Date: 5 March 2009
United Nations, New York — Three Afghan advocates for women's rights spoke of the multiple challenges facing women and girls in Afghanistan in a panel discussion hosted by UNIFEM and co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations. Held at the UN Headquarters' ECOSOC chamber on 5 March, the panel was organized as part of the 53rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), with the participation of Susan Rice, the newly appointed Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN.
Eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the panellists highlighted the persistent insecurity, political complexities and gaps between policy and practice in the war-ravaged country. Moderating the event, Joanne Sandler, UNIFEM Deputy Executive Director, noted that UNIFEM is carrying out its largest women's rights programme in Afghanistan, laying the ground for women and girls to access their rights. But hard-won gains are being undermined by the volatile security situation.
Ms. Rice welcomed the opportunity to hear the voices of Afghan women and pointed out that expanding the opportunities of women in the country was not some strange foreign notion; on the contrary, surveys had shown that the majority of the nation supported the principle of equal rights and opportunities for men and women. Ms. Rice emphasized the importance of improved education, better health care, and peace and stability as keys to empowerment.
"We see that women bare a particular burden of continuing conflict and violence, and if we care about women's security and women's rights and needs, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan is on a clear path to a peaceful, stable and democratic future,” Ms. Rice said. "The simple truth is that societies that take advantage of only half their talent will not be as prosperous as those who let everyone rise as high as their abilities will carry them."
The Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations, Zahir Tanin, described how Afghanistan had in his youth been a peaceful and tolerant country, where the best traditions of east and west had merged. But the wars and violence of the past few decades had unsettled the dust of intolerance and ignorance.
Pointing to the Afghan constitution that declares equal rights and the duties of men and women, Mr. Tanin said there was indeed political will to improve the position of women, but that the increase in violence had meant that women were, as always, the first victims. "Insecurity is the greatest threat to Afghan women," said Mr. Tanin, who expressed hope that the international community would continue to work with the Afghan authorities to improve the situation of women and girls.
Wazhma Frogh, Country Director for Global Rights in Afghanistan, who has worked with both national civil society groups and international agencies, noted that the voices of Afghan women were rarely heard in the international press. "From the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there have been some achievements for women, but eight years later we still face great obstacles," she said. "Despite international presence and improved legal framework, real progress has been slow, and we ask ourselves why."
Ms. Frogh said that women’s issues is a sector that officials and representatives have paid lip service to, but women are still largely excluded from actual policy making, economic planning and peace talks. She remarked: “Women want to take part in peace negotiations … but we are told that for security reasons, we are better off staying at home. But that is not the case; we are already dying. And I would much rather die as a minister than at home!"
Suraya Pakzad was married at age 14 and is a mother of six children. She founded the Voice of Women Organization (VWO) in 1998 and began to teach women and girls how to read in groups across Afghanistan. VWO now runs a range of projects that support disadvantaged and oppressed women. Ms. Pakzad’s work has placed her in danger as she provides direct protection to women and girls and advocates for their rights.
She said the ongoing conflict was the main cause of the rise in violence against women in the public and private spheres, and stressed that long term commitments, including a drive to increase women's literacy and health, were needed to permanently improve their situation.
"But we need action today to protect women's lives in the short term; we must save their lives now," Ms. Pakzad said. "Girls must feel safe going to school, women must be safe on their way to work." She further stressed the importance of psycho-social services being available to the beleaguered population and outlined the need for shelters and safe-houses for women.
Najia Zewari, Gender and Justice Unit Manager of the UNIFEM Afghanistan Country Programme, has worked for more than 20 years in the field of women’s rights in Afghanistan, focusing on the impact of customary practices on women, as well as on women’s political participation.
Ms. Zewari shared the story of an 11-year-old girl, who became victim of a serious crime but was utterly let down by the law enforcement system. The girl had gone to a market near her home in Kabul, where a woman lured her away into the hands of a man who kidnapped and raped her. Her family became worried when she did not return and her father used his influence to press for the capture of her kidnapper.
It turned out that the woman in the market was the mother-in-law of the kidnapper, purportedly acting in the interest of her daughter, who was unable to bear him children. On the way back to Kabul, the police made the girl sit beside her kidnapper in the backseat of the car.
Furthermore, after a medical examination, the girl was placed in a referral center, as there were reasonable fears about her safety if she would be returned home. The rape of a girl is believed to bring shame to her family, and there was thought to be a real risk that her father or another male relative would kill her to protect the honor of the family.
Even though the girl was only 11 years old, the case was handled as one of adultery and remained unresolved. It was suggested that the problem could be settled if the girl married the kidnapper. However, she was finally allowed to go home, thoroughly traumatized.
Ms. Zewari said such a story echoes the need for women and girls to enjoy security in their daily lives and gain real access to justice, in order to be able to exercise their rights and freedom. "While looking back on eight years of challenge and achievements for women in Afghanistan, this is the time to appeal for further commitment to facilitate Afghan women in gaining their Islamic rights as guaranteed in our constitution and international instruments that Afghanistan abides to," she said.