In 2001, the situation of women was dire. Under the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed down and women were banned from working outside the home. Outdoors, they were forced to wear the burqa and had to be escorted by a male relative.
Since 2001 women have seen great progress in three main areas: education, public life and legal rights. There are now 2.7 million girls attending schools and female literacy has improved. Afghanistan currently has 69 female MPs and, at local level, 30,000 women participate in Community Development Councils. More women have access to health services and laws have been adopted to protect and promote women’s rights.
But those gains are being undermined by growing insecurity. Female leaders face intimidation, persecution, violence or death. Eighty seven per cent of women still suffer at least one form of abuse, ranging from physical, sexual or psychological violence to forced marriage. In 2011, Save the Children said Afghanistan was still the worst place in the world to be a mother, with one in 11 women perishing in pregnancy or childbirth and a fifth of babies never reaching the age of five.
So progress, whilst undeniable, has been uneven. And many fear that the gains made in the last ten years are under threat, amid reports that the Afghan government and the international community are preparing to engage the Taliban in peace talks.
As Dr Soraya Sobhrang of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission told ActionAid, "All women's achievements are very fragile. With a change in government it could all collapse."
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Afghan women is making themselves heard. The 2004 Constitution stipulates that a quarter of MPs must be female. However, many of those elected have to voice the opinions of the warlords who sponsored their election. Women are also often ignored in key decision making areas. Only one of the current 69 female parliamentarians is a Minister. And women have only nine seats on the 70 member High Peace Council, the body charged with negotiating with the Taliban.
Meanwhile, they have to guard against losing the ground they have gained. In 2004 nearly a third of civil servants were women, but by 2010 that number had fallen to less than a fifth.
The laws brought in to protect women have also come under attack. The Constitution guaranteed them equality before the law, the right to an education and the right to work. But in 2009, President Karzai approved the Shia Personal Status law, which heavily restricted the rights of Shia women. The most controversial section of that law, which legalised marital rape, was removed after major national and international pressure. However, the legislation still allows men to deny their wives food if they reject their husbands’ sexual demands, and requires women to ask their husbands for permission to work, thus violating their constitutional rights. In 2009, the Elimination of Violence against Women law criminalised many harmful traditional practices - but it has only been enforced in 10 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
SECURITY & THE TALIBAN:
The situation of women is further threatened by the lack of security. May 2011 was the most violent month, in terms of civilian casualties, since 2007. And, as attacks on civilians rise, so do the number of attacks on women. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 1,026 cases of violence against women in the second quarter of 2011; in the whole of the preceding year a total of 2,700 were registered.
ActionAid’s 2011 survey of 1,000 women, including women from poor and rural backgrounds, found that more than 70 per cent believe their lives are better than in 2001. However, 86 per cent told the agency that they were worried about a return to Taliban-style government, with approximately one fifth of them citing concerns about their daughters’ education. Some Afghan officials have suggested that the Taliban have changed their attitude to women. But attacks on schools and female pupils are continuing, along with the targeting of high profile women.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE:
Afghan women and international NGOs fear that women will be excluded from the peace process and their rights could be sold out for peace. Donors must take steps to ensure that those rights are protected in any future peace settlement. ActionAid says women should make up at least 30 per cent of all representatives in peace and reconciliation talks.
Meanwhile, if Afghanistan is to grow economically, it is essential that women’s rights, including education and the right to work, continue to improve. The Afghan government says it aims to ensure that by 2013, 30 per cent of all government employees are female. It should strive to reach that target. More women should be encouraged to work in the legal profession, army and police. Ways should be found to improve security for female leaders. And there should be an end to the current climate of impunity; those who attack women should be prosecuted.
WHAT OUR MEMBER AGENCIES ARE DOING:
Member agencies, including ActionAid, World Vision, Tearfund, CAFOD, Oxfam, War Child, Concern Worldwide, Save the Children and Womankind Worldwide all run programmes helping women. These programmes aim to empower women through literacy training, business training, women’s rights programmes (including raising awareness of women’s rights with men), agricultural training, and training in political and leadership skills. There are also programmes to improve health services, increase the number of trained midwives and help women suffering from domestic violence and other forms of abuse.
Sources: Unless explicitly stated, all information and statistics in this summary come from 2011 reports by two of BAAG’s member agencies:
Oxfam: A Place at the Table: Safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan 3 October 2011.
ActionAid: A Just Peace? The Legacy of War for the Women of Afghanistan 30 September 2011.
All women's achievements are very fragile. With a change in government it could all collapse.