A Precarious Crossroads for Afghan Women

The once remarkable gains in protecting and promoting equality between women and men in Afghanistan are now facing their most serious challenges.

Two questions must be asked: Are the emerging challenges to women’s rights an indication of an overall backslide in security and stability in Afghanistan? Is this evidence of women’s rights being negotiated away as part of the peace and reconciliation process?

The struggle of Afghan women is not one that can be separated from the overall struggle of the Afghan nation to achieve peace and stability. The situation of women and girls — their progress, their opportunities and their access to real justice — must be one of the primary indicators to measure the direction and success of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

A decade ago, as the global debate on Afghanistan’s future raged, it was the plight of Afghan women that captured the world’s attention. The persecution of women and girls was stark: from restricted mobility and highly limited access to education; to needing male guardians to go out in public; to the rampant policing and persecution of “moral crimes” committed by women; to the exchanging of women and girls between families to settle disputes.

Afghan women have fought for over 10 years to ensure that their sisters, daughters and families never again face such a future. Yet in 2012, as the world redefines its role in Afghanistan, policy makers and peace negotiators need to look to the situation of women and girls as a barometer of how inclusive, democratic, secure and stable Afghanistan is today.

Important gains have been made, namely a Constitution that enshrines equality between women and men, a Parliament in which women hold 28 percent of the seats, the implementation of the country’s first law on ending violence against women, and the establishment of shelters and services for women and girls recovering from violence. In addition, girls are back in school — constituting 2.4 million of the more than 7 million children in primary and secondary education. Further, the Women’s Affairs Ministry and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission have been strengthened.

That Afghanistan has taken so many steps in so short a time is highly notable — and a sign of hope for a stable, just and democratic country. But as the peace and reconciliation process evolves, as the International Security Assistance Force draws down, and as more and more parties are encouraged to come to the negotiating table, Afghan women are seeing that the pace of change as regards women’s issues has not only slowed down but in some ways has gone into reverse.

Early-warning indicators are there, but not yet being heard. Violence against women and girls — in the form of physical and emotional abuse, and forced marriages — remains at almost pandemic levels. Impunity of the perpetrators of violence is almost absolute. Women who run away from forced marriages continue to be jailed. Women are often pressured to withdraw complaints and opt for mediation by elders even in cases of serious crimes of violence, leaving them without any protection or justice. Religious leaders recently released a statement justifying certain types of domestic violence, proposing limitations on women’s education and employment opportunities, and calling for the wearing of the hijab.

The single most important recourse we have to mitigate these risks is to ensure that women are engaged, that their voices heard and their perspectives taken into account in the peace and reconciliation process. Women struggled to be heard at the international conference on Afghanistan in December in Bonn, and they try to be heard in the discussions of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. They will strive to make their mark at the NATO summit meeting on security next month in Chicago as well as at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan in July.

Afghan women are now better positioned to articulate their rights. They have important roles on the High Peace Council and in Parliament. They see firsthand the need to monitor the peace and reconciliation process and recognize the importance of engaging with the families of insurgents. They also know that the international community must not forget its commitment to Afghan women and girls beyond 2014.

The government of Afghanistan and the international community must listen to Afghan women — and not allow their gains to be given up in any peace process. Given the strength and importance of religious leaders throughout Afghanistan, it is crucial that their support is solicited to ensure that the women’s rights enshrined in the Constitution are not lost.

Policy makers in Afghanistan and in capitals around the world must see that the worsening situation for women has come with a worsening political and security environment. Women have suffered immeasurably during the last 35 years of war — and it is unacceptable that they should now pay the highest price for any peace deal. Women cannot accept peace at any price, nor should the international community.

We must stop relegating women’s issues to a side agenda at international forums on Afghanistan. The summit meetings in Chicago and Tokyo need to make space for women. If Afghan women continue to be ignored within the major political decision-making processes affecting their country, the vision of a more secure, prosperous and stable Afghanistan cannot be realized.

Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile from 2006 to 2010, is executive director of U.N. Women, which advocates gender equality and empowerment of women.

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