2014 could be make or break for the women of Afghanistan

16th June, 2014 5:07 pm

Last year the World Health Organisation labelled the global problem of violence against women an epidemic, estimating that one out of every three women worldwide will be a victim of physical abuse at some point in her lifetime. From Nigeria to India, violations of women’s rights – whether abduction, rape or public stoning – are finally getting the attention they deserve. Amid a surge of international recognition of the need to combat violence against women, London has just hosted the world’s first ever Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

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The day after the end of the summit, voters in Afghanistan headed to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, in the first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in the country’s history. The election is significant not just for this reason, however, as this year will also mark the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and the election could therefore indicate how the country is likely to be governed going forward.

The answer to that question matters a great deal to all Afghans, but especially to Afghan women. Under the Taliban, so-called “honour” killings, forced marriages and domestic violence were widespread, and women had little in the way of legal protections. But in last few years a sea change in the legal rights of women in the country means that gender equality is now enshrined in the constitution, while 28% of parliamentary seats are now held by women. Access to education and health care has also improved dramatically.

But now is no time for complacency. The Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, passed in 2009, affords legal protections to women who are victims of violent abuse and the law criminalised rape and forced marriage for the first time. But there is evidence that the law has not been implemented effectively in some areas and there are also conservative politicians in the national legislature who have threatened to repeal it.

Meanwhile, a number of high profile attacks on women politicians and senior female police officers have demonstrated that having more women in prominent positions won’t necessarily guarantee that women’s rights are protected – and with only 9 women on the 70 member High Peace Council, tasked by President Karzai with negotiating peace with the Taliban, there are real concerns that women’s rights could be sacrificed in any potential deals.

As our troops begin to return home they can be proud of the advances in equality and human rights – especially women’s rights – that have been made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. But our interest in Afghanistan shouldn’t end with the withdrawal of our troops. As one of the country’s most important donors, our government can and must play a role in ensuring that the hard-won gains of Afghan women will be protected regardless of who the next president is.

The government’s rhetoric on protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan hasn’t always been matched by reality. They’ve been reluctant, for example, to develop a specific strategy for protecting women’s rights defenders in Afghanistan. Such a strategy, which is usually standard practice for EU countries, would help improve our efforts to give vital support to courageous women’s rights activists. It could include measures to evacuate or secure women’s rights defenders when there’s an imminent threat to their life, support the activities and events organised by women’s rights defenders, and guide our coordination with the UN, the EU, and other states.

The UK must also ensure that women and women’s interests are properly represented in the political processes surrounding the NATO withdrawal, development spending, and peace talks. For a start, the two international conferences that the UK is chairing this year – the NATO conference in September and the London Afghanistan donor conference – should have at least 25 percent female representation. And specific attention should be paid to improving the situation of women and girls in the discussions and outcomes.

Equal rights for women will be vital for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. Indeed, a peace in which women are beaten, killed, and deprived of their rights with impunity is no peace at all. Nearly 500 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. We’ve made enormous sacrifices both in human and material terms to safeguard peace and stability and to improve women’s rights. Yes, we have a special responsibility to the people of Afghanistan. But we also have a duty to ourselves – given the sacrifices that we, as a country, have made – to ensure it hasn’t all been for nothing. 2014 should be a time for the UK to redouble its efforts on women’s rights.

Sandra Osborne is the Labour MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, a member of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Afghanistan.

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