Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Women Demand Respect, Rights and Jobs

Forced marriage, domestic violence and economic hardship all require more effective action.
By Ahmad Shah

The Afghan government needs to do more to uphold women’s rights in the conservative southeastern province of Khost, according to speakers at a recent IWPR debate there.

Participants in the October 27 event agreed that some progress had been made in improving women’s lives in Khost, but argued that more should have been achieved given the millions of dollars in aid money that had been earmarked for this.

Speakers said the position was particularly poor in more remote parts of Khost, where common problems included forced marriage, domestic violence, and ‘baad’, a traditional means of dispute resolution where a girl is handed over in marriage to the other family.

Zeba Barakzai, head of cultural affairs in the provincial women affairs department, said major improvements had been made in women’s lives since the fall of the Taleban government in 2001. She cited better access to health services, education, and women working in government institutions as examples of this.

“I accept that the economic circumstances of women are poor, and that they face hardship in the home,” she told a largely female audience of around 100 people. “However, if we look at the subject in greater depth, we can see that a lot is being done for women in Khost.”

Civil society activist Kamila Akbari said that grassroots organisations had long been working to improve women’s lives in Khost.

“They launched programmes for women to make biscuits and pickles which enabled many of them to help themselves financially,” she said.

Akbari added that the new government formed last year had done very little to support development projects for women in Khost.

Activist Naat Bibi Omari, a former provincial council member, said there were still serious problems with access to education, even in more densely populated areas.

Debate participant Wazira Sadat noted that Khost was a particularly conservative province, and patriarchal traditions meant that women’s concerns were not addressed by local officials.

“Women are not seen as human beings. They are deprived of the opportunities available to men in this society,” she said.

Another participant, Rahat Bibi, said domestic violence, high “bride prices” (the sum a groom must pay over to his new in-laws) and a shortage of schools for girls were the major problems in this part of Afghanistan.

In response, Barakzai acknowledged that these were all valid concerns and promised that the Khost department of women’s affairs would continue to address them.

Provincial councillor Nurshah Nurani told the audience that he and his collegues were committed to working towards gender equality. He added that they would support the creation of a women’s refuge in Khost, something activists have long been campaigning for. (See Grassroots Demands for Afghan Women's Refuge)

Some audience members raised concerns about the fact that very few women were employed in local government. Even when jobs were reserved for women, they were often filled by men. (See Women Shut Out of Civil Service Jobs in Southeast Afghan Province for more.)

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiativefunded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.