When the United States attacked Afghanistan ten years ago, we were told that not only were we going after those who had attacked us but also that we would liberate Afghan women from the Taliban. It was a very effective selling point, there is nothing we tend to like better than rescuing helpless women. But let’s be clear–that was not the reason we invaded Afghanistan–women had been being abused by the Taliban and the warlords before them for quite some time by then. As we observe the 10th anniversary of what now seems like an endless war, it is important to look at what Afghan women have experienced since the U.S. invasion and what needs to be considered going forward.
ActionAid and Oxfam have both issued lengthy reports addressing these issues. In a survey of 1000 Afghan women, ActionAid found that,
72% of Afghan women believe their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago, while 37% think Afghanistan will become a worse place if international troops leave. A massive 86% are worried about a return to Taliban-style government, with one in five citing their daughter’s education as the main concern…
…However women’s rights groups in Afghanistan say they are being kept in the dark regarding the talks with the Taliban, as well as being frozen out of an important international conference on the country’s future and transition of power, which will take place in Bonn, Germany in December 2011…
…Women who have stood up for women’s rights in the past 10 years are also worried about their own personal safety if the Taliban returns to power, with some activists making plans to leave the country.
The report goes on to say that today,
- 39% of children who attend school are girls
- 27% of MPs are women (higher than the world average)
- 5% of positions in the army and police force are filled by women
- 25% of government jobs are filled by women
These achievements are real and should not be underestimated. Yet huge challenges remain and too many women are still denied rights that should be taken for granted. Even now, a woman who runs away from home to escape domestic abuse is seen as dishonouring her family and often loses the right to see her children.
Forced and child marriage are common and only 13% of women are literate (the figure for men is 43%). Eighty-seven per cent of all women in Afghanistan suffer domestic abuse, according to a UN survey and life expectancy for both men and women is around 45 – more than 20 years lower than the world average. The Save the Children index this May described Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to be a mother – one in 11 women perishes in pregnancy (one every 30 minutes) while one child in every five dies before reaching its fifth birthday. This means that every mother in Afghanistan is likely to face the loss of a child. And many women remain isolated. The ActionAid poll found that four in 10 women never leave their village or neighbourhood.
It is important to note, which this report does not, that not only do women run away from home to escape domestic abuse, but all too often they attempt suicide to escape, frequently setting themselves on fire to do so. The abuse itself is often horrific beyond description, including brutal disfigurement and outright murder.
As for where we are now, ActionAid reports,
“After the fall of the Taliban things got better. But then gradually, after 2006, the situation got worse,” says Selay Ghaffar, executive director of ActionAid partner HAWCA. “All these efforts were undermined because of security and the presence of people who committed crimes and abuses in the past who are still in power. Girls’ schools shut down, acid was thrown in girls’ faces, schools were burnt down.”…
…And despite the early statements from international leaders, women’s rights seem to have been deprioritised as the military operation against the Taliban and other insurgents has been stepped up…
This is delusional phrasing–women’s rights have never been the priority in Afghanistan except to the extent that they are politically expedient towards other ends. The report continues,
…In September last year the Afghan government set up a High Peace Council – a 79-member body which is tasked with talking to the Taliban. There are just nine women on the council and many women’s rights activists say they hold merely symbolic positions and are not part of the real negotiations.
…The international community can also support Afghan women through deeper engagement with women’s civil society and community-based organisations. Direct funding to women’s organisations to build their capacity as advocates and leaders will enable funds to aid transformation to a more democratic society, not just facilitate transition without the promise of sustainable change…
…However, providing this support will require a fresh look at funding priorities, and methods to ensure aid reaches women and can address the root causes of women’s inequality. Women’s organisations working to reduce poverty and empower women and girls say they receive little or no funding, forcing them to operate hand to mouth and limit activities to practical services rather than also being able to lobby for long-term changes for women….
…In addition the international community should broaden diplomatic efforts to include consultations and information sharing with women’s organisations. Amplifying the concerns of women’s organisations and ensuring women’s voices are heard is a valuable role the international community can play.
Conspicuously absent in ActionAid’s analysis is the existence of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 as framework for conflict resolution and peace negotiating which are however addressed by Oxfam (see below).
According to Oxfam,
Western leaders have a responsibility toward Afghan women, not least because protection of women’s rights was sold as a positive outcome of the international intervention in October 2001. Ten years on, however, time is running out to fulfill these promises.
The Afghan government and the international community must:
- Ensure women’s rights are not sacrificed, by publicly pledging that any political settlement must explicitly guarantee women’s rights;
- Make a genuine commitment to meaningful participation of women in all phases and levels of any peace processes.
The Afghan government must:
- Enhance efforts to increase representation of women in elected bodies and government institutions at all levels to 30 per cent;
- Encourage religious leaders to speak out on women’s rights in Islam;
- Intensify efforts to promote female access to education, health, justice, and other basic services.
The Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence must:
- Improve awareness of women’s rights and human rights law in the justice and security sector, and ensure effective imple- mentation of these laws;
- Increase substantially women recruits in the security and justice sectors.
The international community must:
- Support expanded civic education programmes to raise awareness of women’s rights at community level;
- Support efforts to improve female leadership;
- Intensify support to promote access to education and other key services, and ensure this support will continue at current or in- creased levels even as international military forces prepare to withdraw.
The UN must:
- Continue to monitor all government actions including the peace processes and provide increased support to the Afghan government on all negotiation, reconciliation, and reintegra- tion processes.
The report points to the dichotomy between the current lip-service regarding Afghan women and the realities of how the issue is being approached,
Publicly, Western politicians are still backing Afghan women. In July 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her commitment to women, saying: ‘Any potential for peace will be subverted if women and ethnic minorities are marginalised or silenced…And so when we look at what will happen in Afghanistan, the United States will not abandon our values or support a political process that undoes the progress that has been made in the past decade.’ But behind the scenes it is less clear what will happen if the Taliban make demands that require compromise on women’s rights, as the US government prepares to withdraw the majority of its troops by the end of 2014 and seeks a political settlement to bring an end to the fighting. In July 2011, a Washington Post article reported one USAID official as saying ‘gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities’.This reflects ‘growing realism’ tempering expectations of what they can achieve on the ground after ten years. As one analysis puts it, ‘On this list of priorities, ‘gender’ is generally seen as a luxury to be left aside until the supposedly gender-neutral objectives in the domains of security and governance have been achieved.’ (Emphasis mine.)
Let’s be very clear here–gender issues have always taken a back seat. This isn’t a question of ‘growing realism’, it is a question of persistent, pandemic misogyny that has infested and damaged life on this planet since the dawn of patriarchy. It is precisely the stupidity of seeing these issues as a luxury that undermines any realistic achievement of security since the day men first started going to war. But as Oxfam points out,
The vital role of women in peace-building at the national level and in peace negotiations has been recognised in UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889, applicable to all UN member states, including Afghanistan. The Afghan government reaffirmed its support for women’s role in peace-building in its national peace plan, the donor-funded Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP), which began to be rolled out nationwide in early 2011.
Yet women are currently under-represented or not represented at all in the APRP, which augurs poorly for female participation in any future formal peace talks with the Taliban. There are just nine women on the 70-member High Peace Council (HPC), which was created to lead the peace process. Many of the male members are former warlords and powerbrokers who do not take their female counterparts seriously. The APRP has also established provincial peace councils under the HPC, composed of between 20 and 35 members, with a minimum of three women, one of whom must be a representative from the Department of Women’s Affairs (DoWA). However, no council as yet has more than three female members. Women at the community level have little understanding of APRP; their formal role, at the moment, is unclear but is likely to be limited to involvement in community development programmes. According to a provincial DoWA head, ‘although women have great potential as negotiators and peacebuilders, the will and commitment from Kabul to involve them is almost nil.’
In their conclusions, Oxfam writes that, “words must be matched with action and firm guarantees,” and this is indeed true but not sufficient. Our words in regard to Afghan women were used in 2001 as a tool to garner support for the invasion of Afghanistan, not a call on its own merits to address Afghan human rights issues. Just bringing women to the table will not be enough–it must be insured that the women who come to the table are not puppet window dressing proxies for warlords or the Taliban and that they are allowed to safely speak freely and that their words be taken seriously.
The most crucial point to be made however is that while women’s human rights, progress and security are a huge concern, they should not be construed as a reason for continued, never ending foreign military presence in Afghanistan, which is only aggravating the continuing violence that pervades the country. Killing and maiming people does not secure human rights, it destroys them. There is no possibility of living in peace until the violence ends. It is time to disarm the warring factions within Afghanistan and for the U.S. military to leave–only then will there be a realistic chance for women’s human rights in Afghanistan.