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

More Action Urged on Gender Equality in Afghanistan

Progress has been too dependent on encouragement from international doors, rather than domestic political will.
By Enayatullah Omari

Successive Afghan governments have failed to live up to their commitments on women’s rights, according to speakers at an IWPR debate in Kabul.

They told an audience of some 100 women and girls that despite advances in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, much more needed to be done.

Mahbuba Siraj, director of the Afghan Women’s Network, said that the apparent progress made on gender equality had been superficial and was far too dependent on external assistance from foreign donors.

“The bitter truth is that over the past 14 years, the international community has been left to shoulder the burden of Afghan women,” she said, dismissing the efforts made by Kabul governments since the overthrow of the Taleban administration in 2001.

If the state had really invested in women’s rights, there would be more than just a handful of women in leading positions in public life, she said.

Siraj named politician and writer Shukria Barakzai, human rights campaigner Sima Samar and former lawmaker Malalai Joya as rare examples of women who had risen to prominent roles.

Overall, she said, women were still considered second-class citizens.

One area in which gender rights have advanced is education. At the start of the 2015 academic year, the education ministry announced that 11.5 million pupils were enrolled in schools, 42 per cent of them female.

As President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani noted in a speech to mark the beginning of the school year, the continuing violence in Afghanistan was still an obstacle to education.

Other issues of concern highlighted by speakers at the Kabul debate included forced marriage, domestic abuse, a lack of access to justice, and “baad”, a custom whereby a woman or girl is handed over in marriage as compensation to a slighted family.

Campaigners who see government intransigence as an obstacle to progress often point to the law on the elimination of violence against women, which was passed by presidential decree in 2009 only to be rejected by parliament in 2013. It has been shelved ever since, with conservative parliamentarians claiming that it contradicts Islamic law.

Rafiullah Baidar, spokesman for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), agreed that the government needed to bear responsibility for the current state of women’s rights.

With high rates of violence and inadequate recourse to justice, he said that changes made in the post-Taleban years were “not sufficient to support rights and freedom of women”.

The AIHRC records between 2,000 and 3,000 cases of violence against women every year, a figure that reflects only a small proportion of abuses.

Behishta Najwi, representing the Kabul branch of the women’s affairs ministry, accepted that more needed to be done.

“The policies that the three elected governments have pursued over the past 14 years to support the rights and freedoms of women have had some problems,” she said. “But there has also been investment in various areas of women’s rights.”

Hafizullah Barakzai, head of the Independent Journalists’ Association, said he was shocked by the violations of women’ rights he heard about through the media.

He said that the current government seemed incapable of acting to improve gender equality and justice.

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



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