Afghan women have experienced fairly obvious gains over the past twelve years. This has been possible due to the continuous efforts of women from various spheres of life, along with the Government of Afghanistan and its international allies, creating an enabling environment through providing opportunities, resources and support. Millions of girls now enjoy lower and higher education, 27% of women sit in the Afghan Upper and Lower Houses and women actively work in various humanitarian, service delivery and advocacy based government and non-government organizations in the capital and bigger cities.
However, the sustainability of these gains is at risk. 2013 has been a particularly distressing year for women and girls. For example girls’ schools have suffered from poisoning and insecurity in several provinces in the country1 and one of the few solid achievements of Afghan women, the Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW), was recently labelled a ‘western project’ and almost rejected by conservative members of the Afghan parliament, despite it being essential to the protection of women’s rights in the country. Levels of violence against women are high in Afghanistan and the justice system is either incapable or unwilling to rule in favour of women’s rights, exemplified by the recent case of Sahar Gul, a 14 year old victim of forced marriage who experienced severe abuse at the hands of her in-law family because she refused to enter into prostitution. The case received worldwide media attention but the perpetrators were found ‘not guilty’ and are yet to be held accountable.
Insecurity and risks to women working within the government and civil society also continue. For example, the Senator from Nimroz province in the west of the country recently survived an attack in which her daughter and driver were both killed and Islam Bibi, a prominent senior female police officer in Helmand province, was recently murdered.2 Although EU guidelines on providing support to women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who are at risk of violence do exist, and all EU member states should follow them, WHRDs in Afghanistan barely know of the existence of any provision for them. These women, who are some of the most active agents of change and protectors of human rights in their communities, face continuous threats directed at them and their families. Some of these activists have already fled the country or reduced their contribution, because protection which would enable them to continue their work is not available.
Despite these serious concerns, the withdrawal of international troops by 2014 has completely diverted the attention of the world. Though it is important to consider the transition of security to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which is a very important step for Afghanistan and its people, we should not forget that a lack of political will and negotiation with the Taliban and other ultra-conservative groups could seriously damage the fragile gains Afghan women have seen and prevent further improvement.
So what is the UK government’s role in all of this? The UK supports the Afghan government and civil society through long-term international commitments. Last year the international community agreed to continue providing development funding to Afghanistan until 2017 at least, as long as the Afghan government agreed to make progress in several key areas. One of these key areas was women’s rights and particularly the implementation of the EVAW law. So the UK government must support the Afghan authorities to meet the demands of the agreement and hold them accountable if they do not.
The UK also recently committed to prioritising initiatives and programs which will tackle violence against women in Afghanistan. To have the greatest impact, the UK must consult with Afghan women’s organisations who are already working on these issues. The UK must also recognise the importance of shelters for women victims. Women’s shelters need sustainable financial support to function actively, improve the quality of their services and be helpful to women victims. Financing women’s organizations can be important in addressing the root causes of violence against women, addressing it locally at the community level and involving men and elders.
As an Afghan woman human rights defender about to return to Afghanistan, I highly encourage the UK government to support a mechanism that provides protection and support to WHRDs locally and internationally. This mechanism is only possible if WHRDs are consulted and their needs are taken into consideration. The UK government should take the lead in implementing the EU guidelines and other mechanisms to improve protection and ensure WHRDs are aware of the protection mechanisms available to them.
This article first appeared Fabiana, the magazine of the Fabian Women’s Network. The FWN are holding a panel debate ‘What next for women’s rights and foreign policy?’ on 24 September at the Fabian fringe, Labour party conference at 12.30.