights and support their political and economic participation is uneven. Years of prioritising counter-insurgency over community policing have impeded the emergence of a police force able and willing to protect women from violence. Women are a mere 1 per cent of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Female police are marginalised and often incapable of responding effectively to incidents of violence against women. A fraction of the incidents of gender-based violence are tried under the EVAW law. Very few cases even make it to the formal justice system; most are decided by jirgas or shuras (local councils) mainly dominated by strongmen.
Moreover, persistent insecurity and violence threaten women's political, economic and social rights. Those in positions of authority are regularly threatened; many have been killed by insurgents. Militants have attacked girls' schools, students and staff. Qualified female teachers and health workers are reluctant to work outside relatively secure urban centres, undermining rural women's and girls' access to education and basic health services.
Since the formal transfer of the security lead to the ANSF in mid-2013, insurgent threats to women have increased. Their rights are also under attack from yesterday's warlords, now powerbrokers both within and outside government. Rearming their militias as a hedge against what may happen in the 2014 elections or after the transition and attempting to consolidate their electoral base, including by demonstrating independence from the West, they could undo women's fragile gains.
The reversal of progress is already evident. 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 EVAW law, calling it un-Islamic when it was introduced in parliament in May 2013. 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 organisations have urged President Hamid Karzai, who enacted it by decree in 2009, to speak in favour of the law and endorse its implementation.
In the July 2012 Tokyo Framework defining the terms for continued donor aid after the security transition, Kabul pledged to improve governance, enforce rule of law and protect human rights, including by the EVAW law. Signalling that it will not accept the erosion of women's rights, the international community should 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.
If patchy implementation of the laws that protect and empower women raises doubts of Kabul's commitment, women are as much, if not more concerned about the efforts, with international backing, 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 (HPC) and Provincial Peace Councils (PPC) 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.