Afghanistan’s international human rights obligations
Despite the drastic changes unfolding in Afghanistan, the State continues to bear a legal obligation under international human rights law to guarantee the human rights of women. Specifically, as a State party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since 2003, Afghanistan is required to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country, and to ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate in the formulation and implementation of government policy, the right to hold public office and perform public functions at all levels of government including executive, judicial, administrative and other governing and key decision-making bodies. Ensuring women’s right to equal participation in political and public life in Afghanistan serves as a guarantee for a future for Afghan women and girls free of discrimination and violence. The Taliban in control of the territory is obliged to respect and protect human rights, as the duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights obligations does not change every time new authorities take power, and as has been repeatedly reaffirmed, the duty applies regardless of states’ political, economic and cultural systems. Many Muslim majority countries have implemented these obligations in practice.
Women’s right to equality and sustainable peacebuilding
We are deeply concerned at the rapid rolling back of women’s rights on full display to the world, notably in the area of women’s political and public life. We are witnessing the imposition of restrictions on women in public spaces and the Taliban’s formation of an all-male interim administration. The Taliban’s assurances that women will be permitted to work in lower levels of government and in specific sectors fall far short of their equal rights guaranteed under international law. We condemn the marginalization of women in Afghanistan, who have made significant progress in the past two decades, with some having held cabinet positions and led key institutions such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Such backsliding is not only in total contradiction to the country’s international commitments and in direct contravention of the country’s international legal obligations, it is also unsustainable and harmful to the overall peace-building and development process of the country.
The international commitments have made abundantly clear that peace and sustainable development is inextricably linked to equality between men and women. This was stated in the Beijing Platform for Action and underlined in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which includes distinct goals of gender equality and promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies.
Afghan women have demonstrated that they are not passive bystanders or only victims or targets, but active agents in peace-building and recovery processes, as human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and public figures. For years, Afghan women have highlighted the dire realities for women and girls including in Taliban-controlled areas. Today women in Afghanistan are at the forefront of the protests demanding equality and freedom, in fearless defiance of threats of violence and severe beatings. Women in politics in Afghanistan are being targeted for a number of factors, including their gender. They are being subjected to violence to discourage and restrict their political participation
Women’s full participation at the centre of crisis response
Women’s full and equal participation must be seen as a guarantee of their fundamental human rights, including their right to work, education, housing, health, to freedom of expression and to participate in cultural life without discrimination, and essential to addressing the multiple crises confronting the country, with the spread of COVID-19, internal displacement, food insecurity and political instability. It is important to understand that women are not just one more vulnerable group in a long list of so called “vulnerable groups,” as so often portrayed. They are half or more of the population in every sub-group and face very specific risks, from targeted violence to deprivation of liberty, education, livelihood and health care including right to reproductive health and services, and heightened threats of underage and forced marriage. Their situation is aggravated by multiple forms of discrimination based on different grounds, including but not limited to, their age, ethnicity, religion or belief, geographic location and status as displaced persons or refugees.
The backsliding and regression on women’s and girls’ rights in times of transition that we have observed in other places, especially when women are excluded from decision-making, is being replicated in Afghanistan. The Working Group on discrimination against women and girls has observed in its work on political transitions that the impact on gender equality in public and political life is inherently related not only to the nature of regime change but also to the political will to guarantee women’s human rights, including the right to equal representation. This requires a responsive political leadership with respect to gender equality concerns, including those raised by autonomous women’s movements. We reiterate our observation that when women’s voices and the issue of women’s and girls’ human rights are absent from the political negotiations and from public discourse, even in democratic environments, pre-existing guarantees of gender equality in the law, including in national constitutions, can be challenged and new discriminatory provisions can be introduced in the legal framework at national and/or subnational levels.
Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women noted in her report on violence against women in politics that in some countries women are targeted because of their gender. The aim of this type of violence is, to discourage and restrict their political participation as individual women and as a group and to prevent them from exercising their human rights. Afghanistan is such a country today.
This flagrant exclusion of women in the public and political life of Afghanistan must be urgently rectified at this critical moment. We recall the international commitment made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993 that recognized the primacy of women’s human right to equality. “While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms…The human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.”
International human rights mechanisms have also made clear that women’s human right to equality and non-discrimination must prevail in any claimed clash with what are purported to be “traditional”, historical, religious interpretations or cultural attitudes that are inconsistent with their human rights. Many countries with diverse cultural and religious traditions have committed to respecting women’s right to equality. Moreover, cultures are not static but dynamic and contested. Cultures are shared outcomes of critical reflection and continuous engagements of human beings in response to an ever-changing world. Women have an equal right to participate in cultural life, which covers not only the right of individuals to act freely, to choose one’s own identity and to manifest one’s own cultural practices, but also the right not to participate in specific traditions, customs and practices, particularly those that infringe on human rights and dignity.
Addressing the root causes
The consequences of persistent violence and conflict have been particularly devastating for women and girls in Afghanistan. Without addressing the root causes of violence and conflicts as an integral part of the peace and security agenda, Afghanistan will not overcome the vicious cycles of conflict and achieve sustainable peace. Women’s inequality before the law intersects with all other prohibited grounds of discrimination and contributes to the perpetuation of all forms of historical inequality that constitute the root causes of violent conflicts. Peace-building and conflict transformation processes present unique opportunities for the elimination of discrimination against women in law and practice.
While significant achievements were made on women’s rights in the past two decades, particularly in urban centres, many women continued to be marginalized, discriminated against and at high risk of being subjected to violence. They are now in even greater jeopardy. International human rights mechanisms including the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and the CEDAW Committee called on Afghanistan to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, including by removing provisions that are discriminatory towards women and girls or have a discriminatory impact from the Civil Code, the Criminal Code and the Shia Personal Status Law such as provisions allowing child marriage for girls, polygamy, discrimination against women in the family, and the criminalization of adultery. They also called on further strengthening the Constitution by including specific grounds of discrimination, including sex and gender and amending the Criminal Code to include provisions criminalizing all forms of gender-based violence against women. While the 2009 promulgation of the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women by presidential decree was an important step forward, it has now been rolled back and women have been left with no access to justice.
The international human rights mechanisms have repeatedly expressed concern about the fact that Afghan women were systematically excluded from peace negotiations and recommended the inclusion of representatives of women’s civil society organizations from the different provinces to ensure that women, including those belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, can participate meaningfully in peace, transitional justice and reconciliation processes, such as formal and informal peace talks, and in the implementation of the national action plan and the monitoring of that plan.
Demands of Afghan women
The international community must listen to the voices of Afghan women who are rightfully demanding a safe and secure environment for their full and equal participation in the country’s public and political life and a role in shaping its future. The protection of women’s and girls’ human rights must be central to all laws, policies, political processes and institutional practice and the allocation of resources must be aligned with their priorities which include freedom from violence, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, access to education and health care including reproductive health care, equal participation in cultural life, the right to work, and safe passage for those who want to leave the country, among others.
Direct engagement with Afghan women leaders and tangible support from the international community to women’s networks aimed at peace-building and promoting democracy and women’s rights as human rights are urgently needed to ensure better outcomes for Afghan women and for the nation as a whole.
The international community must immediately:
Call for the immediate cessation of violence by state and non-state actors in Afghanistan and compliance with international human rights law, including protection of the rights of women to participate in public, political, and cultural life, and to education, work, movement, and health.
Support the renewal of the mandate of UNAMA and ensure the continued implementation of its mandate with a gendered lens, with the full and equal participation of women in all levels of decision-making.
Call for reinstating the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that was vital to ensuring the access of women and girls to services across the country and ensure that women participate fully in the management and distribution of humanitarian assistance that Afghans are in urgent need of, and that they are able to access that assistance without any impediment.
Ensure the creation of a robust, independent fact-finding and accountability mechanism to document and investigate past and ongoing human rights violations and international crimes by state and non-state actors in Afghanistan with an adequate focus on women and girls, including within all sub-groups in a situation of heightened risk.
Promote and protect the voices and fundamental human rights of Afghan women’s civil society and human rights defenders through continued financial and political investment and support. Insist on the equal participation of women in all aspects of political and public life, en par with men, accompanied by the provision of adequate tools, resources, and recognition of their authority for them to effectively execute their roles as well as safeguards to protect them against violence and retaliation.
Reject attempts to misuse religion or culture to justify violations of women’s human rights.
See also press release: Afghanistan: Women’s full participation in public and political life crucial for the country
Melissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls;
Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights;
Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression;
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association;
Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders;
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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