By Razeshta Sethna
Sept. 30, 2013
WITH the withdrawal of NATO-led troops and the transition of security to Afghan forces, the future of Afghan women is threatened. That women’s hard-won rights are already eroding is evident as many among the Afghan Taliban target working women.
A pattern of what might unfold is becoming clearer: the number of women killed or injured in the first half of this year alone is two-thirds higher than last year according to a UN report on civilian casualties.
High-profile attacks have risen by nearly a third with the Taliban issuing warnings especially in the insurgent-ridden south where women are vulnerable targets. The latest in a series of attacks on policewomen includes the killing of Lieutenant Nigara in Helmand province, shot on her way to work.
Nigara, a police officer for decades, had first signed up in the 1990s, but returned to work after the fall of the Taliban. Her senior colleague, Islam Bibi, and another colleague, Sergeant Shah Bibi, were also assassinated earlier this summer. The Taliban have warned they will kill one policewoman every three months according to a local policewoman, one of 30 working in Helmand.
The killing of an Indian author in Paktika province and the abduction of a female member of parliament, Fariba Ahmadi Kakar and her children last month — she has since been released in a prisoner swap — indicate that women’s rights are negotiable.
As worsening violence against women goes unchecked, talk about supporting basic economic sustainability, training and financing security forces and forging political governance over the longer term takes precedence.
More significantly, post-war fatigue could lead to the abandonment of women. Peace overtures by the Obama administration demonstrating this is the beginning of the end for America 12 years on as it pursues talks with the Taliban has left many terrified of a future with the Taliban in government.
However, a sustainable political outcome can be facilitated only if peace talks between the Taliban, Kabul and the US become part of the overall exit strategy and involve regional stakeholders. Negotiations inextricably linked to security would in some ways work to secure an environment conducive to women’s socio-political participation as much as prevent civil war and ethnic divisions.
Recent drawbacks include the Afghanistan parliament’s not passing a groundbreaking law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women with conservatives calling it un-Islamic and wanting revisions eliminating the minimum marriage age for girls, abolishing women’s shelters and protecting perpetrators of rape.
In 2012, to appease religious conservatives, the government weakened the above law (which had come into force earlier anyway through presidential decree) by endorsing a husband’s right to beat his wife.
Stressing that the law is a significant component of legislative reform since 2001, Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch explains: “Rape, underage marriage and forced marriages were not even recognised as crimes until this law was passed in 2009 by presidential decree. It is as valid now as it was before the parliamentary debate. There is no political will to follow up on implementation [of the law].”
Like many, she believes that the international community has lost interest in Afghan women and President Hamid Karzai who might have once relented under pressure to support pro-women laws is backtracking under religious pressure. That’s reason enough for there to be a continuing sense of responsibility towards women’s rights with some donors stressing they would not stand by while women are kept back.
Shukria Khaliqi, a lawyer in Kabul says she fears for her life and her work if the Taliban joined the government. Khaliqi works with Women for Afghan Women, a human rights group running a women’s shelter that gave refuge to 15-year-old Gul Meena. Meena suffered a brutal axe attack when her brother violently hacked at her face which has scarred her for life and damaged her memory.
In December 2011, Khaliqi represented 13-year-old Sahar Gul who was sold into marriage for 200,000 Afghanis. Unable to walk and starved almost to death, Gul was rescued from her makeshift prison in a wheelbarrow inside a basement bathroom. Her fingernails had been pulled out and she had been burnt with red hot metal pipes.
Last year, 10-year sentences were handed to three of her in-laws for attempted murder. But an appeals court overturned the ruling citing lack of evidence: another ominous sign of the rollback in women’s rights.
This latest setback comes in the form of a proposed criminal law revision that would deny women legal protection from domestic violence. And for now it appears the government has endorsed these changes.
If this provision is legally adopted, it would silence victims and family members as witnesses to abuse in domestic violence cases, protecting and effectively preventing prosecutions of those who beat, forcibly marry and sell their female relatives.
Afghanistan, one of the largest recipients of foreign aid with $57bn since 2001, has shown fragile progress in education, healthcare, maternal mortality, and employment — deteriorating security and unprepared security forces threaten even this progress.
In July 2012, an ActionAid report found that the security of girls and women was linked to economic growth and development. Nine out of 10 women feared the departure of the international community; 87pc reported domestic abuse and the biggest fear under the age of 30 is sexual assault.
If the international community lends support to a government that fails to consider the rights of women, then they will be forced to live as they did under the Taliban.
That there have been 12 years of rapid change and this could be the high point from where the situation starts to deteriorate is disturbing.
Violence suffered by women comes in various forms but the consequences remain the same: disenfranchisement, poverty, abuse, socio-economic isolation.
It is no surprise that female legislators are calling for the government to openly state its position on women’s rights. And there are no answers to questions about whether more than half the population will be sent home post-2014.
The writer is senior assistant editor at the Herald.