Promoting Afghan women's rights is a shred responsibility


Picture of Sima Samar
Sima Samar

Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights (AIHR) and Afghan Minister of Women’s Affairs (2001-2003)

Sima Samar is Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission

There has been conflict in Afghanistan for the past 38 years. The violation of human rights, and especially women’s rights, has continued under different regimes and has been common to every conflict. There has been no accountability, no justice; not even acknowledgement of victims’ suffering. Women in Afghanistan saw the killing and disappearance of their loved ones, the destruction and looting of their properties, the rape of their daughters, and various levels of violence. But we survived.

Under the Taliban, Afghan women were subjected to systematic discrimination and brutal and inhuman treatment by the government. Women were not allowed to go to work, receive an education or simply walk on the street unless they were accompanied by a Mahram (a close male relative). The situation was such that women were not treated as human beings. The Taliban turned Afghanistan into a vast jail imprisoning both men and women – but the treatment of women was much harsher.

But today Afghan women are striving for a better future. They can attend school, receive higher education, work and hold public office. They are politicians, representing people in provincial and national elected bodies. They serve as cabinet ministers, diplomats, and civil society and NGO leaders. They are artists and singers, and hold leading positions in the media and other industries. The unity government, for first time in our history, took the bold step of nominating a female judge, Anisa Rassouli, to be member of the Supreme Court – but due to the conservative mentality of some parliamentarians she was not able to win a vote of confidence.

Extending freedoms to all women in Afghanistan requires a strong political will, but our country’s leaders currently lack the resolve to protect and promote women’s rights

Our constitution and Women’s Bill of Rights guarantees equality between women and men for the first time. It obliges the state to respect, promote and protect human rights and to work for improvements in the situation of women and families. Afghanistan has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and our Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law criminalises acts of domestic violence against women. These are huge legal changes that have been complemented by gradual changes through policy and the implementation of social, political and cultural programmes.

The picture for women in Afghanistan today is very different, and much improved, from what it was fifteen years ago. But the majority of this improvement has happened in Kabul and few other major cities; women in rural areas have benefited little from the changes.

Many women still lack access to the same basic rights they were denied under the Taliban: education, healthcare, jobs. Although three million girls attend school, an equal number do not have access even to primary education. Higher education can be a ticket out of poverty, but only 22% of higher education students are female. Women’s access to healthcare is limited by a lack of facilities and a lack of female medical staff. Reproductive healthcare and contraception are unavailable to many, leaving women unable to limit the size of their families. Job shortages mean that women are often still economically dependent on male family members. Some families see child marriage or the forced marriage of adult women as a way to cope with economic hardship, and this problem is exacerbated when women are denied the opportunity to support themselves financially.

Extending freedoms to all women in Afghanistan requires a strong political will, but our country’s leaders currently lack the resolve to protect and promote women’s rights. This is partly due to the difficult security situation, where political leaders must deal with a small but powerful group of conservatives and fundamentalists who do not support women’s rights. A conservative patriarchal culture also dominates the judiciary, leading to a lack of female staff and restrictions on women’s access to justice. This, again, is particularly the case in rural areas.

The promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights are a shared responsibility

With the absence of political will comes a lack of strategy: the Afghan government and their international partners have no long-term, coordinated and multidimensional strategy for female empowerment. Women are excluded from the important decision-making programmes within Afghanistan; even the international community has a tendency to relegate Afghan women’s rights to a side issue. At the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in October 2016, for example, an event on women’s empowerment was held separately from the main event, a decision that failed to acknowledge that women’s rights are inextricably tied to Afghanistan’s security and economic wellbeing. The lack of good governance or the rule of law, and the existence of widespread corruption, are major causes of human rights violations, to which women are especially vulnerable.

By empowering Afghan women, we can unlock a great resource for solving these problems. Increased support for women, recognition of their experiences and their abilities, and greater inclusion in public life and high-level decision-making are the keys to sustainable peace and development.

Both women and men in Afghanistan face economic and security challenges, but women continue to fare worse. Decades-long gender-based discrimination and exclusion continues. While sustainable economic development is required to provide more healthcare facilities, schools and jobs, there is also a need for more force and ambition on the part of the government to defend women’s rights and encourage inclusivity.

But importantly, the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights are a shared responsibility. These are joint obligations of the international community, the Afghan government and the Afghan people. With a strong and honest partnership, we will be able to protect the dignity of women in Afghanistan and around the world.

Commentary by Mariam Safi, Founder and Executive Director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies

Role models needed to empower Afghan women

There is no doubt that the women of Afghanistan have come a long way since 2001. Sima Samar provides a comprehensive picture of the progress Afghan women have made in realising their rights while accurately warning that much needs to be done to prevent the reversal of these achievements.

Women now play key roles in state institutions, civil society, the economy, the media, sports and academia, and their inclusion in these roles has been facilitated by the CEDAW and the EVAW law highlighted by Dr Samar. But severe capacity gaps and a lack of political will have impeded the implementation of CEDAW, while the Parliament’s relentless opposition to passing the EVAW law means that it is still not fully enforced.

Progress towards implementation of the National Action Plan for Women (NAP), launched on 30 June 2015, is slow. Nearly two years since Afghanistan became the second Muslim country to adopt the NAP, Human Rights Watch reports that the Afghan government has only just finalised its implementation plan but still has neither made it public nor developed a budget. The fast and complete implementation of the NAP is critical to guaranteeing women’s equal participation in all efforts to maintain peace and security. Otherwise, women will continue to be acutely marginalised in security and legal institutions and excluded from the peace and reconciliation process.

Despite guarantees made in Afghanistan’s constitution, and the existence of various policies and strategies promoting equal opportunities, the presence of women in key positions continues to be symbolic at best. While quotas ensure women are represented in these positions, they have failed to create an environment where women can exercise the authority granted to them.

I agree with Dr Samar when she identifies the lack of political will and continuing security challenges as significant reasons behind this problem, but corruption, a lack of the rule of law, and growing conservatism among both men and women are also factors. Security or the absence of physical violence alone does not guarantee good governance. It must be matched by a commitment to grassroots-level awareness and consensus-building, education, increased tolerance and strengthened rule of law. All these can contribute to eradicating the structural impediments to protecting women’s rights and access.

Finally, young women often complain of not having women role models. This perception is tied to the difficulties they face in trying to access women who hold office or are in positions of importance. Women’s empowerment begins in this area: it is, and should be, regarded as a shared responsibility.

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