Afghanistan: We have the promises of the world


I. Summary

After the fall of the Taliban everyone wanted to come and work for women's rights, they were proud to say they were here to help Afghan women. Slowly, slowly this disappeared. Maybe the international community saw that we had two or three women in the cabinet, and thought, it's ok, now they have their rights. But we have lost everything, from those cabinet positions to the donor attention. Women are not a priority for our own government or the international community. We've been forgotten.

-Shinkai Karokhail, member of parliament, Kabul, June 4, 2009

Women's issues are off the radar. Interventions are cosmetic, and don't really deal with how conservative Afghanistan is. The nice statistics are misleading. Thousands of teachers are trained, schools are built, so what? Can the teachers actually teach? Will a family send girls to school if they don't see the employment benefits? Or if you haven't tackled the employment constraints, like mixed work places? Women's development begins and ends at the level of compassion-it's not being translated into good policies.

-Susana Paklar, former country director, Medica Mondiale, Kabul, May 3, 2009

We welcomed [the international community's] words on the Shia law- really-they said many beautiful things, as they did in 2001. We have the promises of the world. But still we wait to see what more they will do.

-Wazhma Frogh, activist, Global Rights, Kabul, April 14 2009

The US and its allies cited the defense of women's rights as one of the primary reasons, after the need to root out al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban, for their 2001 invasion and subsequent commitment to rehabilitate Afghanistan. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, and the establishment of the Karzai government, Afghan women continue to be among the worst off in the world. Their situation is dismal in every area, including in health, education, employment, freedom from violence, equality before the law, and political participation.

Despite the rhetorical commitment to women's rights and women's empowerment, and despite the millions already spent on women's rights and development projects, women have not been a central priority for the government or for international donors, whose focus is primarily on the armed conflict rather than the broader concept of civilian security and rule of law.

The diminishing status of women's rights in Afghanistan came back into focus in March 2009 when the Shia Personal Status law, which was riddled with Taliban style misogyny, was passed by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai. The law regulates the personal affairs of Shia Muslims, including divorce, inheritance, and minimum age of marriage, but, as detailed below, severely restricts women's basic freedoms. US President Obama called the law "abhorrent," and leaders from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and NATO all joined the condemnation and reaffirmed the importance of respect for women's rights.

Afghan women's rights activists were galvanized and mounted a successful campaign to force the president to revise the law, aided by the outspokenness of countries like the US, Canada, and various European nations. Unfortunately, the final outcome fell far short of expectations, apparently because President Karzai was intent on maintaining the electoral support of Shia fundamentalists. A month before the presidential election he issued by decree an amended version of the law which still includes articles that impose drastic restrictions upon Shia women, including the requirement that wives seek their husbands' permission before leaving home except for unspecified "reasonable legal reasons." The law also gives child custody rights to fathers and grandfathers, not mothers or grandmothers, and allows a husband to cease maintenance to his wife if she does not meet her marital duties, including sexual duties.

The furor over the Shia law highlighted the fragility of the gains made by Afghan women, human rights activists, and reform-minded politicians. The dominant political factions of Afghanistan remain ideologically hostile to many of the rights that many women have started to enjoy since the fall of the Taliban, such as freedom of movement, freedom to work, and the right to education. Many of the women interviewed for this report observed that the space for them to work as activists for change has diminished over the past few years, as the government has come to increasingly rely on conservative factions to maintain political control.

In the wake of the Shia law controversy, with the world looking closely again at the status of women in Afghanistan, many inside and outside the country are becoming aware again of just how few and fragile the gains have been and how steep the challenges remain. Whereas the trend had clearly been positive for women's rights from 2001-2005, the trend is now negative in many areas. This is not a commentary on the many courageous women and men who risk their lives through acts big and small-such as teaching at a girls' school or running as an independent woman for parliament. Rather, it is a reflection of the power of conservative leaders who want to deny women their basic rights. The Shia law, in which the previously moderate Karzai traded women's rights for political support for his re-election, is only the most visible example of this trend. With the prospect of deals with the Taliban and other insurgent groups firmly on the political agenda, fundamentalist actors may be able to expand their influence in coming years.

In this report, we focus on five key areas of concern:

- Attacks on women in public life;

- Violence against women;

- Child and forced marriage;

- Access to justice;

- Girls' access to secondary education.

We chose these five areas as exemplars of the wider situation of women, though we know that a strong case could be made to examine other subjects such as access to primary education, maternal mortality, threats to women human rights defenders, and domestic violence. By detailing emblematic cases of ongoing rights' violations in the five areas, this report highlights the failure of the government in recent years to advance the basic rights of women and girls, and identifies some of the shortcomings in donor priorities and assistance that have contributed to the backsliding.


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