Two Steps Forward, One Back for Afghan Women

Posted on 01 March 2010 by admin

"We have to change attitudes in the country because you can't impose changes," says U.N. Special Representative Radhika Coomaraswamy. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Maggie Suozzi

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 1 (IPS/TerraViva) While the last several years have seen slight progress for gender equality in Afghanistan, such as wider access to education and political participation, women continue to face significant challenges in achieving social justice and equal rights.

Women now represent one quarter of Afghanistan’s parliament, thanks to constitutional guarantees calling for women’s active political participation. More than two million girls are in school in the country today, though only four percent of girls reach grade 10.

“There are good intentions, but there is still a long way to go,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and formerly the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, told IPS on the first day of the two-week meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women here.

She praised the Afghan Interior Ministry’s commitment to set up a tribunal that would investigate and prosecute crimes against women and children, and told IPS there were some “very positive elements” to the law eliminating violence against women, such as prosecuting perpetrators and setting up services for victims.

“But in the area of personal laws or the laws governing marriage and those kinds of issues – not much progress,” she said.

Other human rights advocates agree. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rachel Reid, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), noted that, “Recent years have been marked by a number of disturbing developments, such as the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law in 2009 with the support of parliament and President Hamid Karzai, unpunished assassinations of women leaders, and the consolidation of power by fundamentalist factions in government, parliament, and the courts.”

The Shia Personal Status law severely curbs the rights of women, and challenges their sovereignty, making men the indisputable heads of household, restricting the rights of women to leave their homes, legalising marital rape, and allowing men to have multiple spouses.

Reid added that last month, “President Karzai sought to issue a decree that would have decreased the number of reserved seats for women in parliament – just the latest in a series of worrying moves by President Karzai to prioritise the demands of conservative factions at the expense of women.”

According to a country report released by HRW in January, “Violence against women and girls remains endemic, with prevention or justice for victims obstructed by cultural barriers as well as bias and misogyny among many security officials and judges.”

A December 2009 report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the situation in Afghanistan did not mention these obstacles, focusing instead on positive developments for Afghan women.

The secretary-general cited a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission monitoring the August 2009 elections which found that “Afghan women had demonstrated an increased interest in political matters,” though they voted in “much fewer numbers” than Afghan men.

The secretary-general also noted that a draft law calling for the elimination of violence against women has been endorsed by presidential decree, but has yet to be endorsed by the Afghan parliament.

If passed, the draft law would criminalise sexual violence against women, which includes rape, forced and underage marriage, prostitution and forced labour.

“It represents a step forward in responding to and preventing violence against women and girls,” the report said. “UNAMA presented a series of possible amendments to the law to the Parliamentary Commission on Women and Civil Society. These and other proposals are now under review by the Parliament. It still remains unclear whether the draft law would take precedence over the Shia Personal Status law.”

“Women are caught in odd situations,” Coomaraswamy told IPS. “In certain legal systems, for example, you have to have witnesses for rape, and if the witnesses are not there, and you got raped, then you’re guilty of fornication or adultery.”

“Those kinds of terrible situations occur for women, so I think that’s what is the concern,” she said.

With regard to improving the status of women in Afghanistan, Coomaraswamy told IPS that, “We have to advocate, and continue to put pressure on both the international community, the international forces, and the Afghan government to keep these issues on the front burner, so they deal with it.”

“We have to change attitudes in the country because you can’t impose changes,” she said, “In the end you have to work with the Afghan women themselves to demand it, and Afghan men, to see that it’s unfair.”

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