Ten years of gains for Afghan women under threat, warns Oxfam

By mhart

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The improvements for Afghan women’s rights gained over the last decade are at risk of slipping away and could be lost in a quick fix bargain for peace, the international humanitarian organization Oxfam warned today.

The protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan was promoted as a positive outcome of the international intervention which began on October 7, 2001. But in a new report, A Place at the Table: Safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan, co-authored with well-known Afghan academic Orzala Ashraf Nemat, Oxfam says  Afghan women could face a dangerous future after 2014 if sidelined in the search for peace.

According to the report, there has already been a downward slide in the advances women began to make after 2001. Although there have been strong gains in girls’ education, with some 2.7 million girls in school compared to a few thousand in Taliban time, other areas show patchy progress. In parliament, a quota system put into place in 2005 guarantees 68 female MPs – there are now 69. However, there is now just one female minister compared to three in 2004. The number of women in the civil service has dropped from 31 percent in 2006 to 18.5 percent in 2010.

In addition, the government’s ground-breaking Elimination of Violence Against Women law – which criminalizes harmful traditional practices such as honor killings, child marriages, and giving away girls to settle disputes – is only being enforced in 10 out Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In the second quarter of 2011 alone, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 1,026 cases of violence against women. In 2010, by contrast, there were 2,765 cases in total.

The report warns that in the context of recent upheavals, women’s rights are at risk falling further down the political agenda. The recent assassination of the head of the country’s High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has underscored the volatile conditions that continue to plague Afghanistan – conditions in which the rights of women, once hailed as one of the cornerstones of stability, could easily be ignored.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, co-author of the report, said:

“Recent history has been harsh to Afghan women – and we don’t want to see it repeated. We have made incredible gains in the last 10 years.  Women are working as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen; and girls are at school. But what is life going to be like for us in the next 10 years? Already life is getting tougher for Afghan women.  Afghan women want peace – not a stitch up deal that will confine us to our homes again.  We are a voice that must be heard.”

Oxfam said that the number of women on the High Peace Council did not bode well for women’s participation in future formal peace talks with the Taliban. There are just nine women on the 70-member council, which was created to lead the peace process. The organization urged the Afghan government and international community to use the run up to December’s Bonn conference, which will set the course for Afghanistan beyond 2014, to develop a more inclusive peace process which involves Afghan people from all parts of society, including women. Oxfam called on world leaders to ensure that women play an active role in any negotiations and urged them to pledge that any political settlement with groups such as the Taliban will explicitly guarantee women’s rights.

Louise Hancock, Oxfam policy advisor in Afghanistan and co-author of the report, said:

“Afghan women tell me that they do not feel that they can count on any of the main players in peace efforts to safeguard their rights. They want a place at the table so that they can protect their hard-won gains. The greater stake women have in the peace process the more likely they are to support and promote reconciliation within their families and communities, which is essential for lasting peace. 

“The Bonn Conference comes 10 years after the initial conference which laid the foundation for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A lot of mistakes have been made over the last decade. World leaders must ensure that this time in Bonn we see more than just shop-talk – and instead put forward concrete solutions to deliver a brighter future for Afghanistan. The Afghan people deserve a real, just and lasting peace – not a political bargain that only serves the interests of a few.”

Oxfam called on world leaders to ensure that any peace deal includes benchmarks to guarantee women's rights, such as monitoring the numbers of girls in school and the numbers of women in public life.  In addition, it called on the Afghan government and international community to ensure that there is meaningful participation of women in all peace processes at all levels – matching the  government’s existing pledge of 30 percent of women in government bodies. It also called on leaders to ensure continued funding for services that support women, such as schools and leadership programs as well as access to basic services, beyond 2014.