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AFGHANISTAN: Gov’t and Donors Fail to Protect Women’s Rights

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 2009 (IPS) - Attention over the past week has focused on United States President Barack Obama’s decision to “surge” troop levels in Afghanistan to 30,000 and begin a drawdown in 18-months, but a new report calls attention to the failure of the Afghanistan government and international donors to protect women’s rights.

The report – released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Sunday – calls attention to the George W. Bush administration’s citing of the defence of women’s rights as one of the primary reasons for defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

“Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, and the establishment of the [Hamid] 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,” said the report.

HRW warns that women’s rights have been largely overlooked by the Afghan government and international donors who have chosen to focus on the armed conflict against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

In March, the poor condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan was brought into the news again by the parliament’s passing of the Shia Personal Status law – which Karzai went on to sign.

The law – which Obama called “abhorrent” – regulates the personal affairs of Shia Muslims and among other things: requires that wives seek their husbands’ permission before leaving home expect for in “reasonable legal situations;” gives child custody rights to fathers and grandfathers but not mothers or grandmothers; allows a husband to discontinue maintenance to his wife; requires that a woman “make herself up” or “dress up” when demanded by her husband; and not refuse sex when her husband demands it.

“The Shia law provided a timely reminder of how vulnerable Afghan women are to political deals and broken promises,” said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at HRW. “Karzai should begin his new presidency with a clear signal to women that his will be a government that wants to advance equality.”

For many, at question is not just the Karzai government’s failure to address women’s rights but also the focus of resources by international donors and U.S. foreign aid to Afghanistan designed to strengthen civil society.

“The interests of women are the interests of civil society. As soon as you dispense with things you think to be women’s concerns you put health, sanitation and education on the back burner,” Ann Jones – author of Kabul in Winter and contributor to The Nation – told IPS.

“The thing the Americans do is end up building roads. If you talk to Afghans, roads are way down on the list of things they want. And if you talk to Afghan women you’ll find roads aren’t part of the things they need for their families,” Jones went on to say.

HRW found that violence against women and attacks on women who participate in public life remain high.

The Apr. 12, 2009 murder of Sitara Achakzai – a human rights defender and local councillor in Kandahar – was an example of the danger facing women who participate in politics, human rights activism, teaching, health work or journalism.

No one has been prosecuted for her murder and HRW says that the killing of women who publicly participate in society scares off countless women from entering public life.

“Police and judges see violence against women as legitimate, so they do not prosecute cases,” Soraya Sobhrang of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told HRW.

A 2008 survey of 4,700 women found that 87.2 percent had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence, or forced marriage in their lifetimes – and in the vast majority of cases women do not seek help because of their fear of police abuse, corruption, or retaliation by those who committed the violence.

Adding to the situation is the fact that rape is not a crime in the Afghan Penal Code and that rapists can only be charged with “forced” adultery, which can also result in women being prosecuted for adultery.

In addition to documenting the rampant violence against women, HRW points out that 57 percent of marriages which take place in Afghanistan are with girls under the age of 16 and 70 to 80 percent are forced marriages.

These marriages lead to girls dropping out of school and early childbearing, which results in a heightened chance of health complications during childbirth.

Curbing the dangerously high levels of violence against women and children and forced marriage has proven difficult because police receive little or no training in gender based violence or women’s rights.

” …[T]raining has been increasingly focused on counter-insurgency and security skills rather than crime prevention, crime solving and community policing,” said the report.

Little has been done to reverse cultural prejudices which lead to women facing discrimination and prejudice when dealing with the police or the courts.

Finally, despite significant efforts by international donors to improve education for girls, a disappointing 11 percent of secondary-school-age girls are enrolled in grades 7 to 9 and only four-percent are enrolled in grades 10 through 12.

The failure to educate girls – warns HRW – will often lead to child marriage, early childbearing, and the risk of dying during pregnancy.

HRW calls on Karzai’s government and international donors to: promote the protection of women’s rights as part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan; improve the Elimination of Violence Against Women law to bring it up to international standards; embark on a large-scale rape awareness campaign for law enforcement, judges, parliament, civil servants and the Afghan public; and make marriage registration more widely available and compulsory.

In addition: Karzai should order the release of, apology and compensation to all women charged with “running away from home;” the government and donors should strengthen training and Women and Family Response Units in the police to deal with gender based violence and increase the availability of girls’ secondary schools; the U.N. and government should prioritise the security of women candidates and voters for the 2010 parliamentary elections; and international donors and the U.N. – with the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs – should conduct a “full gender audit” of all spending in Afghanistan.

Women’s rights advocates have also called attention to the inclusion of former warlords – many of whom are known for violating human rights – into the government.

“We don’t need to have so many mullahs and warlords who have attitudes towards women which are restrictive,” President of The Feminist Majority Eleanor Smeal, told IPS. “We would urge that [the government] appoint people from different parts of society who understand that women need to be empowered to make civil society function properly.”

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