• The highs and lows in Afghanistan’s ongoing campaign for women’s rights

The highs and lows in Afghanistan’s ongoing campaign for women’s rights

20 February 2014

For the last 2 weeks, women’s rights in Afghanistan have featured heavily in the international media.  Primarily this focused on the Afghan parliament’s passing of a controversial article in the Criminal Procedure Code.  Women’s rights activists argued this would limit access to justice for victims of domestic violence.  Even though President Karzai agreed on Monday that the legislation must be changed, this specific issue has raised a number of wider concerns about the state of women’s rights 12 years on from the removal of the Taliban regime.  Many are saying that recent gains are being reversed, that women’s rights appear to be up for negotiation.

There is supposedly no such thing as bad publicity.  Maintaining women’s rights on the agenda of the international community, the Afghan government and the global consciousness is critical for any advancement on this front.  That the publicity usually highlights the violations or failings rather than the successes is unfortunate.  But most of us are aware that it is bad news that sells newspapers.  Perhaps for now we accept that news of Afghan women’s rights violations is better than no news of this important subject at all.

There have been successes, some covered by the Afghan and international media.  But they often come with a proviso.  Afghanistan has a higher proportion of political positions taken by women than the UK – but the authority they wield is lower.  Afghanistan passed a wide-reaching Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2009, criminalising 22 acts of violence against women and harmful practices – yet implementation of the law is severely lacking.

Against these are an increasing number of cases of violence against women being reported to officials – and covered by the media.  This means 2 things – women are increasingly aware of their right to justice and are coming forward to report violence or rights violations.  It also means that women’s rights is an ongoing and open dialogue amongst the Afghan people themselves, given the national media's column space it receives.  Both of these are positives.  A worrying third point, however, is that legal support to those women brave enough to report to officials is inadequate at best, or entirely lacking at worst.      

Maintaining the momentum of the fight for women’s rights is critical.  Let’s applaud the success of Afghan civil society, particularly the women’s rights organisations, whose pressure on President Karzai resulted in his decision to amend the Criminal Procedure Code.  They both raised the issue and suggested solutions.  It remains to be seen what changes are made, but this is a success nonetheless.  And when, inevitably, another story of a woman murdered or attacked reaches the international public, let’s ensure they understand that the underlying message is this: Afghan women – and men – will no longer tolerate violence against women and are fighting for positive change.  This is not a lost cause and it deserves our ongoing and committed support.