The unsupported fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan

by Horia Mosadiq

© private

Horia Mosadiq is an Afghan human rights activist and journalist with 23 years of working experience. She has been working for the international office of Amnesty International (AI) since 2008. Mosadiq received several prices, in 2007 the Afghan Human Rights Award, the AI Women’s rights Defender Award in 2012 and 2015, and the 4th International Simorgh Peace Prize in 2015. In 2013, Mosadiq founded the Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization, which supports women’s rights defenders in unsafe provinces in Afghanistan.

Women’s fight for equality is not a new phenomenon in Afghan history and women’s struggle for maintaining their rights is going back as far as 1919 but women didn’t gain the legal guarantee for their rights till 1923, when both men and women were entitled to equal rights in the constitution, which was re-initiated in the 1964 and 2004 constitutions. From the 1960s until the 1980s women served as ministers, members of the parliament and in other key positions of the Afghan government. In addition women were part of the fight against monarchy and part of the political struggle to topple the king in the early 1970s. This progress happened largely in big cities such as Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif and mainly among progressive families where girls were allowed to seek higher education and were able to attend university whereas the women and girls in rural parts of Afghanistan didn’t have this privilege.
While the civil war and the Taliban era from (1992 - 2001) brought a severe setback for many Afghan women in terms of their deprivation of their basic rights and freedoms including the right to education, health, freedom of movement and freedom of choice. Taliban as an oppressive regime started implementing a harsh form of sharia by imposing a ban on women’s movement, closing girls’ schools and discouraging women from participating in any form of social life. Despite such oppression women’s rights’ activists started underground schooling for girls and continued to educate girls undercover in home run schools. If detected, they were severely punishable under the rule of Taliban.

Women police officers

After the collapse of the Taliban regime a new era started for Afghanistan: Afghan women and hundreds of thousands of women and girls returned to work, school and university and opened the door for women’s political participation in Afghanistan. During this period women’s rights’ activists tried hard to protect women’s rights by a number of laws and legislations including the unconditional approval of the CEDAW convention in 2003, a new constitution in 2004 in which all citizen – men and women – are equal before the law, the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan (2008), the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (2009) and many government strategies at the ministerial level including the National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325 Women Peace and Security. At the same time these women were also involved in many public campaigns on violence against women (VAW), child marriage, forced marriage as well as on women’s participation in peace talks with the Taliban. Beside public awareness raising, they challenged the government, lobbied the international donor community and worked with different conservative members of the society.
Furthermore, since 1923 – as already mentioned – the Afghan constitutions entitle both men and women to equal rights, the Afghan Civil Code of 1977 provides rights for women to inheritance or own property, sets the minimum age for marriage and codifies the women’s right to choose her partner or initiate divorce/separation. Other laws such as the election law protects the rights of women to vote and sets quotas for women in both houses of the parliament (25% for the lower and 20% for the upper house) as well as in the provincial councils. However, the deep roots of gender based violence and VAW in Afghan society are the greatest barriers for the implementation of the above mentioned laws. Most of these legal guarantees remain predominantly on paper and breaches occur frequently, especially with regard to divorce, child custody and inheritance.
Nonetheless, women’s rights’ activists are not only advocating for the implementation of laws and law reforms but also for other aspects of gender equality and equal rights in political participation. For instance they are challenging social norms and traditions through speaking out about cases of VAW including child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, etc. Because of the tireless efforts of these activists the public awareness on violence against women or women’s political participation increased substantially and resulted in an increase in reporting of incidences of VAW across the country, even in very conservative communities of Afghanistan.
Women, who proactively defend women’s rights and defy traditional social norms, are among the bravest and often pay a high price for their great courage. They are attacked, threatened and even killed. Some flee the country fearing for their lives or of their beloved ones. Sadly, the Afghan government failed to offer any type of meaningful protection. Even worse, for the majority of these severe violations of human and women’s rights no investigation or prosecution was undertaken.

© Horia Mosadiq

In 2014 Amnesty International conducted a research on the situation of the Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Afghanistan and investigated about 50 cases of violence, killings, threats and intimidations. Strikingly only for one case a criminal investigation was conducted, which resulted in prosecution of a co-accuser, while for all other 49 cases no one was brought to justice. WHRDs are not only attacked by the Taliban and other armed insurgent groups but also by the members of their communities, relatives of the victims or of the perpetrators, powerful local commanders, government officials or parliamentarians.
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll (2011) Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for women. Despite positive developments over the past 15 years, women continue to suffer from all kinds of violence and discriminatory practices. The role that women’s rights’ activists play is vital. Without their continued fight for the enforcement and protection of human and women’s rights the achievements of the past 15 years will be in vain.
For a substantial change with regard to the situation of women in Afghanistan it is crucial to exert much pressure on the Afghan government in order to decrease the gap between the legislation and the implementation of the laws. As an immediate response to the life threatening of WHRD the Afghan government should establish a robust protective mechanism. Without protecting women’s rights’ defenders it will not be possible to make sustainable advances in the promotion of human rights (23 March 2017).