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'A violence pandemic'

Gabriel DomínguezOctober 22, 2013

Although women's rights in Afghanistan have improved since 2001, female politicians and activists have been increasingly subjected to threats, intimidation and attacks, says UN Women chief Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

An Afghan woman clad in a burqa walks past a graffiti painted wall, in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, May 13, 2010. (Photo: AP)
Image: dapd

DW: How has the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent ISAF mission impacted the situation of women in the country?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Despite the multiple challenges facing Afghanistan, remarkable gains have been made on women's rights in the last decade. Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has made important strides in promoting women's rights, the protection of women and girls, and the participation of women in decision-making.

Equality between men and women is mandated in the country's constitution. Special measures have resulted in a parliament with 28 percent women and about 2.7 million girls returning to school. These are incredible attainments bearing in mind that Afghanistan was a very different country for women and girls only 12 years ago.

The Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, speaks during the XII Regional Conference of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, organized by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santo Domingo, on October 15, 2013. (Photo: AFP)
Mlambo-Ngcuka: 'Women remain one of the most marginalized segments of the Afghan population'Image: AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan, therefore, has come a long way. But these gains must be protected. Women's rights continue to be violated, female officials are being targeted and killed, and legal protection is under threat. It is imperative that women's rights and empowerment are prioritized in the coming period of transition.

What are the main issues affecting Afghan women today?

In spite of major achievements, women remain one of the most marginalized segments of the Afghan population. There are concerns about a possible regression of the hard-earned rights and about how best to sustain them. Despite a robust legal framework regarding women's rights, female Afghans still suffer widespread discriminatory cultural practices like child marriage and lack of access to public life, especially in exercising their right to education, participation in the formal labour force and political participation.

What can you tell us about violence against women in Afghanistan?

Violence against women and girls is exceptionally high in Afghanistan and is almost at a pandemic level, with up to 87.2 percent of women having experienced some form of violence, such as physical, psychological, sexual, economic violence, social abuse as well as forced and early marriage.

Recent targeted killings and intimidation of high-level female government officials and activists also raise fears about increased violence against women. Such incidents still remain largely under-reported because of the associated stigma. Prevailing insecurity and weak rule of law have further hampered women's access to justice.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed a "code of conduct" issued by the influential Ulema Council's document, which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances and encourages segregation of the sexes. What is your take on this?

It was unfortunate that the statement by the Ulema Council was published on the president's website although it was later removed. The president has been a supporter of women's rights as best reflected in the landmark Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law that was enacted by a presidential decree. It is of vital importance that there is a consistency in the policy on women's rights at the highest level in Afghanistan as in other countries and it can't be underestimated how important it is that there is genuine political will to improve the situation of women and girls.

What challenges are faced by women who strive for political office or simply fight for their rights?

In Afghanistan, attacks against women and girls have increased at a frightening pace. In 2012, female casualties increased by 20 percent in spite of a decrease of overall violence, and this year by 61 percent, according to the UN. When girls attending school, or women leaders in ministries and parliament are attacked it is also the idea of women in public life and occupying leadership roles that is being challenged.

There are only 9 women in the 70-member High Peace Council, and quotas for women's participation in provincial elections have recently been reduced. The new election law reduces the 25 percent quota for women's representation to 20 percent at the provincial level. These trends may further hamper Afghan women's opportunities to participate and take part in decision-making processes on Afghanistan's future.

What would a potential power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government mean for women's rights?

The future of Afghanistan will be decided by the Afghan people. In the end, a political solution has to be developed based on the Afghan constitution and the improvement of human rights, including women's rights. The path towards a prosperous future cannot be accomplished if women's insights and resources are not utilized.

Afghan women shout slogans during a protest against the rising incidents of violence against women in Kabul, Afghanistan, 14 February 2013. (Photo: EPA)
'It is imperative that women's rights and empowerment are prioritized in the coming period of transition'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In order to bring real peace, women have to play a more active role in the reconciliation process. It is therefore at this point in time imperative that Afghan policy makers and the international community listen to Afghan women, as we cannot allow measures of the gains achieved to be given up in the transition process.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the executive director of UN Women, an organization created in 2010 to lead the UN's work on advancing gender equality and women's empowerment. Mlambo-Ngcuka was also the first woman to hold the position of Deputy President of South Africa from 2005 to 2008.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.