Rights & Freedoms

Put Principles Back at Centre-Stage: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan


While the international community focuses on transition and disengagement from Afghanistan, women´s rights – invoked to justify the 2001 anti-Taleban intervention and thereafter used whenever handy – have again been relegated to the back burner. The continued prioritisation of prosecuting women for ‘moral crimes’ while – despite some recent high-profile cases – under-emphasising rape cases indicates that the Afghan government remains incapable of effectively defending women’s and girls’ rights. Ann Wilkens, former Swedish ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan and member of the AAN advisory board, who has published a report on her country’s implementation of its commitment to UN Security Council resolution 1325(1), concludes that a lack of principles on women’s rights has not yielded the desired result: security in Afghanistan. She urges the international community to put these principles back at centre-stage and points out that if women are not party to the political process, whatever solution comes out of it risks being unsustainable.

During the last centuries, there have not been many wars that did not revolve around power and/or money. While such a component has been tangible in the armed conflict in Afghanistan, it stands out as being, to a high degree, centred on something else: values. The Taleban reject Western values, see the military intervention since 2001 as an illegitimate strategy to impose non-indigenous values on the Afghan population, and are fighting to preserve what they see as an Islamic way of living. In this context, the position and behaviour of women is central. The Taleban are fighting for what they often term ‘the chasteness and dignity of our women’(2) – on the surface quite a noble concept which, however, in practice puts severe restrictions on girls and women, e.g., in terms of their mobility and influence over their own lives.

If women are a central reason for the warfare, it follows that they will also be strongly impacted – one way or the other – by whatever solution is enacted to end that warfare. It is no coincidence that women stand out among those voicing fear about the exit of the bulk of the international troops by 2014. Since the year 2000, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution – UNSCR 1325 – the need to integrate women into all political processes dealing with war and peace has been established. The issue is not just about women´s rights, but, even more importantly, is an outcome of the knowledge, confirmed by research,(3) that negotiation processes and peace solutions that are broad-based and include civil society are more sustainable than backroom deals between representatives of a limited number of interested parties.
UNSCR 1325 also aims to increase the protection of girls and women during armed conflict. In Afghanistan, both of these aspects of the resolution are highly relevant and tightly interlinked – without adequate protection, girls and women cannot participate in public life, and the lack of protection remains a primary obstacle to providing them with the tools needed to participate; e.g., it prevents them from going to school.

Still, not much has happened on either of these two scores. While important steps have been taken to improve some aspects of the situation of women, such as the unprecedented expansion of girls´ schools and the lowering of maternal mortality, women are still marginalised in most of the bodies assigned to deal with the political future of the country, e.g., the High Peace Council, the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program and the influential circle at the presidential palace. This is a bad omen for the sustainability of the political solutions that these bodies might produce.

As for protection, women are still targeted from multiple directions: their own families, warlords and militias, the Taleban and other religious extremists. It is also obvious that the Afghan government lacks the ability to provide adequate protection to women human rights defenders. Several have been murdered – two of the latest cases concern Sima Akakhel, principal of a girls´ high school in Shinkai in Balkh district, who was murdered in her home by ‘unidentified gunmen’ last August, and Hanifa Safi, women affairs director in Laghman, who was killed by a bomb planted on her car in July – but no one has been sentenced for those murders. In spite of some positive signs (4), on balance, the justice system still seems to put a lot more energy into punishing people (read women) for ‘moral crimes’ than it devotes to prosecuting those who rape and murder women.(5)

On the international side, women´s rights have been subjected to somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. During the intervention under Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghan women were showered with good will. US First Lady Laura Bush described the military intervention as ‘a fight for the rights and dignity of women’; then-US Senator Hillary Clinton followed suit by stating that ‘the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal for the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11 […]. By empowering women with the freedom to choose their own future […], America can do more than rid the world of an international terrorist network.’ A few years later, when then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to join the fight in Afghanistan, the anonymous burqa-clad woman was again invoked as a reason.

Today, however, other things are more important: international attention is focused on transition and exit from Afghanistan. The plight of Afghan women is not a convenient subject when talks with the Taleban are on the agenda. Still, if the international community really believes in its now 12-year-old commitment, through UNSCR 1325, to promote the agenda of women, peace and security, a sell-out of women´s rights in the interest of making a smooth exit could have serious consequences for the durability of whatever solution is produced.

Standing at the intersection of stability and respect for human rights, the international community has tended to prioritise stability – often pushed in that direction by an Afghan government trying to appease different quarters. (Women, lacking the control over money and resources, are not important enough to be among these groups.) The irony is that, at the same time, instability has increased all over the country. Lack of principles on human rights has not yielded the desired result of stability. Thus, it is time to put these principles back at centre-stage and stay focused on them – if nothing else, in the interest of sustainable peace.

When the military component of the international intervention diminishes, other aspects could play a more central role. The political dialogue could be sharpened, mutual agreements and commitments – including those under UN resolutions – more consistently observed. Development aid could grow, i.e., by absorbing some of the enormous military costs. Some of this could be used to help Afghan women coordinate their actions, in Kabul as well as in the rural areas, and to protect women activists from the multiple threats that they are facing. Continued support should also be extended to the on-going elaboration of Afghanistan´s National Action Plan for the UNSCR 1325, while ensuring full Afghan ownership of that process.

Humbled by a decade of heavy-handed intervention that failed to deliver its main objective of stability and modern-day democracy, the international community could seek a more supportive role, with a greater listening capacity. What struck me the most during my work with the report on Sweden and UNSCR 1325 was the energy, courage and commitment of Afghan human rights defenders, women as well as men. In the face of daunting difficulties, they are prepared to carry on and expand their struggle. For the international community the task should be simple and straightforward: Give them the support that they need!

(1) ‘Missing the Target – A report on the Swedish commitment for women, peace and security in Afghanistan’. Read the report here and the recommendations of the commissioning organisations here.

(2) According to Amir Khan Mutaqi, their Minister for Information and Culture, the Taliban wanted ‘to protect their sisters from [morally] corrupt people’. See Nancy Hatch Dupree, ‘Afghan Women under the Taliban’, in William Maley, Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, Hurst and Company 2001, p. 149 (quote from 1996).

(3) See for instance John Paul Lederach, Building Peace, Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, Washington 1997, pp 38–43, as well as Anthony Wanis-St.John and Darren Kew, ‘Civil Society and Peace Negotiations: Confronting Exclusion’, International Negotiation 13, 2008, 11–36, pp 18, 24–28 and 30.

(4) Lately, there have been three cases in which – not least because of increasing public pressure – rapists have been tried and convicted: in July, a prison chief in Logar was sentenced to 16 years in jail for raping an under-age female inmate; in August, a man in Herat was convicted to 50 years of imprisonment for raping two minor girls and attempting to rape yet another; also in July, a cleric in Samangan was arrested after raping a schoolgirl; in this case, so far, there has been no report about a trial. In addition, four members of an Afghan Local Police unit were recently sentenced to long jail terms in a high-profile trial of a rape case in Kunduz. In the last reported case, a father was sentenced to death for raping his own daughter to death by a provincial court in Herat on 11 November.

(5) According to Afghan sources, so-called elopement cases (from domestic violence or sexual assaults) constitute 70 per cent of female prisoners in the country. However, the justice minister confirmed to parliament in September this year that ‘running away’ is not a crime under Afghan law. For further information see Human Rights Watch, ‘I Had to Run Away,’ The Imprisonment of Women and Girls for “Moral Crimes” in Afghanistan, March 2012.

And as we were finalising this blog, a news item came in that might start a new round of controversy about protecting Afghan women: according to the Deputy Minister of Hajj Da’i-ul-Haq Abed, parts of Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women law are not in accordance with the provisions of sharia law and will not be enforced by mullas unless revised.

 Photo courtesy of ToloNEWS.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms