Woman and Child

Women & Girls

In 2001, the situation of women was dire.  Under the Taliban, girls’ schools were closed down and women, many of whom had been professionally employed, 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.  In 2013 there were almost 3.3 million girls and women in education and female literacy has improved.  Afghanistan in 2014 had 124 women in provincial councils, 27 (out of 102) in the upper house and 67 (out of 249) seats in the lower house of the parliament. 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 and continued gender inequality.  Female leaders face intimidation, persecution and violence – many have been assassinated.  87 per cent of women still suffer at least one form of abuse, ranging from physical, sexual or psychological violence to forced marriage.  A June 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll rated Afghanistan the most dangerous place to be a woman, citing the country’s toxic combination of insecurity and violence, harmful cultural practices, dismal healthcare and persistent poverty.

Whilst the progress since 2001 is undeniable, it is under threat amid efforts by the Afghan government and the international community to engage the Taliban in peace talks.

The January 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in Afghanistan stated that “the prevalence of violence against women and a corresponding lack of accountability continued to be of serious concern during 2014”.  As reflected by the British Secretary of State for International Development at our Ayenda Conference in December 2014, ‘A country cannot develop if it leaves half its population behind.’ 

Challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Afghan women is making themselves heard.  The 2004 Constitution stipulates that 25% of MPs must be female; in 2013 Parliament quietly passed an amendment which reduced this to 20% for provincial councils. Some of those elected have to voice the opinions of the powerful individuals  who sponsored their election.  Women are also often ignored in key decision making areas.  Only four of the twenty six cabinet ministers are women. Women make up only nine of the 70-member High Peace Council, the body charged with negotiating with the Taliban, and have complained of being sidelined in major negotiation decisions. There have been no women in the High Council of the Supreme Court.

Equally problematic is the ability of ordinary Afghan women to seek support when it is needed. Social norms prevent most Afghan women from approaching male police officers to report a crime.  Oxfam reported in September 2013 that policewomen made up only 1% of the Afghan National Police – meaning that many Afghan women would never encounter a policewoman and would therefore never be able to report a crime to them. An Asia Foundation survey in 2014  asked male and female respondents nationwide whether they knew of a place where women can go to obtain resolution for their problems: only 19.2% said they are aware of such an organization, institution, or authority.

The laws brought in to protect women have also come under attack.  The Constitution guaranteed women 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 only removed after major national and international pressure.  However, the legislation still allows men to deny their wives food if they reject their husband’s 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 (EVAW) law was enacted by Legislative Decree, criminalising many harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, beating and rape. In 2013 the Parliamentary Commission on Women’s Affairs, Civil Society and Human Rights brought the EVAW law to the Parliament with the stated purpose of strengthening it. This process, however, resulted in many members of Parliament rejecting sections of the law as “un-Islamic” and not compliant with Shari’a.  This debate negatively impacted what was already weak implementation of the law across many parts of the country: in many instances where violence against a woman has been reported, the situation is often still ‘resolved’ by traditional practices of mediation rather than adherence to the EVAW law.

The situation of women is further threatened by the lack of security.  In the 2015 review of the annual civilian casualty figures, UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) interviewed 60 Afghan women whose civilian husbands had been killed or seriously injured in conflict-related violence. They found that these ‘women who were left as sole income-providers for their households… experienced long-lasting social and economic consequences, with poverty forcing many women to give their daughters in marriage in exchange for debts or to take their children out of school often to work. Widowed women were often particularly vulnerable to other forms of violence and abuse from family and community members.’

A further issue Afghan women and girls face is their restricted role in society. Afghan girls face many challenges to complete their education, including early or enforced marriage, a lack of female teachers, prohibitive education costs and the need to work for impoverished families, and  insecurity prevents many parents from sending their daughters to school. For some Afghan women, restrictions start in the home, where they have no say in decisions affecting their lives or their family’s needs.  Others struggle against social and cultural norms which hinder their movements and activities outside the home.  Too few women enjoy the financial, social and psychological benefits of meaningful employment – an issue not only for them but for the economic development of the entire country. As stated by one of the civil society representatives during the London Conference on Afghanistan, “all women and girls have the right to add to our country and all have the ability to do so.”

What BAAG is doing

Afghan women’s rights activists and international NGOs fear that women could be excluded from the peace process, their rights sold out for peace and undermined by decisions of the new government.  Moreover, funding for gender and women’s rights programmes is starting to decrease following the withdrawal of international troops. BAAG have therefore undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at raising these opinions at an international level. 

BAAG have held various discussions, conferences and round tables on the theme of women’s rights, gender and violence against women and girls (VAWG) - see the BAAG reports section of our Resources library.  Moreover we have created space for these themes to be addressed in wider development and rights-focused events.  BAAG work with its member agencies and other international and Afghan women’s rights-focused organisations to present position papers and policy recommendations to decision makers in the Afghan and international governments. We also provide advocacy support to partners’ women’s rights projects.

What our Members are doing

Some BAAG members are specifically focused on women’s rights, such as Womankind Worldwide. A number of our members have dedicated women’s rights programmes, including ActionAid, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Concern Worldwide.  And other members include women’s rights in their wider programmes, such as a focus on women’s economic empowerment in skills training and livelihoods programmes.  Broadly our members support Afghan women through literacy training, business training, women’s rights programmes (including raising awareness of women’s rights amongst 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

 

'We have come a long way on women & girls' rights, but we need to go further' - panelist at Ayenda Conference