Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan

Saturday 8 March 2014 marks International Women’s Day and women, and some men, will want to mark it in some way. In Westminster MPs took part in debates highlighting the different conditions that women live and work under in different parts of the globe: a debate in Westminster Hall focused on women in business while the main Commons chamber debated the security and rights of women in Afghanistan. Over 100 years have passed since the first International Women’s Day in 1911 but the struggle for women’s rights continues here in the UK – but nowhere more than in Afghanistan.

Next month will see a new president elected and later this year, as international troops withdraw, full responsibility for security will pass to the Afghan National Security Forces.

The House of Commons international development committee’s inquiry into Afghanistan said that women’s rights should be the ‘litmus test’ of our intervention and the UK government has committed itself to safeguarding the progress that has been made.

There has been substantial progress, made by the Afghans for the Afghans. In 2003 the Afghan government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women; in 2004 the new Constitution outlawed discrimination and enshrined equal rights for women and men; in 2008 the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan was launched; and, significantly, in 2009 the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law was adopted. Around 20 women’s shelters have been established and 25 per cent of government jobs are filled by women, while 2.7 million girls were enrolled in school in 2011-12 compared to fewer than 10,000 in 2001. It is stating the obvious to say that there is more to be done.

With international forces due to withdraw, however, the situation remains precarious. A survey conducted by Action Aid found that while two thirds of Afghan women found their lives had improved over the last decade, nine out of ten feared a return to Taleban-style rule. Women’s rights must be included as a critical indicator of UK progress towards withdrawal, but steps must also be taken to ensure that Afghan women human rights defenders can hold their government and its officials to account even after international troops leave.

In recent months a number of high-profile women have been attacked. Despite the press attention that these attacks have received, they have been met with almost exclusive impunity. For every high-profile attack there are countless other women facing threats, violence and sexual abuse; in December the UN noted that, while recorded cases of violence against women had increased by 28 per cent, prosecutions had only increased by two per cent.

Women also continue to be failed by public authorities. Last month the Afghan parliament passed Article 26 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which would have banned all relatives of an accused from testifying in a criminal trial. In practice this would have undermined the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, making it almost impossible to prosecute crimes against women in the home including domestic violence. While Hamid Karzai subsequently issued a decree to allow relatives to testify if they wished to, serious concerns remain about the trajectory of policymakers.

Members of the parliament’s lower house previously attempted to revise Afghanistan’s electoral laws to remove the requirement for female representation on provincial councils, while conservative members of parliament have called for the repeal of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. Moreover, one of the country’s Independent Human Rights Commissioners – charged with safeguarding civil liberties – has called for the EVAW Law to be repealed and the Ministry of Justice helped draft proposals to reintroduce public execution by stoning for the crime of adultery.

Human Rights Watch has reported that around half of the women in prison and almost all of the girls in juvenile detention are imprisoned on accusations of ‘moral crimes’. Many of these women and girls have, in reality, fled forced marriages and domestic violence, but they are treated as criminals, not as victims, and subjected to ‘virginity tests’. Shockingly, these invasive and degrading vaginal examinations often provide the sole evidence to support allegations in court.

The Afghan government has recently reported on the progress it has made towards implementing the law on EVAW. Its report cites murder as the second most common recorded crime, indicating that only the most serious cases of abuse are being reported, and it explains that officials are focused on using mediation to resolve cases but it fails to recognise that this is an inappropriate method in many cases relating to domestic and physical violence. Victims of crime must be informed of their rights and be given full access to justice.

In November the UK will host a follow-up to 2012’s Tokyo Summit at which the international community pledged $16bn in aid to Afghanistan in return for adherence to a Mutual Accountability Framework, which included commitments on women’s rights. Together with international partners and Afghan women human rights defenders, we must make clear that the Afghan government will be held to account. Women’s rights are human rights and even after we no longer have responsibility for security they should be of concern to us all.

I hope that our sisters in Afghanistan heard both debates in parliament to know that our voices were raised to demand their safety and security, their human rights and the right to engage fully in every aspect of life in Afghanistan. While there is still work to do here too, I easily count myself lucky to be a woman in the UK. I have three grandsons and I hope that one day I also have a granddaughter. If I was a woman in Afghanistan, I would want all my grandchildren to be boys.


Fiona O’Donnell is member of parliament for East Lothian. She tweets @FionaODonnellMP


Photo: International Women’s Day

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Fiona O'Donnell MP

is member of parliament for East Lothian

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