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Rights under threat

Gabriel DomínguezMarch 25, 2014

Although women's rights in Afghanistan have improved since the US-led invasion in 2001, the recent surge in violence has led many to fear that these gains may be forfeited once foreign troops have left the country.

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

Despite a myriad of challenges facing Afghanistan, remarkable gains have been made on women's rights over the past 12 years. Since the US-led invasion of the country in 2001, women have won back many of the rights they lost during the Taliban regime. Equality between men and women is mandated in the country's constitution. The number of girls getting an education has surpassed 2.8 million and women currently make up 28 percent of the National Assembly.

The conflict-ridden country has come a long way since the time of the Taliban, under whose five-year rule girls were barred from attending school, women were forced to cover their heads and faces with burqas and forbidden to leave their homes without being escorted by a male relative.

Theory vs practice

The Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai has also been hailed for making strides to protect human and civil rights, such as the signing of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the enactment of its own law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) in 2009. EVAW, for instance, criminalizes forced, and child marriage, selling and buying women to settle disputes, rapes, beatings and more than a dozen other acts of violence and abuse against women.

fghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen following a security handover ceremony at a military academy outside Kabul on June 18, 2013.
The government has passed laws to protect women's rights, but many criticize their implementationImage: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Yet, in spite of the achievements made in terms of the legal framework, there is growing criticism that the new laws are only being slowly enforced, if at all. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, criticized on December 8 that the implementation of EVAW had been "slow and uneven, with police still reluctant to enforce the legal prohibition against violence and harmful practices, and prosecutors and courts slow to enforce the legal protections in the law."

'Telephone justice'

Critics claim that while more and more women are demanding justice, all police and prosecutors are doing is settling the disputes by mediation, thus failing to apply criminal sanctions and legal protections for women. Dr. Sari Kouvo, a human rights specialist and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), explains that the failings are mostly the result of having a "corrupt and politicized" judiciary.

She told DW that sometimes policies do not trickle down into the day-to-day work of institutions because "it serves the purposes of the government and the elites not to implement what is law," adding that perpetrators "can get the justice they want, if they have the necessary relations or financial means to make the right phone calls."

Despite the accusations, Afghan lawmakers recently passed a criminal procedure code which effectively bans relatives from testifying against alleged abusers. Only after the „anti-women bill" - as dubbed by critics - had triggered an international outcry and warnings that it would severely limit justice for victims of domestic abuse, did President Karzai order changes to the proposed legislation.

Restoring women's rights was cited as one of the main objectives of the US-led invasion, but 12 years on, Afghanistan remains a patriarchal society.

"Most decisions about women's and children's lives are completely dependent on the will of fathers or husbands , says Kouvo, adding that not much has changed in the way women are viewed by the rest of society.

Violence at 'pandemic' level

A similar view is shared by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, who argues that women remain one of the most marginalized segments of the Afghan population. "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 labor force and political participation," Mlambo-Ngcuka, told DW in an exclusive interview.#b

The UN official stated that the number of violent acts against women and girls had reached an epidemic level, with some 87 percent of women saying they had experienced some form of physical, psychological, sexual, economic or social abuse as well as forced and early marriage.

But as of recently, she added, the crimes include targeted killings and the intimidation of high-level female government officials. Mlambo-Ngcuka explained that such incidents still remain largely under-reported because of the associated stigma. "Prevailing insecurity and the weak rule of law have further hampered women's access to justice," she added.

Political gains at risk

Analysts view the violent crimes against women and the attempts to pass controversial legislation as signs that the gains made over the past decade are beginning to erode. "There is a real concern that the legal advances made and that the political space carved out for and by Afghan women will be undone," said Kouvo.

But perhaps even more unsettling than this roll back is the fact that these developments are taking place in what is widely considered to be a pivotal year for the country, as international troops prepare to leave the South Asian nation. President Karzai's refusal to sign a security agreement which would enable the US and other NATO member states to leave up to 10,000 troops in the country has led to fears that not only all foreign forces, but also much of the international aid and assistance they brought to Afghanistan goes with them.

Illustration of violence against women
The number of violent acts against Afghan women and girls has reached almost pandemic levels, says the UNImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Taliban have reacted to the news of the impending pullout by stepping up their attacks in a bid to regain influence and control over parts of the country. According to the UN, civilian casualties rose 14 percent in 2013, making it one of the worst years since 2009 in terms of the number of women and children killed or injured as a result of conflict-related violence. And as analyst Kouvo points out, the more insecure the situation becomes, the harder it is for civil society to voice its concerns.

A chance for change?

The upcoming presidential elections on April 5 are viewed by many as a crucial step for the future of the country. After ruling Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, Karzai, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office.

However, it us unclear whether any of the 11 presidential candidates will be any more inclined to prioritize human rights and women's issues, especially as analysts such as Michael Kugelman from the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars warn that the Taliban are likely intensify their efforts to overthrow the government as soon as NATO troops withdraw.

An Afghan soldier stands guard in a street corner in Shindand, district of Herat province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday, March 13, 2010.
Many fear that the gains made by women over the past decade are beginning to be rolled backImage: AP

Despite the many challenges faced by women and civil society as a whole, experts agree that the future of the country must be decided by the Afghan people. Rights expert Kouvo points out, however, that in order to keep the pressure on Kabul the international community needs to speak out when the Afghan government seems to actively undermine fundamental rights and its obligations under international law.

In order to achieve this, Kouvo adds, independent Afghan civil society organizations must be kept functioning as local alarm bells. Moreover, governments around the world need to keep an eye on Afghan matters, despite all the many new potential conflicts that may drive attention and resources away.