Guest blog: Amnesty International - "Don't abandon the women of Afghanistan"
With International Women's Day just around the corner, our guest blog today is from Amnesty UK's Kate Allen, who writes about the increasingly perilous situation faced by women in Afghanistan as the date for NATO's withdrawal gets ever nearer.
Read her post and share your views on the Talk thread.
Last week ITV’s Daybreak programme featured the amazing story of Aisha Mohammadzai. She, you may remember, is the young Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off in a despicable attack by her own family in Uruzgan province after she tried to flee an abusive marriage with a Taleban fighter, a marriage she was reportedly forced into when she was only 14.
Aisha’s case is extraordinary, not least because she’s undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery in the USA and has been placed with a foster family as she attempts to rebuild her life. And because she was on the cover of Time magazine, her story is known around the world.
Unfortunately there are many other women like Aisha in Afghanistan, as I saw for myself when I visited the country last year. At a women’s shelter in Kabul a succession of mostly young women told me about their abusive husbands, of violent in-laws or of exploitation by their own families. Most had been made to marry under-age. These women were themselves relatively lucky, in that they were at least receiving protection and support in one of only 14 women’s shelters in the whole of Afghanistan.
Apart from some of the most extreme instances (the Taleban ordering a young couple to be stoned to death for the supposed crime of eloping for example) very few of these cases feature in international news reports. Yet violence against Afghan women is distressingly widespread. According to UNIFEM, in Afghanistan 57% of girls are married before the age of 16. As an Afghan women’s rights activist recently told Amnesty, “violence is everywhere” when you’re a women or even a girl in Afghanistan.
An Afghan woman MP told me that ultra-traditional cultural practices are still very widespread in Afghanistan, with many families proud of the fact that no-one outside of family members had ever set eyes on their cloistered-away daughters. And depressingly enough women who end up in shelters like the one I visited in Kabul are often perceived to be “immoral”. I was told that on one occasion even a visiting group of Afghan MPs began haranguing some of the women there, saying they were all “prostitutes”.
Yet we also need to remember how bad things had been for women in Afghanistan. The abuses under the Taleban’s tyrannical anti-women rule (from 1996-2001) are well-documented, with millions of women virtually imprisoned in their own homes. They were forbidden from walking outdoors without a male blood-relative (a mahram) to accompany them. On the street they could be whipped for “immodesty”. They could also face extreme punishments like being stoned to death for the “offence” of adultery. Most notoriously the young zealots of the first-wave of the Taleban clamped down hard on girls’ education, closing down schools and forbidding the home tutoring of girls. The UN estimates that female primary education dwindled to 3% of the population and it was thought that as few as 5,000 girls were enrolled in schools at the lowest point.
If they’d had their way Taleban-ruled Afghanistan would have been a complete patriarchy, with women downgraded to illiterate house slaves. Instead, despite an 11-year insurgency - and counter-insurgency - that has cost the lives of at least 75,000 people, Afghan government-led efforts to restore women’s rights in the country have had some modest success.
Women have now re-entered political life. They made up 40% of voters in the 2010 parliamentary elections (braving threats from the Taleban that anyone found with the indelible purple voting ink on their right index finger would have that finger cut off). In the same election women won 27% of seats (actually higher than in our own male-dominated parliament). Meanwhile, improvements in maternal and other kinds of healthcare have seen female life expectancy rise to approximately 48, up from 42 a decade ago. And, on the touchstone issue of girls’ education, the change has been dramatic, with well in excess of two million girls now enrolled in schools (though drop-out rates for secondary-school girls are alarmingly high).
So if things in Afghanistan are objectively improving what’s the problem? The answer is simple and depressing enough. Armed groups, warlords, an often corrupt or unreliable system of governance centrally and locally, but most especially the Taleban - are all, one way and another, either seeking to deliberately undermine much of this progress or not working very hard to resist that undermining.
For several years there have been clear signs that President Hamid Karzai’s government was only lukewarm on women’s rights. The president has dallied with highly discriminatory laws which would have legalised rape by husbands, and has pursued secretive talks with the Taleban without bringing women’s representatives to the negotiating table. In fact, the government-appointed High Peace Council, set up to negotiate with the Taleban, has only nine women out of 70 members. Almost every women’s rights activist I spoke to in Afghanistan said they feared being “sacrificed to the Taleban” as international forces scramble for the exits in Afghanistan.
To ensure that limited gains for women are protected and built on in Afghanistan, we’re saying that it’s vital that the UK focuses more on women’s rights, including tackling violence against women. The Department for International Development (DfID) says it’s a “staunch supporter” of women’s rights in Afghanistan but at present women’s rights are not part of DfID’s “strategic priorities” for the country. So while DfID currently supports around 100 reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan (with an annual budget of £178m), only two of these are specifically projects on women’s rights.
Actually just this week, during a major speech on aid and women’s rights, the International Development Secretary Justine Greening said that dealing with violence against women in Afghanistan would be upgraded to a “strategic priority”. This is exactly what we at Amnesty have been calling for and we’re delighted the Secretary of State agrees with us. Explicitly prioritising women’s rights and combating violence against women means that funding for projects like women’s shelters should be now be unlocked. Our new petition - launched today [6/3/13] - is designed to press Ms Greening’s department into delivering on the details over this commitment (for instance on whether Afghan women’s organisations will be consulted in the development of the strategic goal, and if funding for shelters will be included), as well as getting the Foreign Office to similarly raise their game on women’s rights in Afghanistan. The symbol of our petition is the purple finger, a tribute to the brave women who defied the Taleban by voting in elections.
While international forces are in Afghanistan for security reasons following the atrocities of 9/11, women’s rights have always been part of the political mix. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to Afghan women “‘We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always”, while William Hague has said “No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met”. We mustn’t sacrifice Afghan women’s rights now.
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