We have the promises of the world: Women's Rights in Afghanistan

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Human Rights Watch
December 2009
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Human Rights Watch recently released report 'We have the promises of the world: Women's Rights in Afghanistan' provides an insight on the current state of affairs of the women's rights struggle in Afghanistan while highlighting common themes of the feminist struggle across the globe.

The report chooses five areas as exemplars of the wider situation of women, acknowledging that a strong case could be made to examine other subjects such as access to primary education, maternal mortality, threats to women human rights defenders, and domestic violence. By detailing emblematic cases of ongoing rights’ violations in the five areas, this report underlines the failure of the government in recent years to advance the basic rights of women and girls, and identifies some of the shortcomings in donor priorities and assistance that have contributed to the backsliding.

Recurrent themes of the feminist literature also emerge throughout this empirical analysis of Afghan women's realitites, and thus remarks are made on the dichotomy between social attitudinal change and progressive laws, the necessity of economic development for women's advancement to follow past minimal standards, and the complex dynamics of social change where progress and backlash are sides of the same coin.

 Attacks on women in public life

The murder on April 12, 2009 of Sitara Achakzai, an outspoken human rights defender and local councilor in Kandahar, was another warning to all women who are active in public life, whether as politicians at the parliamentary or provincial level, or as human rights activists, teachers, health workers, or journalists. Every time a woman in public life is assassinated, her death has a multiplier effect: women in her region or profession will think twice about their public activities.

The risk is that the gains that women have made in their representation in public life will start to unravel. The most significant of these gains is that over a quarter of MPs in the lower house are female. But where quotas were not imposed—for instance the number of cabinet seats or deputy minister or civil service positions—these improvements already seem to be in decline.

All of the women members of parliament interviewed for this report had experienced some kind of threat or intimidation. Most felt that the state could not or would not protect them. So long as attacks against women continue to go unpunished, the culture of fear and impunity will be a strong deterrent to women who consider entering public life.

Without a strong platform in government and society from which to lobby for their rights, women’s advancement in Afghanistan will grind to a halt.

Violence against women

Violence against women in Afghanistan is endemic (87.2 percent had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetimes). Too often the attitudes of those in government and the police reflect the misogynous views, rooted in cultural traditions—but increasingly rejected by younger generations of Afghans—that underlie some of the violence against women. In the vast majority of cases women will not seek help because of their fears of police abuse
or corruption, or their fears of retaliation by perpetrators of violence.

Rape is not a crime in the Afghan Penal Code. Under the code, rapists can only be charged with “forced” zina, or adultery, which sometimes results in women also being prosecuted for zina. In a major achievement for civil society groups and women’s rights activists, the president issued the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which makes rape a crime. At the time of writing thoughthe law is being considered by parliament.

There is a culture of impunity towards perpetrators of rape from the government’s side, because the government doesn’t want to weaken their coalition of supporters by imposing the law. So women’s rights are the first things to go. Politics is everything.

Child and forced marriage

Fifty-seven percent of all marriages that take place in Afghanistan are classified as child marriages by UNIFEM (under the legal age of 16), and 70 to 80 percent as forced marriages. Prevailing attitudes in rural areas tend to condone the marriage of girls soon after reaching puberty. Bride prices and poor economic conditions increase the prevalence of child marriage.

Although the pending Elimination of Violence Against Women law in its current form addresses some of these issues, including criminalizing child marriage, women’s rights organizations in Afghanistan recognize that changes in the law may lead to only modest improvements. Changing attitudes is paramount, but this will take a long term commitment from government officials, tribal leaders and other influential figures, NGOs, and donors who support civil society organizations involved in this work.

Access to justice

Deeply entrenched cultural prejudices prevent many women accessing the police or the courts because of the fear of being stigmatized a “bad woman.” Women face discrimination and prejudice in police stations and the courts from officials who often do not know the law but penalize women according to customary law, which places great emphasis on notions of female “honor” and chastity. In fact, the majority of women in jail are charged with extramarital sex (zina) or with “running away”—something that is not a crime in Afghan law or Sharia but often reflects a conservative cultural view that sees women as property of fathers or husbands.

Girls’ access to secondary education

The majority of girls still do not attend primary school, and a dismal 11 percent of secondary-school-age girls are enrolled in grades
7-9. Only 4 percent enroll in grades 10-12. These bleak numbers bode poorly for girls’ futures in many ways—since enrolling and
retaining girls in schools will have a wide impact—from cultivating the next generation of women leaders to reducing infant mortality. Education of girls often reduces the prevalence of child marriage, early childbearing, and the risk of dying due to pregnancy-related causes. Women’s literacy is also linked to increased nutrition among children.

Afghanistan’s progress in tackling teacher shortages, improving health indicators, and developing sustainable livelihoods hinges on cultivating a new generation of female teachers, health care providers, skilled workers, and leaders.

The wider political context

The plight of women is directly connected to far deeper problems in the Afghan political system. This includes the growing weakness of the government, which has led to an overreliance on fundamentalist and conservative factions to maintain political support and fight the Taliban, and a correspondingly weakening commitment to providing leadership on women’s rights. The widespread corruption in ministries, where positions are often used for self-enrichment rather than public service, also means that reform efforts across-the-board, including rights-protective policies for women, are not likely to be on the agenda of those in power. Civil servants often see little to gain in pushing for women’s empowerment and development, particularly if doing so risks resistance or worse from powerful factions.

The worsening security situation places women in public life under increasing pressure. The March 2009 passage of the Shia Personal Status Law demonstrated how vulnerable the hard fought post-Taliban freedoms for women remain. At the same time, some gains are being made. As already noted, the Elimination of Violence Against Women law was drafted by women’s rights activists and officials, and is a source of great pride to many women’s rights activists. The creation of a “5 Million Women ampaign”
to encourage women to run as candidates and to vote in the 2009 elections was a positive development. The very fact that women defy their culture through pockets of resistance to everyday brutality —from the demonstrations against the Shia law to the prayer gatherings of thousands of women in the heart of Kandahar— is remarkable. The fearless work of many women activists and human rights defenders is indeed the most encouraging prospect for the future of Afghan women and girls.