A tribute to Afghanistan’s courageous women fighters

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit:    Children in Crisis

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit: Children in Crisis

Afghanistan seems an unlikely place to find stories of women’s leadership and political power, even after the tremendous progress made over the last decade to restore women’s rights. However, even amid massive current national uncertainties, women’s rights organisations like the Jalal Foundation are successfully challenging discrimination and violence against women - although they also fear a reversal of their hard-won gains with the new government and withdrawal of international troops.

The roll call of outstanding Afghan women leaders is impressive and their activism is a powerful symbol of hope for the country. They include (among many others) Fawzia Koofi – left out in the sun to die as a baby and going on to run for president in the 2014 elections. Azra Jafari – Afghanistan’s first female mayor – who says that after massive resistance, she succeeded in winning respect from male members of the community for her work to improve living standards in a poor rural province which had virtually no infrastructure. And Dr Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan’s first female presidential candidate in 2004 and former Minister of Women’s Affairs, who through the Jalal Foundation has succeeded in uniting over 15,000 women and men in activism for women’s rights, representing 1,280 women’s councils and NGOs.

To appreciate the courageous stance these women are taking, Amnesty International’s Real lives feature is a chilling reminder of Taliban brutality towards women activists. Of Amnesty’s three strategic priorities in Afghanistan, one is to protect defenders of women’s rights. Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, and herself a female Afghan campaigner, explains: “Women activists in Kabul are playing the role of ‘gatekeeper’ for women across Afghanistan - they speak English, have access to computers and internet, and can tell the world what is happening. The reality for women activists living and working in insecure provinces and outside Kabul is very different – they don’t have many of these opportunities, and they face a completely different level of risk.”

The world must know about the many atrocities committed against women to keep up international pressure and support. But too much negative reporting means that the considerable pressure for change within Afghanistan is not understood, therefore potentially undermining international support for the country.

A young blogger and English teacher in Kabul - Yosuf Warastah - tells me of his frustration with Afghanistan’s poor international image.  “People shouldn’t judge Afghanistan by the gossip or the media or politicians. I have read a lot of untrue stories about Afghanistan and also experienced inhumane treatment abroad just because I am an Afghan. Yes, it’s true that the country is full of problems and any Afghan can give you a long list. But there has been so much progress. There has been an explosion in the number of people wanting to study in the last decade and there are now 10 million students in schools and universities. People realise the value of education and they want to learn. Nearly 7 million people voted in the election – that’s a real achievement for Afghan people, as there was a lot of fear. Democracy does not come easily. To have a free and democratic society, we need to pay the price.”

These are major achievements: primary school enrolment shot up from 21% in 2001 to 97% in 2011 [World Bank], with girls’ education - formerly banned - now encouraged by the government. Afghanistan now has a thriving telecoms industry and growing community of internet users and civil society activists. The defiant pictures posted online of traditional Nowruz celebrations (formerly banned under the Taliban) speak to confidence in Afghan cultural identity and a degree of freedom of speech. So do the stories of rural demonstrations against President Karzai, with some communities turning out with traditional lamps and grass mats to challenge the president and demonstrate his powerlessness to bring tarmac roads and electricity in his 13-year rule. But most of all, Afghans themselves have spoken loud and clear through the ballot box – 7 million people risked their lives to vote and the international community owes them its continued support.

But the prospect of a Taliban resurgence casts a dark shadow over the country. “We are waiting for the future” says Yosuf.  “There’s a lot of gossip about post-2014 and re-Talibanisation.” Last year, Dr Jalal wrote:  “As the departure of the international security forces approaches, each day turns every bit of hope into desperation for advocates of Afghan women’s rights. The gains on women’s rights during the past twelve years are in danger of being challenged and overturned by policy makers who are un-enlightened about international standards of human rights. The future is likely to see once again the use of religion as an instrument of extreme gender based oppression in Afghanistan.”

For the radical Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) the withdrawal cannot come soon enough: "There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahadeen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people. When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with."

RAWA entered the international limelight when it released video footage of the first Taliban execution of a woman in Ghazi football stadium in Kabul in 1999. While the stadium has been fully renovated to reflect the country’s new beginning, the threat of re-Talibanisation is real. The Taliban still have tremendous power in Afghanistan. The BBC reported that Afghan leaders estimate the Taliban receive £65 million annually from taxing poppy farmers and drug traders - many see the withdrawal of the US and allied troops as leaving the country wide open for Taliban resurgence.

The Jalal Foundation has repeatedly denounced national and international attempts to negotiate with so-called ‘moderate Taliban’ saying: “Our leaders do not see that the reason the Taliban is so obsessed with women’s oppression is because it is the key to the inter-generational perpetuation of their control.” The Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria is a vivid reminder of this. What we know about the powerful benefits of girls’ education and women’s empowerment apply equally in reverse: oppress women and deprive them of education and voice, and you oppress a nation.

Dr Jalal explains that even as an educated leader, “I am not any different from any other Afghan woman - I often experience ridicule, insult, intimidation, denial of rights, and restrictions in my movements. I cannot debate openly with men without the society feeling uncomfortable about my guts and tenacity. We need to transform the thinking of the current and next generations to see that the status of women is a barometer of social progress. If we cannot make this happen, women professionals and leaders will continue to function with invisible ‘shackles’ and a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

The foundation has maintained a diplomatic stance in relation to government while continuing to push for change, but others have been more outspoken and subsequently shut out of the negotiations. Malalai Joya – another extraordinary female activist – was expelled from parliament in 2007 after interrupting the constitutional process to accuse the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of harbouring warlords and criminals. She continues to be an outspoken critic of the government (facing multiple assassination attempts) and has denounced the 2014 elections as sham due to Afghan corruption, US manipulation and the continued presence of warlords in the parliament.

The Jalal Foundation maintains a robustly optimistic outlook, determined to deliver improvements to the lives of Afghan women within the complex and volatile political landscape. Among their achievements are training programmes to improve women’s employment opportunities, from literacy, English, IT, leadership and political participation. They produce a weekly newsletter on democracy and human rights with a readership of 10,000, and secured 1,000,000 male and female signatories to a statement of zero tolerance to violence against women. These are major wins in a country where the fight for recognition of women’s rights is an ongoing battle.

Most recently, the Jalal Foundation was among the women’s organisations that successfully prevented enactment of a new Criminal Procedure Code which would prohibit a defendant’s relatives from testifying against him. In a context where domestic violence and ‘honour’ crimes are the greatest threat to women’s safety, this law would have effectively annulled legal protection for women victims of violence – a massive retrograde step.

The foundation’s ambitious plans include a women’s radio station to raise awareness about women’s rights and tackle Taliban propaganda (now more sophisticated and widespread as Taliban embrace modern media), mass training for young women to improve employment prospects and continued advocacy at the highest levels to keep the concerns of Afghan women at the top of the national and international agenda. It is not an overstatement to say that the hope of Afghan women is in their hands.

But right now they are still waiting for their future. Jubilant celebrations of the unprecedented election turnout have been replaced with anxiety that the delays in confirming the president will fuel political and ethnic divisions. As troops depart, Afghan activists fear the departure of foreign aid investment. According to Horia Mosadiq “Too much funding has been linked to military presence. Afghan NGOs are already seeing a decrease in NGO funding and government projects are left stranded”. When the political dust has settled, Afghanistan desperately needs vibrant civil society organisations like the Jalal Foundation to challenge conservative elements within Afghanistan’s parliament and champion the rights and development of its people. Let’s support their inspirational work.

Naomi Rouse, girls’ education consultant

CSW58 - reflections on week two

Initial reflections on this year's CSW from the co-chairs of GADN's Post-2015 working group.

This is a very initial set of thoughts, and others who were there to the bitter end will be able to provide much more detail, particularly Heather who has contributed her thoughts below.  There is no final text as it still has still to be neatened by the UN staff but there is a rough version available, from which Heather has quoted.

Probably the most important thing now is how we use the outcome of CSW in the post 2015 negotiations.  The UN Women release  March 22 press release: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/3/executive-director-statement-on-csw58-outcome suggests a strategic approach where we emphasise the positive outcomes rather than dwelling on what was missing – and this seems a good place to start.  In addition to their mention of VAWAG and unpaid care, we could also add the language on social norms as positive steps forward. 

The issues:

Initial attempts, led by the Africa group, to exclude the language of rights proved an early sticking point but the final document includes many references to women’s rights.

There were major fights over language on ‘the family’.   The women’s caucus was pushing for Beijing language on ‘various forms of family’ which they did not get – but the paragraph on the family is thought to be OK.  We need to watch in forthcoming negotiations however that ‘the family’ is not used as a way to legitimise discrimination against women again.

Sexual rights and Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) were pushed hard by feminist group, and strongly resisted by some states.

The language on economic development was not particularly strong, and neither was the CSO lobby in these areas.  Paragraph 26Aq is particularly weak and instrumentalist.

Unpaid care however does appear throughout the document and is clearly now an ‘emerging issue’.

Recognition of the need to challenge social norms also stayed in the document.

Calls for a stand-alone goal within the post-2015 framework work along with mainstreaming, were maintained, although vague.  This may apparently have been part of a strategy not to constrain future negotiations (Paragraph 27 )

Heather Barclay's  reflections

The climate at the Commission on the Status of Women negotiations this year was very challenging. We entered the negotiations with a very ambitious set of asks (SRHR, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), CSE), some of which had never been recognised at an international level before. The Opposition also came in with some really problematic positions, including a standalone goal on the family, no references to gender, and the ability to interpret the outcomes according to national laws, cultural and traditions. Some conservative states were rejecting all agreed language, including that of last year’s CSW Agreed Conclusions. So it was never going to be an easy ride! However, despite that, the progressive states, with our support and backing, managed to hold strong.

Overall, I think we can call this year’s CSW a qualified success. The reference to a standalone gender goal is excellent and will help the further engagement in the post-2015 process. There are references through out to gender equality, and the human rights of women and girls, which was on the table for deletion at one point, and close to the best agreed language of SRH and RR, and SRH services. References to sovereignty and sex selection didn’t make it to the final text and the references to family are weaker than the opposition wanted. But we did not move the agenda as far forward. Most of the discussions were a rear-guard action to protect what we have and the space to open up a more progressive conversation on women’s rights was limited.

Some of the highlights (based on the paragraphs in the currently available agreed text) included:

Standalone goal:

27. The Commission urges States to build on the lessons from the implementation of the MDGs as the new post-2015 development agenda is being shaped. It urges States to tackle critical remaining challenges through a transformative and comprehensive approach and calls for gender equality, the empowerment of women and human rights of women and girls to be reflected as a stand-alone goal and to be integrated through targets and indicators into all goals of any new development framework.

  • This is the call that we need to take the standalone goal discussion forward into the Open Working Group

  • It includes gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s rights, which is positive, as it’s not just restricted to one or two of the key elements

  • The reference to mainstreaming via targets and indicators is also helpful as it will allow us to make the case for tangible gender targets under all goal areas.

Gaps in the MDGs:

19. The Commission is concerned that several critical issues related to gender equality and the empowerment of women were not adequately addressed by the MDGs such as: inter alia, violence against women and girls; child, early and forced marriage; women’s and girls’ disproportionate share of unpaid work, particularly unpaid care work; women’s access to decent work, the gender wage gap, employment in the informal sector, low paid and gender-stereotyped work such as domestic and care work; women’s equal access to, control and ownership of assets and productive resources including land, energy and fuel, and women’s inheritance rights; women’s sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences; universal health coverage; non-communicable diseases; accountability for violations of human rights of women and girls; and women’s full and equal participation in decision-making at all levels. The Commission recognizes that unless all dimensions of gender inequality are addressed, gender equality, the empowerment of women and the realization of human rights of women and girls cannot be achieved.

  • The recognition that SRH and RR, violence against women and girls, access to assets, and participation in decision making was missing from the MDGs is a big win for us, and will allow us to increasingly push for these elements to be included in the post-2015 framework

  • We would have preferred reference to SRHR, instead of SRH and RR, but countries were very resistant to recognising sexual rights.

  • Recognising the link between gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment and sustainable development is also very useful.

Addressing Social Norms:

(d)  Implement concrete and long-term measures to transform discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes including those that limit women’s roles to being mothers and caregivers, and eliminate harmful practices including, inter alia, female genital mutilation and honor crimes, in order to achieve gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment, and the full realization of the human rights of women and girls;  

  • Operational Paragraph reflects the importance of addressing the underlying causes of gender inequality such as social norms and stereotypes, which is positive as it moves beyond acting on the surface issue and tacking what causes the inequality in the first place. This is reinforced by para 20.


i) Ensure the promotion and protection of the human rights of all women and their sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences, including through the development and enforcement of policies and legal frameworks, and strengthening of health systems, that make universally accessible and available quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services, commodities, information and education, including, inter alia, safe and effective methods of modern contraception, emergency contraception, prevention programmes for adolescent pregnancy, maternal health care such as skilled birth attendance and emergency obstetric care which will reduce obstetric fistula and other complications of pregnancy and delivery, safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law, and prevention and  treatment of reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and reproductive cancers, recognizing that human rights include the right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion, discrimination, and violence;

  • Comprehensive listing of SRH services, including emergency contraception is very welcom

  • The ICPD and Beijing are still qualified, but of having a qualification, this is a softer one as it allows for the inclusion of all their review conferences.

Intersectionality of poverty

(g) Address the multiple and intersecting factors contributing to the disproportionate impact of poverty on women and girls over their lifecycle as well as intra-household gender inequalities in allocation of resources, opportunities and power by realizing women’s and girls’ civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development; and ensure women’s and girls’ inheritance and property rights, equal access to quality education, equal access to justice, social protection, and an adequate standard of living, including food security and nutrition, safe drinking water and sanitation, energy and fuel resources and housing, as well as women’s and adolescent girls’ access to health including sexual and reproductive health care services, and women’s equal access to full and productive employment and decent work, women’s full participation and integration in the formal economy, equal pay for equal work or work of equal value, and equal sharing of unpaid work;  

  • This comprehensive statement on the areas that have a disproportionate impact on the poverty of women is very welcome, especially as it links to household patterns, resource allocation ns access to services

  • The burden of unpaid work on women around the world is a key factor influencing gender inequality, so having it recognised here is very positive.

Data collection

Similarly there are a range of paragraphs (paras aa to dd) that speak to the importance of gender sensitive data collection and appropriate indicator frameworks; the commitment to taking this work forward is central to monitoring the MDGs.

Some of the low lights included:

Multiple discrimination

9. The Commission is deeply concerned that overall progress for women and girls across all the MDGs remains slow and uneven, including on MDG 3, both within and between countries and that lack of progress on gender equality has hindered progress towards all of the MDGs. It is especially concerned about the lack of progress for poverty-stricken regions and areas and for marginalized, vulnerable and disadvantaged women and girls and those women and girls who experience multiple forms of discrimination and inequalities of any kind.

  • A hard-fought area, we had really wanted to see reference to the intersectional discrimination that some women face based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Instead of recognising SOGI in the text, it was agreed that a listing of the groups that are “marginalised, vulnerable and disadvantaged” would just be left out

The Family:

(h) sept, (ee) bis and (hh) ter. Recognize the family as a contributor to sustainable development, including in the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals for women and girls, that gender equality and women’s empowerment improve the well-being of the family, and in this regard stress the need of elaborating and implementing family policies aimed at achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and at enhancing the full participation of women in society;

  • This reference is a disappointment though it could have been worse. The progressive states had argued for references to “families in all their diversity” or “all forms of the family.” Both were rejected, as the point of these references from the conservative side is to recognise that traditional family structures are the only “valid” forms of the family. However, through a lot of work and a strong intervention from the Latin American countries and Australia, these references managed to be restricted to the above, which still places gender equality at the centre.

Financial resources

There are a range of paragraphs that speak to the need to increase funding gender equality and women’s rights (paras v to z) and the implementation of gender responsive budgeting, though the commitments are not as strong as we would have liked. The Western Europeans and Others Group resisted most commitments in this area which was disappointing

Some of the key players included:

  • A lot of the Latin American countries championed our issues and were “leading lights” on this agenda.

  • The Philippines and Turkey, as with last year, could be counted on for strong interventions and support.

  • The European Union had strong positions on a lot of our issues but did not speak up as robustly as we would have liked.

  • Egypt and South Africa were the champions from the Africa Group, speaking consistently and strongly in favour of women’s rights.

  • The conservative forces were very active this year. The Holy See tried to dominate the debate, but found itself isolated by the middle of the second week. Russia worked closely with Belarus. Iran was active as well.

  • Caricom and the African Group were more conservative and a source of solid opposition on some of our issues


Jessica Woodroffe

CSW58 - reflections on week one

GADN members have been in New York at the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The following reflections were made at the end of the first week, ahead of further negotiations in week 2.

The big debates

At every UN negotiations on gender there will be an issue around which controversy coalesces, even if this isn’t the real issue of debate.  At CSW 58 this is human rights.  The Africa group in particular has questioned the need for human rights language arguing that the MDGs, and therefore the post MDGs, should be about development not rights.  This is of course partly in reaction to the calls for human rights to extend to everyone, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity.  But it may also be a way of asserting a different, African, approach.  In response some feminist groups have suggested we should use the language of ‘human rights based development’.

The importance of the family has also been used to resist gender equality.  Belarus for example (widely seen to be speaking for Russia) has referred to women as the reproductive unit of the family.

Another point to watch is that language proposed sometimes refers back to the ICPD or Beijing agreements, rather than to the subsequent reviews where some progress was made.

Other areas of controversy include:

  • Sexual and reproductive rights as always, with vocal lobbies by religious fundamentalists of different persuasions focusing on abortion

  • Social protection, with the US particularly opposed to progressive languag

  • The US and some other OECD countries also reluctant on concepts around the living wage although some of the decent work agenda is being supported.

  • Some OECD countries are also reluctant to make commitments on financing. Within the EU block there is an interesting discussion about whether to refer to financial support for women’s organisations or women’s rights organisations – with the latter being seen by governments as including ‘mainstream’ organisations doing work on gender equality and women’s rights.

  • The Africa group has also raised the issue of sovereignty – widely seen as a way to dilute commitments on gender equality.

Emerging issues

  • Unpaid care appears to have made it onto the agenda now, although many delegations don’t really seem to know what it is. NGOs are calling for increased state services as well as redistribution of care roles between women and men

  • Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) has been included in some of the lists of the way that people are marginalised – but will be very hotly debated.

  • Discussions on men and boys are popping up often, with some concerns about the diversion of resources from women’s rights work.

Indicators - The techi bits – that are really political

The UN has launched a new paper on indicators at unstats.un.org/gender/data with 52 indicators.  Getting the indicators right is now recognised as key – this is where the political priority and funding will flow.  Recognition by the statisticians that we should measure what we treasure suggests there is room for political and strategic interventions on what indicators should be – and that we shouldn’t feel restricted by the data sets that exist.

The good news

There seems to be very little opposition to a standalone goal.  The US had been saying they did not want to pre-judge negotiations, although apparently came out in support early this week.  The EU position has also been in support.  Only Russia now appears to be actually opposed.  However support is not the same as championing and this could still be negotiated away.

Also good news is that the facilitator (from Switzerland) is seen as good and, at least so far, negotiations are seen as productive – although that could all change in week two when the contested bits are tackled!

Next steps

There is no guarantee that good language in the CSW 58 Outcome document will make it into the Post 2015 framework, so lobbying will be vital.

Justice Obstructed

When Timor-Leste passed the Law Against Domestic Violence (LADV), victims and advocates hailed the fact that victims would have an option other than the traditional justice system, which provides an animal or some money as compensation in exchange for the victim not taking the case forward to pursuing further justice.  Yet, what a recent domestic violence victim experienced in the Dili District Court was as if she was back in this traditional system, but with none of the convenience or efficiency of that system. 


Getting to court for a domestic violence victim in Timor-Leste is a huge undertaking.  Victims must first have the courage to speak out against and potentially leave their attacker—a family member with whom they share a past and many connections.  If they do so, they may face retaliation and/or ostracism.  Then, the victim must file a case and spend their own time and money (which they often do not have) to get to and from the police station, meetings with attorneys, and court.  All the while, they may be threatened by the suspect or forced to continue living with them due to family dynamics and economic dependency.  Despite having protection orders available under the law (LADV Art. 37), no such orders are known to have been issued and much skepticism remains regarding whether police would enforce them.  This instability may last months or even a year, due to backlog and inefficiency in placing cases on the court docket.


Facing these odds, it is no wonder that so few cases are filed in Timor-Leste.  Victims generally prefer to utilize the familiar, expeditious and free local justice system, though it has fewer protections for victims’ rights.  Moreover, given these challenges, it is miraculous when a case finally makes it in front of a judge.  Thus, court officers in Timor-Leste need to be particularly sensitive to the challenges of victims when facing a domestic violence case.  Given the long path a victim takes to reach the court, court officers must not hinder the process.


Unfortunately, the court officers at the recent hearing in Dili did not recognize this long struggle and the courage it takes for a victim to charge and confront her attacker.  In the courtroom at the Tribunál Districtál Dili, the judge treated the case in a manner reminiscent of the traditional system.  A manner in which the victim’s life and dignity are for sale for the price of ONE cow.  Sitting in the courtroom, the judge asked the victim once whether she would like to proceed.  The victim responded to “ba oin” (go forward).  Insensitive to the resolve it took for a victim to respond as such, the judge reminded her that she would be going ahead with a case that would “send her [attacker] to Becora [prison].”  He then asked her again if she was sure she wanted to proceed and whether she would like 5 minutes to think about it.  In the 5 minute discussion she had with the prosecutor—a man who did not intervene to protect the case despite his obligation to do so, but instead also encouraged the victim to use mediation—the victim’s resolve was turned, the strength it took to confront her previous means of support and close family member deteriorated, the months of waiting and the dollars spent traveling to law and police offices wasted, and the legitimacy of the Timor-Leste justice system in responding to endemic domestic violence eroded.


When the case continued after this 5-minute recess, the victim returned and agreed to resolve the case with mediation.  She asked for one cow from her attacker, who promptly argued against the fairness of this request—unappreciative of the kindness his victim had given him.  With that, the judge adjourned the court and the victim left having incited the anger of her family for wasting their time and money utilizing the formal system, and with nothing more to show than what she would have likely received had she used the traditional system in the first place.  While the public crime clause in the LADV (Art. 36) gives victims special protection by providing that their case cannot be closed, where a case is charged as a semi-public crime (such as where no “family economy” is found, as in this case), the case can be closed with the victim’s consent. 


This case demonstrates that the formal protection system is lacking an important understanding of what it takes for a victim to confront his/her attacker, and how the formal system must distinguish itself from the traditional system in order to be effective.  If it does not develop this sensitivity and, instead, continues to act as the traditional system would, it risks losing its legitimacy as well as placing numerous victims at risk of being re-victimized. 


Ba Futuru, a Timorese NGO, has been working on these issues since November 2011 under its Empowering Women and Establishing Grassroots Protection Networks project.  The project, which runs for three years, is funded by the European Union for nearly 300,000 Euro and Australian AID for approximately 70,000 USD.  The project aims to combat violence against vulnerable populations in Timor-Leste and increase access to justice through a three-pronged approach: training local leaders on gender issues, conflict resolution, child protection, legal frameworks and referral pathways; empowering teams of local women, through training and support, to serve as protection agents; and producing annual policy recommendations and conducting advocacy for changes needed in the formal protection system.


Lindsey Greising


Giving women a vote and a voice in Afghanistan's future

Afghan women participate in Free and Quality Education Campaign launch. Photo credit: UN Photo/UNAMA

Just over a decade ago, Afghan women were not seen and not heard in public life. Hidden behind a wall of conservative attitudes and behaviours, unable to leave the home, forced to cover themselves from head to toe - in every way, they were second class citizens. They were denied an education and access to healthcare, denied employment, and denied freedoms we take for granted – like the freedoms of association and expression. They were denied even the most basic dignities, and routinely subjected to sexual and physical violence.

But now, while huge challenges remain in many parts of the country, Afghan women are taking control of their lives, pushing for equal rights. They are once again insisting on having a voice and a vote in deciding Afghanistan’s future as well as their own. And it’s a change that is increasingly being driven by young people, in a country where almost seven in every ten people are under the age of 25.

In March I visited Kabul and Helmand and was inspired by young Afghan men and women who are determined that progress made will not be lost.  They were determined that their daughters will have the same freedoms and rights that others around the world – the freedom to make their own choices about their lives, the right to be educated, the right to be a full member of society, to contribute to the economy and to have a political voice. 

Afghan women are making their position clear – they will not accept a return to the past, but they will be an integral part of the future of Afghanistan.  

Sustainable progress  is also about giving women the skills, the knowledge and the confidence to take control of their lives.  And for me, doing that all boils down to one thing: education.   There is a saying in Islam that if you educate a girl you educate a family; if you educate a man, you educate an individual.  We are starting to see progress - 39% of the 5.9 million Afghan children regularly attending school are girls, over one in four teachers are now women, both up from virtually nil in 2001. 

Empowered, educated and highly motivated women such as  Habiba Sorabi, the Governor of Bamiyan Province;  Dr Sima Samar, the Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Fawzia Koofi MP are inspiring young Afghan girls. They are positive, courageous role models, showing Afghanistan and the rest of the world what can be achieved. 

There are Afghan female doctors, engineers, pilots, lawyers, politicians, business women, leaders and decision-makers.  Brave women, such as the female police officers I spoke to in Helmand, are determined to contribute to the provision of security in their communities. Step by step, they are rising to the challenge, taking their rightful place in Afghan society and the country is becoming a better place for it.

‘Afghanistan has gone too far forward to return to the situation under Taliban rule’.  That is the message I heard consistently when I spoke to Afghan women leaders, Afghan youth representatives and Afghan civil society. So what has really changed?   My time in Afghanistan drove home the reality of how far the country has moved on.  The Afghan media is widespread and active; people have access to social media and are inextricably linked to the rest of the world.  The country can never be as isolated as it was; the women of Afghanistan can never again feel alone. 

The world is watching, and we care.   I am personally committed to seeing a future Afghanistan where women are integrated in to every aspect of society.  I know that the Secretary of State for International Development, my Rt Hon Friend, Justine Greening, is equally determined.

But we are not naive, nor complacent.  Afghan women and girls will face difficulties; there will be significant challenges and it will take time.  Afghanistan has experienced over 30 years of conflict, it has ingrained conservative values and its future remains uncertain.  Afghan women continue to experience appalling levels of violence and discrimination.

 Women’s freedom to utilise their rights is patchy throughout the county   geographical factors play a part, local cultures, values and influences also have a role to play.  Change must happen, but it must be driven from within, by the Afghan people. And it is not something that women can do on their own; Afghan men and boys need to be part of, and committed to, the notion of equality - only then can we ensure that every Afghan girl is given the best possible start in life.

But while this change must come from within Afghanistan, there is much that the international community is doing to help pave the way. $16b has been committed until 2015, and the UK’s contribution of £178million per year until at least 2017 is making real changes to the lives of Afghan women and girls.

I said earlier that education was vital. And it’s at the heart of everything we are doing to promote equality in Afghanistan. From providing basic education to increase the woefully low literacy rates (thought to be around 20% for 15-24 year old Afghan women) to expanding economic opportunities for women such as providing  vocational training to almost 4000 females, and providing essential business advice.

For instance, funding to the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Fund provides assistance to fledgling female entrepreneurs,  such as the Afghan Tailoring Company in Helmand, a small female run business which now employs  30  female workers. 

In addition, we are strengthening women’s voices through civil society: supporting access to justice and healthcare and further involvement in the political process, including direct support, training and workshops for female candidates in the forthcoming elections.  

Nobody can deny that there is still a long way to go. But even though the challenges are great, I truly believe Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.

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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities. 

This blog was originally posted on Amnesty International UK's website. To see the blog as it originally appeared, click here.