If there is one war torn land among too many that has long needed peace it is probably Afghanistan. While peace in Afghanistan has to be a good thing, that peace may come with a particularly high price for Afghan women. These are anxious times for Afghan women, as they are trapped between the grim consequences of war and the prospects of a potentially grim peace.
When the Taliban fell from power, many Afghans hoped for peace and a legitimate stable government. Women and girls who had suffered such brutality during the Taliban era, and in previous decades of conflict, hoped for improvements in their lives. World leaders promised a great deal of help and there were improvements which came quickly as girls began to return to schools in some numbers, women became more visible in public life and many returned to work.
Barely 13 years have passed since the attacks on New York and Washington DC and the US lead NATO coalition invasion of Afghanistan which overthrew the Taliban government. Victory, however that is defined in Afghanistan has proved particularly elusive. Since 2001 some 3,475 international troops have died in a campaign that but for the distraction of the invasion of Iraq, should have been over years ago. At present some 40,000 troops (mostly from the NATO-led coalition) remain in Afghanistan, this figure is down from a peak commitment of 150,000 back in 2011.
The NATO-led coalition plans to retain around 12,000 troops in the country after its combat mission officially comes to an end on December 31, 2014. Since 2001, 453 British troops have died during the campaign and 615 British personnel have been seriously, or very seriously, wounded. 7,422 British personnel have been treated in field hospitals during the campaign. 2,187 were classified as wounded in action and 5,235 were treated for disease and non-battle injuries.
The number of Afghan civilians killed or injured in the conflict in the first six months of 2014 rose by a quarter from 2013 levels to nearly 5,000 people. The UN says three quarters of the deaths and injuries were the result of insurgent attacks. It has been estimated (in 2013) that the UK will have spent at least £ 37 billion pounds on the campaign, expenditure will top out at £ 40 billon pounds by 2020.
There have been some real improvements, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan; only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with some 50,000 of those being girls. Thirteen years down the line, NATO noted that there were 8.2 million students and nearly 40 percent, or 3.2 million, were girls.
Afghanistan when compared with much of the autocratic neighbouring states of Eurasia (particularly in Central Asia) is a relatively flourishing if wobbly democracy. Several million Afghans actually voted to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai in the first round of this year’s presidential election campaign. While the final result took five months to resolve after a row about electoral fraud it was peacefully resolved.
Back in July 2013 the problem of all pervasive corruption which impacts on all aspects of normal life and the lack of transparency were recognized by the US Government. They remain the main challenges towards establishing a self-sustaining Afghanistan and a stable Afghan government.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also reported that prosecutors and judges are among the government officials most likely to receive bribes. This is something that does not suggest that the Afghan end of the failing war on drugs is going to work anytime soon.
The US Senate (back in July 2013) recognized that despite tangible improvements since 2001 that Afghan women face entrenched discrimination and real limits to their freedom. Violence against women remains widespread and largely underreported. Recent ISAF efforts to get Afghan authorities to respond to complaints by women actually resulted in an increase in reporting of such violence.
Yet despite improvements Afghan women and girls have continued to pay a heavy price in the zones of conflict in Afghanistan: they have been killed and wounded by insurgents, hit by and airstrikes; been subject to local codes of honor, the victims of intrusive “night raids” by both the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami and international soldiers. Women’s movement has been restricted by insecurity; and this has meant the loss of access to work for family breadwinners.
The Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami insurgents have regularly denied Afghan girls the right to education with attacks on schools and threats against teachers or students. In the more unstable areas, women have been denied the right to work and attacked or threatened for working outside their homes.
On the back of the positives peace should be welcomed, but if the Taliban and other insurgent commanders are brought into government as part of the peace process – it is Afghan women (and girls) who may pay the ultimate price. There are real concerns that violence and threats directed against women will only increase along with hostility to women’s rights and day-to-day harassment.
Those women, who speak up for their rights, including female members of Parliament, regularly come under threat. These threats may become greater particularly for those who voice their fears and concerns about the political reemergence of the Taliban, whose leaders are accustomed to threatening and killing those who criticize or oppose them.
The threats don’t just come from the Taliban. As international interest in Afghanistan begins to wane and the country fades from the headlines, the opponents of women’s rights have already begun to roll back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule (and this is before the Taliban have been brought in from the cold).
Back in May 2013 an Afghan parliamentary debate on the ground-breaking Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), passed by presidential decree in 2009, was halted after barely 15 minutes of debate after numerous lawmakers argued for the law’s repeal and spoke out against the proposed legal protections for women and girls.
In the last few years a number of prominent women in Afghan public life have been murdered, including provincial councilor and peace activist Sitara Achakzai, a senior police commander Malalai Kakar, an outspoken journalist Zakia Zaki, and women’s affairs director Safia Amajan. Their killers have never been brought to justice. This effective impunity actually emboldens those responsible and has greatly added to the risks and fears faced by activist women.
There are genuine concerns that the reintegration and reconciliation negotiations could seriously affect women’s rights. The Afghan government (based on its recent track record) probably won’t actively protect women’s hard earned rights. The Karzai government has sacrificed rights to appease hard line religious factions for the sake of short-term political expediency. The soon to be ex-President signed the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law (which denied numerous rights of Shia women, including child custody and freedom of movement), back in March 2009 and also provided presidential pardons for two convicted gang rapists.
The Afghan government has given little reassurance to women who are understandably concerned about the risks of reintegration and reconciliation. Back in April 2010, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, (the Minister of Economy) a prominent Hezb-i-Islami leader, allegedly informed a gathering of women leaders discussing reconciliation that women would have to sacrifice their interests for the sake of peace.
Afghan government officials offer weak promises that only those who were not connected to al Qaeda, renounced violence, and agreed to abide by the Afghan constitution would be allowed to reintegrate or join the reconciliation process. Article 22 of the Afghan constitution publically enshrines the equality of men and women, the constitution is no guarantee as it is often routinely ignored and violated, and there are very limited legal avenues for redress for women – there will be even less once NATO departs and Afghanistan fades from the news.