As the presidential election approaches in 2014, with the security transition at the year’s end, Afghan women, including parliamentarians and rights activists, are concerned that the hard-won political, economic and social gains achieved since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001 may be rolled back or conceded in negotiations with the insurgents. Afghanistan’s stabilisation ultimately rests on the state’s accountability to all its citizens, and respect for constitutional, legal and international commitments, including to human rights and gender equality. There will be no sustainable peace unless there is justice, and justice demands that the state respect and protect the rights of women, half its population.
Following the Taliban’s ouster, Afghan women worked hard to reverse the damage wrought by more than two decades of a civil war that deprived them of the limited progress towards gender equality experienced in earlier times. As a result of international support, donor aid and their own efforts, women are now an essential part of the post-Taliban order and have played a major role in reconstructing the state and its institutions. 40 per cent of all schoolchildren are girls. Women are more than 27 per cent of parliament. They are in the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and are lawyers, entrepreneurs, journalists and civil society activists.
In the last twelve years, women’s legal status has improved considerably. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution. The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law criminalises rape for the first time. The state is now legally bound to protect women from violence. The ministry of women’s affairs (MOWA) and the government’s National Action Plan for Women (NAPWA) place empowerment at the heart of state building. Yet, women still struggle to avail themselves of their rights and to consolidate and advance their progress.
The implementation of laws to ensure women’s rights and support their political and economic participation is uneven. Years of prioritising counter-insurgency over community policing have impeded the emergence of a police force able and willing to protect women from violence. Women are a mere 1 per cent of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Female police are marginalised and often incapable of responding effectively to incidents of violence against women. A fraction of the incidents of gender-based violence are tried under the EVAW law. Very few cases even make it to the formal justice system; most are decided by jirgas or shuras (local councils) mainly dominated by strongmen.
Moreover, persistent insecurity and violence threaten women’s political, economic and social rights. Those in positions of authority are regularly threatened; many have been killed by insurgents. Militants have attacked girls’ schools, students and staff. Qualified female teachers and health workers are reluctant to work outside relatively secure urban centres, undermining rural women’s and girls’ access to education and basic health services.
Since the formal transfer of the security lead to the ANSF in mid-2013, insurgent threats to women have increased. Their rights are also under attack from yesterday’s warlords, now powerbrokers both within and outside government. Rearming their militias as a hedge against what may happen in the 2014 elections or after the transition and attempting to consolidate their electoral base, including by demonstrating independence from the West, they could undo women’s fragile gains.
The reversal of progress is already evident. With presidential and provincial council elections due in April, the latest electoral law has reduced the quota –guaranteed seats – for women in provincial assemblies from a quarter to a fifth. If passed by both houses of parliament, a change in the Criminal Prosecution Code disqualifying relatives of the accused from testifying against them would severely constrain women’s ability to take abuse cases to court. Conservative members of parliament have strongly opposed the EVAW law, calling it un-Islamic when it was introduced in parliament in May 2013. Though it remains valid at least until a vote in parliament, the attention its detractors have received could undermine its already limited use. A wide range of Afghan and international women’s rights organisations have urged President Hamid Karzai, who enacted it by decree in 2009, to speak in favour of the law and endorse its implementation.
In the July 2012 Tokyo Framework defining the terms for continued donor aid after the security transition, Kabul pledged to improve governance, enforce rule of law and protect human rights, including by the EVAW law. Signalling that it will not accept the erosion of women’s rights, the international community should continue to support women activists and NGOs and in the interest of sustainability help such NGOs gain financial independence by giving core, as well as project-based funding.
If patchy implementation of the laws that protect and empower women raises doubts of Kabul’s commitment, women are as much, if not more concerned about the efforts, with international backing, to broker peace with the Taliban. They have been sidelined in a process that will determine their future and that of their country. The role of female representatives in Kabul’s High Peace Council (HPC) and Provincial Peace Councils (PPC) is largely limited to public outreach. It does not extend to talks with the insurgency. Given their exclusion and the opacity of the negotiations, there is reason for concern. The government and parliament may be tempted to backtrack on pro-women constitutional provisions and laws to assuage conservative powerbrokers within and outside the armed insurgency.
Women activists and parliamentarians are not comforted by rhetoric from Kabul and the international community, including U.S. and EU assurances that any peace settlement would be based on respect for the constitution and women’s rights. Agreement on protecting the rights of women must be a prerequisite rather than an elusive desired outcome of any reconciliation process.
To protect women’s rights and sustain gains achieved for and by Afghan women
To the government of Afghanistan:
1. Increase women’s and girls’ access to health care and education, with particular emphasis on service quality, by creating incentives for qualified female staff to work in rural areas, including by adequate fiscal support for accompanying male family and protecting staff and beneficiaries.
2. Ensure implementation of laws protecting women’s rights by:
a) supporting passage of the EVAW law in parliament, instead of keeping it a presidential decree, but without weakening its text;
b) strengthening the formal justice system and announcing a timetable for establishing EVAW law prosecution units, staffed by qualified female prosecutors in every province and major district; and
c) refraining from passing or modifying legislation that would undermine protections against gender-based violence.
3. Support the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) efforts to monitor human rights abuses and, in the AIHRC case, to also protect victims of violence, by:
a) respecting AIHRC independence, autonomy and credibility, including by consulting civil society and rights activists on appointments of commissioners; and
b) supporting renewal of UNAMA’s mandate beyond March 2014 and providing protection to UN personnel in Kabul and field offices.
4. Enhance freedom of expression by ensuring that all journalists, including women, can work without political interference, harassment or threats from government officials and pro-government forces.
5. Restrain government and pro-government forces from violating women’s rights and build a police force capable of protecting women from violence by:
a) including women in the vetting process for the ANSF and the Afghan Local Police (ALP);
b) staffing Family Response Units (FRUs) with qualified policewomen and female legal advisers;
c) building career paths for women to attract qualified, and dedicated police officers;
d) acting against harassment of policewomen by male colleagues and prosecuting police responsible for gender-based violence; and
e) ensuring that violations of women’s rights are appropriately prosecuted and investigated.
To the international community, and donor countries in particular:
6. Continue to support women’s access and the government’s ability to provide basic services and economic opportunities to women by intensifying efforts to:
a) give sustained support for development, particularly in the health and education sectors, and emphasise quality of services over purely quantitative indicators;
b) ensure that gender is mainstreamed in all donor-funded programs; and
c) call on Kabul to ensure security of female staff and aid recipients.
7. Underwrite development of a national police committed to protecting citizens rather than fighting an insurgency by:
a) supporting professional, community-oriented policing;
b) providing training in psychological counseling to FRU personnel; and
c) reducing and ultimately ending funding for the ALP.
8. Support the formal justice system and implementation of laws that protect and empower women and use appropriate pressure, including using aid levers within the framework of the Tokyo commitments to discourage Afghan authorities from weakening existing legislation.
9. Ensure that violations of women’s rights are effectively monitored by:
a) supporting renewal of UNAMA’s mandate beyond March 2014 and ensuring UNAMA and AIHRC have the necessary funds, political space and security to effectively monitor and protect human rights; and
b) placing particular emphasis on protecting freedom of expression and on the security of women journalists.
To give women a voice in shaping the Afghan future and capacity to build on gains
To the government of Afghanistan:
10. Mainstream gender equality in all government activities and promote women’s empowerment, as prescribed by the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA), and increase women in decision-making positions.
11. Commit to implementing a National Action Plan for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, including by ensuring women’s substantial participation in negotiations with the Taliban and making the protection of their rights and empowerment a prerequisite for any peace deal.
12. Promote women’s participation in elections, both as voters and candidates by:
a) providing, with hard timelines, their significant representation in electoral institutions, including the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC);
b) ensuring sufficient numbers of female security personnel and electoral staff at women’s polling stations; and
c) reviewing the electoral law with the new parliament in 2015 to restore the 25 per cent minimum quota for women in provincial councils and consider such quotas for district and village councils.
To the international community, and donor countries in particular:
13. Promote fiscal independence and sustainability of women’s rights groups and NGOs by:
a) providing core funding, in addition to project-based assistance; and
b) supporting creation of consortiums and networks for project implementation and advocacy.
14. Strengthen women’s presence in decision-making in the bureaucracy by urging Kabul to achieve the 30 per cent representation recommended by the National Action Plan for Women.
15. Continue to remind Kabul of its domestic and international obligations for improved governance, rule of law and human rights protection, and use aid as a lever to persuade it to respect and advance women’s rights and empowerment.
16. Fund women’s participation in domestic and international electoral observation; and earmark portions of the aid to the IEC and IECC for women staff in central and provincial offices, for training women polling officers and for women police provide electoral security.
17. Support women’s substantive participation in negotiations with the Taliban and ensure that preservation of their gains is a prerequisite for any peace deal.