Continued Threats to Afghan Women Require Support in U.S. and Worldwide

By Madeleine Burton, Communications Intern, and Jan Erickson, Director of NOW Foundation Programs

August 24, 2009

Feminists can use the power of their voices by urging members of Congress to pass the Afghan Women Empowerment Act, S. 229

Amidst deadly bombings, rocket attacks and threats of violence against voters, Afghanistan's national elections took place on Aug. 20. While hazardous conditions likely suppressed at least part of the women's vote, the good news is that two women ran for president, five sought the vice presidency, and some 300 women ran for election to provincial councils. Results of the election are expected to be announced this week. Women's presence is a hopeful sign that a stronger democracy can emerge from this war-torn country; but at the same time, there is plenty of evidence that women in general are not gaining ground.

Earlier this year, President Hamid Karzai signed a law that would effectively decriminalize marital rape among the country's Shia Muslim population. According to The Washington Post, the law "requires women to seek their husband's permission to leave home, except for 'culturally legitimate' purposes such as work or weddings, and to submit to their sexual demands unless ill or menstruating." President Barack Obama called the law "abhorrent."

The enactment of the Shia Personal Status Law highlights a prevalent problem in Afghanistan: the second-class status and discriminatory treatment of women by the government and society, long after the radical Taliban fell from political power in Kabul, the nation's capital. The recent resurgence of the Taliban and other extremist groups in outlying areas has escalated acts of intimidation and violence against women and girls.

Only after scathing articles ran in newspapers, and world leaders and women's rights advocates vocally criticized Karzai's decision did he promise to revise the law. His signing of the law was an apparent attempt to gain favor with conservative, religious Shia voters before the elections. The Shia minority constitutes about 15 to 20 percent of Afghanistan's population of 33 million, and Shia leaders could possibly deliver a big bloc of votes to Karzai in exchange for his support of the law.

More than 300 women's rights advocates demonstrated against the law in Kabul and were stoned by huge crowds of men shouting "dogs" and "slaves of Christians!"

On April 27, Karzai announced that the law was being reviewed and amended in accordance with Afghanistan's constitution and international treaties. Several modest changes were made, but many draconian restrictions on women's rights and freedom remained. On July 10, Karzai released a revised version of the law which omitted the original statement that legalized rape within marriage, but retained a requirement for women to ask permission before leaving their homes, obtaining employment and voting, among other harsh restrictions. The law became effective in late July.

Under the revised version, Shia men may deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husband's sexual demands, and rapists may escape prosecution by making payments to their victims for any injury that occurred while she was being raped. Guardianship of minor children is granted exclusively to fathers and grandfathers. Many elements of the Personal Status Law violate constitutional protections for women's rights and are contrary to international treaties that Afghanistan has signed.

Perhaps feeling guilty about the Shia Personal Status Law, President Karzai later pushed through Parliament a law that would punish those who perpetrate violence against women. Under this, men who prevent women from attending school, working, or obtaining health care can be punished up to six months in prison. While the effectiveness of this law in a corrupt, patriarchal society is hard to predict, certainly the action of President Karzai and the Parliament is commendable.

NOW's Early Opposition to the Taliban

NOW and our allies at the Feminist Majority have been focused on the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in 1996 -- well before the September 11 attacks brought the country's abysmal treatment of its women into the spotlight.

For more than a decade, NOW has publicized the atrocities committed against women under the Taliban, passed numerous resolutions condemning this gender apartheid, called for feminist activists to pressure the U.S. government and the U.N. to work toward restoring Afghan women's rights, and held demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and across the country to demand accountability from policymakers on the issue.

After the fall of the Taliban, NOW called for the inclusion and full participation of women leaders in Afghanistan's government as it began building a democratic society. By pressuring Afghanistan and the influential international community to legislate and enforce equal rights for women, NOW has been a staunch and vocal ally of Afghan women silenced by oppression.

In March of this year, the Feminist Majority Foundation launched the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls, with objectives to:

  • Increase and monitor the provision of emergency and reconstruction assistance to women and girls
  • Support Afghan women-led non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Afghan Ministry for Women's Affairs, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
  • Increase security and safety for Afghan people, especially women and girls
  • Promote women's rights, healthcare and education

A congressional briefing on the health needs of Afghan women was held in mid-July to bring more attention to the dire situation facing women of child-bearing age, one in six of whom will die from complications during pregnancy or children birth. One Afghan woman dies every 27 minutes from pregnancy-related causes and only 14 percent of women receive skilled medical attention during pregnancy. Many pregnant women are young teens. UNICEF says that 87 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. The Feminist Majority Foundation's Campus Program, spearheading the Afghan Women's Health Campaign, notes that it takes only $3,000 to train a midwife to aid in safer deliveries and post-natal care.

Gaining New Ground

In some respects, women have gained ground under Afghanistan's new constitution, approved in 2004. The document -- which was drawn up and approved with women at the table -- sets forth a 25 percent quota for female representation in the new parliament, and affirms that women and men are equal citizens under the law. But whether women in parliament are allowed much power is not clear. For the Aug. 20 national elections, 300 women ran for seats in parliament; however, many were not allowed to campaign, and since women's photographs may not be shown on voting credentials (while men's photos appear), extensive voter fraud using women's credentials was expected.

In 2003, the Afghan government signed CEDAW -- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -- without any reservations (something the U.S. has yet to do). In 2004, women ran as candidates for Afghanistan's first presidential election, in addition to participating as voters. This election, five women ran for vice president and two competed for the presidency. But in a country with deep hostility to women's empowerment, their elections were given little chance to succeed.

Additionally, the government established the Ministry for Women's Affairs in its ranks, as well as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission -- complete with a Women's Rights Department to focus on female-specific issues. Whether these entities are empowered to improve conditions for women remains to be seen.

History of Backlash to Progress

Afghanistan's history has shown that periods of modernization and social change -- bringing with them improvement in women's rights -- are generally followed by societal backlash. This was the case in the 1920s, when conservatives rejected the king's "enforcement of Western norms for women" and enacted laws requiring gender segregation and the shuttering of girls' schools. Similar fights erupted again and again, coming to a head most recently after Soviet reform of gender-based laws were followed by Taliban-enforced gender apartheid.

Feminists today must be ready to oppose any conservative backlash against any progress toward gender equality in Afghanistan. Adding to this threat is the country's nature as a tribal society disconnected from Kabul politics. Especially in the southern and eastern provinces, communities distrust the central government, and continue patriarchal and violent "traditions" that are reinforced in many of their independent tribal courts. Women -- especially those outside the reach of Kabul institutions -- are still abused, denied participation in the public sphere, and lack access to schools and economic opportunities.

Oppression Affects Health, Education

Numerous obstacles exist that block the full implementation of promising advancements in Afghanistan. According to Human Rights Watch, Afghan women still fare among the worst worldwide in key indicators of health, education and poverty. Only 32 percent of the population has access to clean water; life expectancy is only 44 years. Eighty-six percent of Afghan women over the age of 15 are illiterate. The fall of the Taliban has meant the return of public education for girls, with 60 percent of the girls in Kabul province attending primary school. However, outside of the capital that figure drops to less than 10 percent for a group of southern provinces, where Taliban insurgent activity and conservative beliefs are widespread.

More than 200 schools have been burned or bombed in recent years by insurgent groups opposed to girls' education. Radio Free Europe reported in July 2008 that over the previous school year 62 schools were burned down and another 640 were closed because of a lack of security measures. But the Afghan education ministry said that 115 schools had been attacked over that period. In the southern city of Kandahar, more than 150 girls were hospitalized for being poisoned in three separate gas attacks. The ministry says that 120 persons in the education sector have been killed in such attacks. Some reports indicate that millions of children are not going to school because of the violence.

A WOMANKIND Worldwide report outlines the impact of war on women in societies like Afghanistan. Women's limited opportunities outside the home contribute further to the strife produced when a family loses its main breadwinner, their home is destroyed or both. Many women are forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive and, if caught, are subjected to the death penalty. In addition, war-torn regions -- rife with gun ownership from the armed struggle -- are breeding grounds for violence against women. Suffering the consequences of illiteracy, lack of health care, violence and poverty means that many Afghan women can't exercise their rights.

Violence Against Women Widespread

In Afghanistan, violence against women continues in many forms. For example, forced and child marriages violate national law, but it is rare for them to be reported and rarer still for authorities to follow through on such reports. The post-war climate has exacerbated forced marriage rates, with women used as commodities to ease the debts of impoverished families. The Ministry of Women's Affairs reported that 57 percent of Afghan women and girls were married before the age of 16, some as young as nine.

Violence within the family is widespread, with women placed under the authority of fathers and husbands who may physically punish them for any perceived violation of tradition. In addition to its disciplinary function, domestic abuse happens frequently as an accepted brutal "tradition." Taking into consideration the armed rule in parts of the country, where rape and sexual violence are used as weapons, one can truly begin to understand the dire situation of Afghan women.

Making matters worse, women subjected to cruelty and abuse often have inconsistent or discriminatory means of "justice" at their disposal. Even within the formal justice system, authorities view domestic violence as a private family issue, and victims often are dismissed and pressured into returning to abusive marriages.

Women who "run away" and seek justice may be seen as troublemakers or criminals, resulting in difficulty finding legal representation. Some are even imprisoned for daring to defy custom. Only recently have authorities begun to include Afghanistan's non-formal, exclusively-male justice systems, which preside over the majority of Afghans, in their reform efforts. However, the power of local religious councils is deeply entrenched and they are granted a great deal of latitude in enforcing traditional practices. A concerted effort will be required to bring the actions of these informal systems up to international human rights standards.

With such horrendous conditions in Afghanistan, there is a rise in suicide in among young women. Many women are desperate to escape the culture of violence, forced and child marriages, inadequate health care services and a constant fear for their lives. In Kandahar's only hospital for women, 29 cases of suicide were reported recently within a period of two months, many due to self-immolation. The Ibn-e-Sina Emergency Hospital in Kabul reported that more than 600 incidents of suicide attempts had been referred to the hospital in the 12 months prior to March of this year.

Barriers to Political Participation

Other roadblocks confront those who try to seize new opportunities available to women. Many want to take advantage of their now-recognized right to run for office, since reconstruction politics offer the prospect of shaping Afghanistan's future. Unfortunately, practical barriers prevent women from undertaking effective campaigns.

Deterred or barred from public speaking and displaying their photos on campaign posters, women candidates find it difficult to obtain the publicity that men may take for granted. Violence and death threats against female candidates are common, especially in areas under warlord control; while campaigning, these security threats make travel in remote rural areas a serious hurdle for women.

With a high number of women candidates running as independents, their lack of financial resources becomes an even greater liability, These women have either been rejected by or do not wish to associate themselves with political parties that may be corrupt (or worse, led by warlords) and seeking only to manipulate women candidates and use them as tokens.

For the majority of Afghan women, the ballot box is the most viable option for helping to change their country, but they have encountered challenges to their voting rights. Many provinces have seen increased rates of female voter registration, but have trouble recruiting enough female staff to work polling places. In other provinces, female voter registration and turnout is low due to social stigma and the threat of violence.

When women voters encounter violations of their political rights, their options to officially address discrimination are few -- and mostly ineffective. Many candidates and voters have not heard of recently-established institutions like the Electoral Complaints Committee (ECC), or do not know the procedures for reporting threats and rights violations. Even so, the ECC has been charged with clearing candidates with ties to militias and warlords, as well as a failure to respond to complaints, leading to citizens' reduced trust in the official system. Tragically, barriers to full political participation only contribute to the prevalence and persistence of other forms of oppression.

Collaboration on Capitol Hill

In Washington, D.C., concerned U.S. policymakers and Afghan women themselves have been working together to raise awareness and action on these human rights issues. In honor of International Women's Day this year, Women Thrive Worldwide organized a briefing with speakers including members of Congress and Afghan women leaders.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) argued that U.S. policy on Afghanistan must incorporate a long-term focus on the importance of women's status in society. Najia Zewari, the Gender and Justice Unit Manager of UNIFEM Afghanistan, underscored this point with her assertion that "peace without justice is not peace."

Speakers at the briefing noted some successes: newly-created organizations of parliamentary women, for example, and the role that constitutional quotas play in gaining Afghan women's trust of the new system. Going forward, they stressed the importance of Afghan women always asking "Where are the women in this meeting?" when seated in male-dominated policy discussions, to ensure that Afghan politicians consider all citizens as they take action on reconstruction efforts.

Given the widespread nature and complexity of women's rights violations in Afghanistan, it will take the combined efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and activists around the world to work toward a comprehensive solution. Women's rights NGOs, based both inside and outside Afghanistan, are working to provide shelters, schools, radio stations, health care, legal aid and economic development programs for women -- essential services that need political support, financial backing and a more secure country in order to thrive.

Together, Our Voices Are Powerful

As part of the necessary global initiative, NOW will continue its efforts to work on behalf of the rights of Afghan women and girls. We encourage you to forward this story around to educate friends, family and other community members, which will help make our collective voices even stronger as we reach out to decision-makers. As individuals, feminists can use the power of their voices by urging members of Congress to pass the Afghan Women Empowerment Act, S. 229, a bill that would provide desperately needed resources for education, safety and access to health care.

In her remarks at the International Women's Day briefing, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) endorsed a mindset that feminists everywhere would be well-advised to adopt. "We need to see ourselves as part of an international sisterhood," Schakowsky said. A sisterhood, NOW adds that must take every women's rights violation personally, as we would an affront to our own sister, mother, daughter or friend. The women of Afghanistan are counting on us.

For more information on the conditions of women and girls in Afghanistan:

Campaign for Afghan Women & Girls, Feminist Majority

Afghan Schools Burned, Students Killed as Insurgents Attack "Soft Targets"

Afghan Women's Voting Rights Already Violated, August 19, 2009

Afghanistan: New Law Threatens Women's Freedom, Human Rights Watch news release, and here

Malalai Joya: The woman who will not be silenced, July 28, 2009, World News, The Independent

UN Envoy Calls on Afghanistan to Fight Violence Against Women, July 9, 2009, Christian Science Monitor and other sources

RAWANews, multiple articles