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

Women's Day Speech by Afghan President Falls Flat

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” argues one critic.
By Mina Habib
  • Hamed Karzai. (Photo: Erin Kirk-Cuomo)
    Hamed Karzai. (Photo: Erin Kirk-Cuomo)

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have expressed anger at President Hamed Karzai’s apparently flippant remarks at a March 8 event. They say his administration has little right to claim the credit for the limited progress made on Afghan women’s rights since 2001.

In a speech made to mark International Women’s Day, President Hamed Karzai acknowledged the continuing problem of gender violence, and said more needed to be done to help women in the areas of education, the law, and economics.

In somewhat elliptical remarks, he said, “The men in Afghanistan should not test their power on women. If they have power, they should go and test it against America. Trying their power on women indicates men’s weakness.”

The main focus of Karzai’s speech was the forthcoming presidential election – in which he is not a candidate – and the importance of female voters.

“If women hadn’t been present in the 2009 elections, the Americans would have finished me,” he said, explaining that it was the female vote that helped him win.

Rights activists received Karzai’s words with little warmth, arguing that despite some improvements in women’s lives – better access to education, improved maternal mortality rates and increased employment – Kabul had failed to address many serious issues. (See for example Afghan Women Face Growing Threats.)

Fatana Gailani, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Association, said the expectation had been that Karzai would use the March 8 speech to lay out his government's plans and proposed bills for his final period in office.

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” she said. “He came out with a few slogans and funny remarks, some of his supporters applauded him, and he left. But women’s problems cannot be solved with such remarks.”

Gailani said Karzai’s comments ill-befitted the president of a country struggling with security, economic and political troubles.

“I see no achievements for women in the past 12 years,” she said. “If a few women are ministers, deputy ministers and [government department] directors, if women work in government institutions, and if girls go to school – these are things we’ve had for the last 50 years, with the exception of the Taleban era. Where are the achievements?”

Gailani said the international community needed to bear some of the responsibility for continuing to support the Kabul administration.

“Why does the international community provide huge amounts of money to a government mired in corruption, as well as to NGOs that do business in the name of women? Why hasn’t the international community monitored the expenditure of this money? In fact, they too have paved the way for corruption, and they have deceived women with slogans that they chant from far away.”

One of those who attended the Women’s Day event agreed that it was a massive disappointment.

“Women were hoping that since the end of Mr Karzai's term was near, he would speak about ensuring and protecting women’s rights in the future, as well as endorsing laws and practical plans,” said the participant, who asked not to be named. “But he continued to make jokes as he’s done in the past, and then left the gathering.”

Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women, with gender-based violence on the increase. Figures from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) indicate that 5,700 cases of violence against women were recorded last year, 17 per cent more than in 2012. The real figures are much higher, since most incidents go unreported.

Last year, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to ratify key legislation on the elimination of violence against women. Although the law was passed by presidential decree in 2009, activists hoped it would gain greater legitimacy if it were ratified by parliament.

The bill was rejected in May 2013 after a short 15-minute debate, and has been shelved indefinitely.

Among the dignitaries addressing the Women’s Day event was the current minister for women's affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, who called on the country’s next president to support the achievements made in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

But Shahla Farid, a law lecturer at Kabul University and a member of the Afghanistan Women's Network, argued that the Karzai government has made insignificant progress in this sphere, while the women’s affair ministry had achieved nothing.

“We visited Karzai several times to demand basic rights for Afghan women until we convinced him [to address them],” she said, adding, “If Karzai had a strong will to ensure women’s rights, he would have appointed the kind of person to the ministry of women’s affairs who would have been committed to do it.”

In reality, she said, “We have seen no achievements from the ministry to date.”

Farid said that whatever gains had been made were the result of pressure from the international community and from Afghan women themselves.

“The achievement of this [presidential] term was Karzai’s endorsement of the law on violence against women, which was rejected by the parliament but is still enforceable legislation,” she said. “The presence of women in parliament is an achievement owing to international pressure. There have been no other achievements one could count in this current term.”

Latifa Sultani, head of women's rights section at the AIHRC, agreed that legislative changes had been positive. The government had signed international conventions on women's rights, and gender sections had been created in government bodies.

But in practice, Sultani said, little had been done to stem the rising tide of violence against women.

“The perpetrators haven’t been not prosecuted. Dozens of cases of murder and abuse have taken place, but the perpetrators have escaped, or else no one arrested them,” she said. “Furthermore, we have witnessed a decrease in the representation of women in [public] institutions recently. There are no women in district-level government institutions.”

In Sultani’s view, “What achievements do exist are so flimsy that they could be wiped out entirely by one small negative shift.”

As for the 11 male candidates now standing for president, Sultani said the AIHRC had told them about its programmes for women. “We asked them to review their own commitments on human rights and the involvement of women in power, and to ensure the promises they made to women were not just about securing their votes,” she said.

Farida of the Afghanistan Women's Network said the candidates appeared ill-prepared to advance women’s rights.

“When we talked to them about their plans to work on women’s issues, they had no practical plans. We provided them with some strategies to consider in the future,” she said.

The withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan, expected to be complete by the end of this year, is a source of concern for many women.

Sultani said the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement needed to be signed as soon as possible. Karzai has delayed signing off on the deal, which will allow limited numbers of American troops to stay on after 2014.

“We are asking the international community to train, equip and support the Afghan armed forces – whether the government wants this or not – so that the tenuous Afghans have made in the last 13 years, particularly in the field of women’s rights, will not be lost.”

These concerns are shared by many in the international community. Afghan activists noted a recent petition signed by stars including Hollywood actors Keira Knightley and Salma Hayek, calling on British prime minister David Cameron to continue protecting women’s rights after the troop withdrawal

Many ordinary women feel abandoned by both the world and their own government.

Narges, who works for a foreign organisation, said that the plight of women in Afghanistan had served as a convenient tool to elicit international funding.

“Everything achieved for women in the past 13 years was just on paper,” she said. “Afghan women are exhibited in the marketplace as a commodity for fundraising. That is the only value of women.”

Despite a number of requests, the Afghan ministry of women’s affairs declined to speak to IWPR for this article.

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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