In November 2001, on the eve of the Taliban’s ouster, former first lady Laura Bush tied the US-led intervention to the plight of Afghan women. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women, she said. Ten years later, in July 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed that any “potential for peace will be subverted if women and ethnic minorities are marginalized or silenced.”
Yet Afghan women are increasingly concerned that, as the withdrawal of foreign troops nears, they will be sacrificed at the twin altars of international indifference and Afghan political expediency. They have reason to be concerned. Nonetheless, the gains they have made in the last 12 years can and should be secured with the help of the international community.
Before the US-led intervention of Afghanistan in 2001, more than two decades of internal conflict had devastated the country. Subjected to the Taliban’s harsh version of sharia law and deprived of state protection or services, women suffered the most. Yet they remained resilient. They risked their lives by secretly educating young girls within Afghanistan and by standing up for their rights in the mujahideen-controlled refugee camps and squatter settlements of Pakistan and Iran.
The ouster of the Taliban gave Afghan women a chance to build better lives for themselves and their daughters. With international support and the acquiescence of Afghan powerbrokers, they helped draft a democratic constitution that gave equal rights to men and women and provided legal guarantees for women’s political participation and access to education and healthcare. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was set up to monitor human rights abuses and give protection to victims of violence, a dire need in a county where the culture of impunity has yet to disappear.
With the lessening of the Taliban’s gender apartheid, millions of young girls have joined or rejoined school. Access to health care has reduced maternal mortality rates, though they remain much too high. Large numbers of policewomen have been recruited. They might lack the capacity or authority to tackle gender-based violence effectively, but their potential is great.
An unprecedented number of women now serve in Afghanistan's legislature. Women are government officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and civil society activists. Through their advocacy for women’s rights, they have ensured that Kabul prioritizes, at least formally, women’s political and economic empowerment through such programs as the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, a five-year road map for reconstruction and development, and the National Action Plan for Women, a 10-year plan to make gender concerns a routine consideration in state institutions.
Women have equal voting rights. They are legally protected against enforced and underage marriage and against violence – physical or verbal. Passed by presidential decree in 2009, the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW) criminalized rape for the first time in Afghanistan's history. Women victims of violence can now find refuge in shelters and safe houses.
Of course, much more needs to be done. The quality of education and health services remains poor. There are very few women in senior government positions. Women parliamentarians, particularly the strongest proponents of women’s rights, often work in isolation. Women in the countryside receive far fewer basic services and protections than their urban counterparts. Prosecutions under the EVAW law are few and convictions even fewer; many women have little recourse to the formal justice system and are at the mercy of jirgas and shuras, local councils dominated by male powerbrokers.
Removing these shortcomings and flaws and consolidating progress will depend on the efforts and commitment of Afghan women and also on continued international support. Given the enormous challenges they face – political, economic, and security-related – the global community, particularly the United States and European Union, which have invested so heavily in Afghanistan, must commit to their progress.
The threats to women’s rights are increasing. Militants portray women’s empowerment as a Western import, but this view is not confined to the insurgency. With presidential elections in April and foreign forces also drawing down next year, male powerbrokers within and outside government and parliament may be tempted to backtrack on women’s rights – to consolidate their electoral base, to demonstrate independence from the West, or to appease insurgents.
Attacks on pro-women legislation have already begun, including on the EVAW law, which is criticized by parliamentary opponents as un-Islamic. While high-profile professional women are the most vulnerable, any woman or girl who dares to work or go to school is a potential target of the insurgents. Many have been assaulted, kidnapped, or killed. If the international community abandons Afghan women, they will be even more vulnerable to such threats and attacks, not just by the insurgents but also by pro-government warlords and militias.
Influential actors can best serve the cause of women's rights in Afghanistan by holding Kabul to its pledges under the July 2012 Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework to defend human rights, and more specifically to fully implement the EVAW law. They must remind Kabul of its domestic and international obligations to uphold the rule of law.
Growing frustration with Kabul is tempting many international donors to reduce or even end assistance if the Afghan government fails to use it more effectively or continues to tolerate corruption. However, assistance to women, as well as organizations and projects that empower women (government-run or otherwise), should not be held hostage to Kabul’s good behavior.
Nor should the US or EU member-states seek to broker peace with the Taliban at the expense of women’s rights. Recognition of constitutionally guaranteed gender equality and adherence to laws that protect and empower women must be prerequisites for negotiations, not merely on the list of desired outcomes.
Robust international support for women’s participation in elections, for increased female representation in government, and for women activists and groups is the way forward. Policymakers in the US and EU should realize that the costs of international indifference could take women in post-transition Afghanistan back to a terrible and not very distant past.
Samina Ahmed is the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.