Afghanistan

In dialogue with Afghanistan, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women stresses that the future peace agreement should preserve hard-won gains for women

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The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today reviewed the third periodic report of Afghanistan on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Committee Experts urged Afghanistan to build on the progress and achievements in gender equality, adding that hard-earned gains must not be lost in the future peace agreement.

Commending the adoption of the second national action plan on Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in 2019, the Experts noted that women’s participation in the peace process so far had been negligible. Afghanistan should ensure that the rights of women were preserved in the future peace agreement.

The Experts discussed, among other issues, child marriage, “honour killings” and other forms of violence against women. The “systematic impunity” for perpetrators of gender-based violence, especially influential persons, sent a very bad signal to the whole society that crimes against women were tolerated, they said.

Hasina Safi, Acting Minister of Information and Culture of Afghanistan, introducing the report, said that since 2015, there were more women on the General Assembly of the High Peace Council. The first consultation on peace had been held with women in the provinces. Women had participated in the peace talks with the Taliban in 2015 and again in 2018. Women participated in the peace talks to ensure that the gains achieved to date were not lost.

During the dialogue, the head of the delegation assured the Committee that women’s equal and effective participation in the informal peace talks was evidence of the clear commitment to preserve the gains and ensure that the voices of women were heard in the formal peace talks, which were yet to start.

Another delegate stressed the importance of not compromising on the international support for women’s rights. Afghanistan had reached a crossroads on the path towards human rights and women’s rights; there must be a coordinated effort with the international community to preserve the gains of the past 18 years.

The delegation said that the criminal system did not systematically favour impunity for gender-based violence - the prosecutors and courts played their role and ensured due process in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Several provinces had special tribunals for violence against women.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Safi thanked the Experts for giving Afghanistan’s women strength and more ideas and stressed that with their help Afghan women would change what must be changed.

Hilary Gbedemah, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue and commended the good will of Afghanistan to align its practices with international standards.

The delegation of Afghanistan consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Information and Culture, Ministry of Women Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Parliament of Afghanistan, Supreme Court and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Afghanistan at the end of its seventy-fifth session on 28 February. All documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage. The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will reconvene on Wednesday, 19 February at 10 a.m. to consider the eighth periodic report of Bulgaria (CEDAW/C/BGR/8).

Report

The Committee has before it the third periodic report of Afghanistan (CEDAW/C/AFG/3).

Presentation of the Report

HASINA SAFI, Acting Minister of Information and Culture of Afghanistan, recalled that Afghanistan had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women without any reservations. Afghan women would not go back, stressed the Minister, and expressed appreciation for the women of the world helping the women of Afghanistan.

While progress had been made in the meaningful participation of women, challenges remained, especially in areas outside of the capital. That was why it was important to raise awareness in provinces and villages. Over the past five years, women had become a part of the system of governance. For the first time, women had been nominated to the High Council of the Supreme Court, to Afghanistan’s missions to the United Nations, to the posts of deputy ministers of interior and of defence, and to posts of deputy governors in the provinces.

Since 2015, the number of women on the General Assembly of the High Peace Council had increased and consultations with women in the provinces had been held for the first time, during which women had been asked what peace meant for them. Women had participated in the peace talks with the Taliban in 2015 and again in 2018. Afghanistan had developed two national action plans for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and it was currently preparing a report on the second action plan to 2020.

Women participated in the peace process to ensure that the gains achieved to date were not lost. They had been given an equal opportunity to participate in the discussions, stressed the Acting Minister, while civil society organizations, such as the Afghan Women Network, had coordinated the voices of women. The Ministry of Peace was facilitating the participation of women in the peace process and aimed to clearly define their role in all its steps, from pre-negotiation, the negotiation itself and the implementation of the future peace agreement, which would be the most difficult step.

As for the national machinery for the women of Afghanistan, Ms. Safi stressed the policy advances made over past years, which included the law on the elimination of violence against women, the setting up of a high-level commission for the elimination of violence against women, and the efforts to reactivate the dormant gender department of the Independent Civil Service Commission. The Committee of Laws in the Ministry of Justice had a deadline for the completion of the draft family law by 2021.

On the participation of women in political and public life, the Acting Minister stressed the intention to strengthen the quality of their participation. There was a special facility to guide and encourage women to get their identity cards. The ongoing revision of the curriculum aimed to ensure the integration of peace and gender from an early age. “We want peace and mutual respect of women and men from childhood,” the Acting Minister stressed.

The Government listened to the people, it held regular consultations and had extended its reach into all 34 provinces, where women actively participated. Polygamy was not encouraged in laws.

In conclusion, Ms. Safi called for support for the Government of Afghanistan in the implementation of all the laws that had been developed for the Afghan women. It was easy to put women as ministers or deputy ministers, but they had to be an active tool of system development, which was the only tangible indicator of sustainable development. The women of Afghanistan needed to define the issues by themselves and the international community should support the Government to act on those recommendations.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, a Committee Expert welcomed the bravery of women who were fighting for peace and for the construction of a new Afghanistan based on gender equality and women’s participation.

On the coordination mechanisms for international assistance, the Expert asked what could be done to improve the targeting of the strategic assistance and optimize its efficiency for gender equality. Given the insecurity in the country, what was Afghanistan doing to ensure the protection of the many human rights defenders and activists?

The National Human Rights Commission had a status A under the Paris Principles and was present in many provinces, the Expert noted with satisfaction. She asked about the efforts to strengthen its role, build its capacity and ensure it coordinated with all human rights bodies. The Committee was very impressed by the large number of initiatives for peace and equality. This called for coordination – what was the vision of Afghanistan in this respect?

The Expert took positive note of the efforts to strengthen access to justice for women in the provinces, such as the nomination of female prosecutors or the support to provincial courts to address specific cases. Still, disparity remained between rural and urban areas, especially for populations such as women with disabilities or ethnic minority women.

Did the Citizen Charter include a dialogue with religious leaders to strengthen the implementation of the Convention? This was an important point given the obstacles thrown by radicalism and extremism in Afghanistan.

An Expert commended Afghanistan for the use of temporary special measures to promote women’s participation in public and political life. This included the 35 per cent reserved seats for women in Parliament and 30 per cent quota in provincial seats and councils. Despite those steps, the political participation of women had dropped. The Expert asked about temporary special measures to correct this, to ensure the participation of women in the peace process, and to strengthen the representation of vulnerable groups of women, such as women with disabilities.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained the process of selection of women for their participation in the peace process, noting the close cooperation with civil society and the active efforts in the provinces. Today, between 38 and 40 women were members of the Advisory Board to the Ministry of Peace and worked to facilitate the political and social involvement of women in the peace process. The women of Afghanistan, both those in the Government and in civil society, must be the holders and keepers of the gains. As united women, or women who presented a strong front, could be seen as a threat, there was a need for strategic advocacy.

On the dialogue with mullahs, the traditional leaders, the delegation stressed that women had graduated from the Sharia and religious faculties, but did not have a platform to express their voices. That was why the Government was organizing workshops and consultations, to hear them and to discuss issues that were common to all Muslim women around the world.

Turning to the coordination of international assistance, the delegation said Afghanistan was grateful for all the support and stressed that women’s issues and problems in Afghanistan were different from the issues and problems that women in Canada, the United States or Europe experienced. That was why it was essential to consult with the local authorities and to strengthen the coordination between actors in the international community.

To ensure that international assistance effectively supported gender equality in Afghanistan, it was important not to make compromises on the value aspects of that assistance. There might be demands from the other side of the peace negotiations to reduce the conditionality of assistance in relation to women’s rights. The only condition that should be on the peace table was that it supported women’s rights.

Afghanistan had reached a crossroads on the path towards human rights and women’s rights. There was a need for a collective and coordinated effort with the international community to preserve the gains of the past 18 years. Afghanistan was facing an enemy that did not support the values of the Government of Afghanistan and the international community and the challenge for all was to support the Government in its efforts to preserve the Convention and other non-negotiable aspects.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had launched the human rights defenders protection mechanism in 2018, whose implementation, however, was weak and lacked resources. Efforts were ongoing to strengthen this mechanism and improve the coordination.

On temporary special measures, the delegation said that there was an initiative to ensure 27 per cent participation of women in the Independent Civil Service Commission, while the Ministry of Justice had started in 2019 an initiative to improve the accessibility of persons with disabilities to Government institutions. Afghanistan had adopted quotas for the participation of women, persons with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

The National Action Plan for Afghan Women 2008-2018 contained indicators of gender equality in different sectors. The policy had been reviewed in 2019, with a focus on women and gender equality in rural areas.

Questions by Committee Experts

Committee Experts commended Afghanistan on the adoption of the 2016 law against the harassment of women, the 2017 national action plan to eliminate child marriage, and the strategy and national action plan for the elimination of violence against women.

Despite the efforts to tackle harmful traditional practices and violence against women through legislation and awareness raising, child marriage, giving girls in ba’ad [giving a woman from the criminal’s family to the victim’s family as a servant or a bride], and “honour killings” were still prevalent. At least 270 women had lost their lives due to domestic violence and “honour killings” during the March 2017 to March 2018 period. In rural areas, women were compelled to recourse to informal justice, such as jirgas, which were deeply patriarchal and based on social attitudes that were against women’s well-being and empowerment.

The Expert pointed to some gaps in the legal framework, namely the fact that the crimes of gender-based violence, criminalized in the 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, had been excluded from the revised Penal Code of 2017. She raised concern about the “systematic impunity” for perpetrators of gender-based violence, especially for influential persons, which sent a very bad signal to the whole society that crimes against women were tolerated.

Trafficking in persons and the exploitation of prostitution remained challenges, despite the ratification of the Palermo Protocol, the passage of the anti-trafficking law, and the setting up of the High Commission against trafficking in persons.

In rural areas, male community leaders settled disputes, often to the detriment of women and their rights. The law prohibited the use of mediation in cases of violence against women, which nevertheless happened in practice.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation stressed that Afghan women were “in a very good position”; they were mothers, sisters, daughters and much more. Eighty-two complaints of forced marriage had been filed with the courts and penalties had been handed down, ranging from five to seven years in prison. The ba’ad was criminalized and perpetrators were prosecuted.

The criminal system did not systematically favour impunity. The prosecutors and courts played their role properly and ensured due process in bringing the perpetrators to justice. If a trial was brought to court, the court applied the law without any hesitation. Afghanistan had taken very swift action in several high-profile cases of violence against women. The prosecution of perpetrators based abroad was constrained by long waiting times for the issuance of visas for prosecutors or a need for bilateral agreements on judicial cooperation.

On child marriage, the minimum age of marriage was 18, said the delegate. The court refused to register any marriage of a girl under the age of 16. A draft law currently before Parliament would firmly set the age of marriage to 18 without any exceptions. “Honour killing” was a crime; it was properly described in the statute books and did not enjoy any impunity.

The tension between the progressive and conservative elements in the society slowed down some efforts to strengthen the promotion and protection of women’s rights and their empowerment. One such case was the draft law on children in Parliament, which would raise the age of marriage to 18. It was celebrated by the progressives and slowed down by the conservatives.

The delegation said that women victims of violence could effectively access justice in almost all the provinces. There were special tribunals for violence against women in several provinces and in six provinces, personal status courts could address the matter. In other provinces, women could access civil courts, courts of first instance and courts of appeal. Family support centres in 21 provinces assisted families and there were protection centres for women.

A high-level commission against violence against women was in place and it worked through mosques to raise awareness on the negative impacts of this issue.

Trafficking in persons was a crime, continued a delegate, noting that 966 cases of trafficking in persons had been registered in the legal system during 2019-2020. As a result, 216 individuals had been acquitted and 688 had been found guilty and sentenced, many to imprisonment.

Questions by Committee Experts

Despite all the efforts to promote the participation of women in the public sphere, the participation of women in the last elections had dropped from 26 to 21 per cent, noted an Expert. Noting that the Taliban did not recognize women as human beings with human rights, she asked about the reaction of the Government’s male negotiators if the Taliban refused to negotiate with women. Who was negotiating with the Taliban, the United States or Afghanistan?

Education was critical to women’s equal participation in the public sphere – what was being done to support women’s equal entry in science, technology, engineering and mathematical studies?

The Law on Citizenship guaranteed the equal rights of women and men to pass nationality to their children, however, some other legal provisions, such as article of the 1977 Civil Code, discriminated against women in the matter of transmission of nationality. The new citizenship law was in the making – how would it differ from the old one and what was the timeframe for its adoption?

The Expert commended the efforts to increase women’s access to identity cards and asked how many women actually had them. Were there specific policies or special measures to facilitate access to identity cards for refugee and internally displaced women?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that because of insecurity, many people had not participated in the latest elections. Despite security threats, many women had indeed voted. Programmes were in place to support women in exercising their right to vote, from awareness raising to facilitating the issuance of identity cards. The latest elections were the first in Afghan history in which biometric data had been used. This required a photograph and in some provinces, women had not been allowed to take a photo of the face. The Government was working on addressing the issue.

The formal peace talks had not started yet. The Taliban had not objected to the participation of women in the informal talks. There was a basis to have strong confidence in the Government upholding the constitutionally guaranteed rights of all citizens of the republic.

The Deputy Minister of Defence was a woman and many women had been trained in security and military affairs. The Ministry of Defence had created a network of women in the security sector who met regularly; a workshop on women, peace and security had been held with the participation of women engaged in the security sector.

The female robotic team in Herat province had broken stereotypes and shown what women and girls could achieve in science and technology. There was no discrimination against girls in the education system – girls were free to choose want they wanted to study. Attitudes were influenced by the values of the society and even those were changing. Girls today strove to become presidents and ministers and not only teachers or nurses.

On citizenship and nationality, the delegation explained that a foreign woman marring an Afghan citizen could obtain nationality after three years. Because of the principle of lex solis, statelessness could not exist; a child born in Afghanistan to unknown parents was taken care of by the guardians or extended family. The draft law on citizenship was currently before Parliament and should be approved soon.

Support was available to women when it came to identity cards. A dedicated team in the Ministry of Migration worked in cooperation with the United Nations Refugee Agency to support returnee women in obtaining identity cards.

Questions by Committee Experts

Continuing the dialogue, an Expert appreciated the remarkable measures to improve the education of women and girls, including the policy that called for the recruitment of 30,000 female teachers and the efforts to improve literacy among women. It was urgent to ensure access to education for the 3.5 million children still out of schools, which was an alarming figure, and to strengthen learning opportunities for young girls who could not go to school. The Expert urged Afghanistan to address the root causes that kept girls out of school, including household tasks, care responsibilities, and sexual harassment in schools and on the way to school, and to strengthen the efforts to improve school safety - around 43 per cent of the schools did not enjoy a safe environment for education.

Other Experts asked about the implementation of the law on sexual harassment in the workplace and the efforts to strengthen social security for the many women active in the informal economy. They highlighted initiatives that had had a great impact on overcoming health-related challenges, including to increase accessible health services to the people and address the critical health concerns, such as maternal health and nutrition. Despite the improvements, maternal mortality rates and obstetric fistula remained high; the abusive practice of virginity testing remained a routine part of criminal proceedings; and there was a lack of data on access of women and girls with disabilities to health services.

The Experts asked about the measures taken in the implementation of the Citizens’ Charter to involve women in the national welfare programmes and to address the disproportionate poverty ratio between women and men; persistent challenges that prevented Afghan rural women from securing land; and the status of the 2018 policy on women’s inheritance and property rights.

Replies by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation said that maternal mortality rates had significantly dropped. The midwifery programme had been one of the most successful interventions so far and each province had a specialized clinic to tend to emergency labour and delivery.

The employment rate for women stood at 48 per cent; of those, over 30 per cent worked for the Government and more than 40 per cent operated their businesses nationally and internationally. Still, there was a long way to go to fully integrate women into the economy and ensure that their work and their economic activities created a real value added for the country. There were affirmative action measures to promote the competitiveness of women-supported businesses in the public procurement process.

The Ministry of Education had started the reform of the school curricula, with the involvement of parents. The Decade of Education 2015-2025 aimed to fundamentally reform the education system towards a student-centred approach. The reform would address the challenges, including the insufficient number of schools due to which many children attended in shifts or teachers reduced the length of classes. The 6,000 schools programme and capacity-building programmes for 12,000 teachers had been put in place.

While most primary school-aged girls were in school, the rate of enrolment dropped at the secondary level. The Government was taking a multi-faceted approach to raise awareness about the importance of education of girls, for example through visits to clinics. Sexual harassment in schools could be taken up at the school committees composed of teachers and students, or parent-teacher meetings that the Government was systematically introducing.

According to the Penal Code, virginity testing was not permitted and could not be enforced. The Constitution and the legislation guaranteed women’s right to property and full financial independence and autonomy. It was important for women to know their rights, including the right to property, and to claim those rights, thus the importance of awareness raising.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the final round of questions, the Experts noted that 45 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. Poverty in particular affected rural women who continued to face obstacles in accessing services, conservative attitudes, and laws that discriminated against them in ownership and inheritance of land and property. Commending the March 2019 policy on women’s inheritance and property rights, the Expert asked about the status of its implementation. Would Afghanistan review existing laws and policies and align them with international obligations on women’s rights?

Landmines and explosive remnants of war were the leading cause of disability, said the Expert, noting that women with disabilities faced multiple forms of violence and discrimination. On refugees and internally displaced persons, the delegation was asked about the integration of the needs of returning women into the national programmes and the support available for their reintegration.

Despite all efforts, many women, especially those in rural areas, divorced and widowed women, were not able to obtain identity cards, which was an entry point for their citizenship and for exercising their rights.

Laws and practices remained discriminatory against women and girls in marriage and family affairs, property and inheritance, and other areas of life. While underage marriage was prohibited and there was a national action plan against child marriage, in practice, at least one in three girls was married before the age of 18. The right to divorce for women remained restricted to a judicial procedure, with a high burden of proof, while husbands could obtain a unilateral divorce without reason and out of court.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation said that personal relationships were governed by decrees and by the law on marriage, which was very clear in its provisions. An Afghan woman today could be confident that all family relations were based on law - Sharia law, Islamic legislation and the Civil Code, which sought to put an end to polygamy. Afghanistan was striving to ensure congruence between Islamic legislation and its civil laws.

The legal age of marriage was 18 and a marriage where a spouse was under the age of 18 could not be registered under the Civil Law. A man had the right to divorce unilaterally, while a woman had the right to petition the court under certain conditions, such as the lack of sexual union or the absence of the husband for four years.

Abortion was not a crime when it was prescribed by a doctor to save the mother’s life.

Concluding Remarks

HASINA SAFI, Acting Minister of Information and Culture of Afghanistan, concluded by stressing that the coordination between women all over the world, and backing each other up, was a guarantee of a brighter future for their daughters. She thanked the Committee for giving Afghanistan’s women more strength and more ideas and stressed that with the Committee’s help Afghan women would change what must be changed.

HILARY GBEDEMAH, Committee Chairperson, in her concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue and commended the good will of Afghanistan to align its practices with international standards. The Chair urged Afghanistan to pay particular attention to the Committee’s concluding observations that were identified for immediate follow up.

For use of the information media; not an official record

CEDAW20.008F