Development of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Progress, Stagnation and Regression

“A lot needs to be done before the equality of political rhetoric becomes an everyday reality for women in Afghanistan” (Amnesty International UK, 2013).

Since the disempowerment of the Taliban, the status of women’s rights has seen progress, stagnation and even regression. The Bonn Agreement of December 2001, endorsed the establishment of a “gender-sensitive” government and laid the groundwork for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In addition to MOWA, the Afghan government also created the Office of the State Minister for Women and set up a Gender Advisory Group (Sarabi, 2003: 3). Moreover, the Bonn conference endorsed the establishment of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission which is, amongst others, responsible for the advancement of women’s rights.

Over the years the Afghan government continued its efforts to promote women’s rights by adopting its Constitution on January 4, 2004, that incorporates the principle of equality in article 22 as well as a guaranteed quota for women in the bicameral National Assembly in article 83 and article 84 (Ballington; Dahlerup, 2006: 253). On October 1st, 2004, after years of political oppression, women voted in the first democratic elections; over the last years, women held 27-28 percent of parliamentary seats in the Wolesi Jirga (The World Bank, 2013). These positive developments, however, are not secure. For example, the latest electoral law has reduced the quota of guaranteed seats for women in provincial assemblies from a quarter to a fifth (International Crisis Group, 2013: ii). Furthermore, it is often criticized by feminists from within and outside of Afghanistan that those women who hold a political mandate are only there to symbolize the Western success, and simultaneously support with their presence the Western imperialist as well as the Afghan patriarchal oppression, but in fact have no say in politics (Franks, 2003: 148; Wajika, 2008: 140). An example for this claim is the report of Malalai Joya, a former assembly women, who was pelted with water bottles by other male assembly men and threatened by “Rape her!” calls (Ihlau; Koelbl, 2009: 253) while delivering a speech in parliament.

Another issue is the serious discrepancy between theory and practice, between words and signatures on paper and effective actions to implement signed conventions and approved laws. The Afghan government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2003, and adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009, what can be described as positive developments. However, often not all adopted laws are known by judges, prosecutors and lawyers, nor are they always agreed to, and therefore are not applied. Furthermore, that conservative members of parliament oppose, for example, the EVAW law, calling it “un-Islamic” (International Crisis Group, 2013: ii), is an example of the fundamental incompatibility of article 22 and article 7 (compliance to the UN Charter, inter-state agreements, international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) with article 3 (no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam) of the Afghan Constitution. The interpretation of what counts as “un-Islamic” differs immensely in Afghanistan.

That girls and women now have the right to education and to employment is also a very positive development. However, statistics show that the proportion of girls who go to school and university is not only lower than that of boys, but declines with every level of higher education; “less than one in five women in Afghanistan is literate” (CSO; UNICEF, 2012: 110). Also the female labor participation rate did not significantly increase over the last ten years (World Bank, 2014). But with the historical background of women’s rights violations under the Taliban regime as well as the decades of war in mind, no one can expect women to suddenly break out of the traditional role allocation between men and women in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out that not all Afghans support the emancipation of girls and women. Girls’ schools are burned down as a symbol for the fight between tradition and change (Brieger, 2005: 134). There is a common use of “night letters” – messages of insurgents groups to “threat women and girls who go to school or to work, leave their homes, speak to non-family men, or call radio stations with music requests” (ACUNS, 2013: 108). Last year, UN Women “condemned the increasing intimidation and targeted killings of Afghan female government officials and public figures and called for justice” (UN Women, 2013). Moreover, it has to be mentioned, that in 2011 Afghanistan was named “the most dangerous country for a women to live in”, because of “high levels of violence, poor healthcare and poverty” (BBC, 2011). Especially domestic violence against women is a problem “that has become a regular feature of almost all households, and that shapes every aspect of women’s and girls’ lives – their health, their livelihoods, their access to social and cultural resources, and their educational opportunities” (Global Rights Partners for Justice, 2008: 1). Besides, many cases are not reported to the police nor prosecuted. The continuing practice of child marriages and forced marriages is one of those forms of violence against women and girls. Although getting reliable data is difficult, “it is estimated that 60-80 per cent of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced” (UNFPA, 2012).

All in all it can be said that there are improvements of the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. However, the level of progress differs between the regions of the country, urban and rural areas, and between those districts where ISAF troops are present and those where they are not. In a country where the emancipation of women has always been a controversial issue (there have been multiple efforts to establish women’s rights in Afghanistan from above in the past one hundred years – see AmA?nullA?h KhA?n, Mohammed Zahir Shah, Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, or the PDPA) a change of the status of women in society is a long-term process. After thirteen years of intervention in Afghanistan, the IC has to recognize that fact and has to admit that a lot of mistakes were made. In their article Schwere strategische Fehler des Westens, Mariam Notten and Ute Scheub cited the survey of the Afghan author Lina Abirafeh about the counterproductive gender-strategy of the West.

Abirafeh criticizes different circumstances that led to the partial failure of Western attempts to establish gender equality in Afghanistan. Amongst others, she mentions the fact that many Afghan women feel like their own wishes of a self-determined life are not heard by the IC, but rather ignored. The stigmatization of Afghan women as victims and not as active members of the Afghan society is considered to be problematic. The result of this treatment is that there is resistance against the Western efforts to enhance women’s rights in Afghanistan (Notten; Scheub, 2009: 34). The IC has to recognize that it is not only necessary to establish a legal framework for the implementation of women’s rights, but that the volition to actually live in a community where men and women are equal has to come from within society. Therefore it is important, for instance, to support NGOs in their grass-roots work. Also in the future.