By Nele Rissmann
Afghanistan 2012. A young Afghan girl, Zahra is 15 years old. Grown up in the valley of Panjshir -a province about 100 km northeast of Kabul- she was born in a little village to a traditional Pashto speaking Afghan family. Zahra has fond memories of her childhood: she spent her days playing in the fields and swam together with other kids in a pond. At the age of 13 Zahra’s father forced her to marry a 30-year-old man. However, she refused, and as a consequence, Zahra’s life changed dramatically. Her father and brothers started to abuse her. They beat her, sometimes until the point of unconsciousness, while keeping her imprisoned in her own home. Three months later, Zahra managed to escape and was picked up by a safe house in Kabul.
The need to defend of women’s rights was cited by NATO as one of the primary motivations, after the need to defeat the Taliban and to root out al Qaeda, for the 2001 invasion and subsequent commitment to rehabilitate Afghanistan. In December 2001, they determined in the Bonn Agreement: “these interim arrangements are intended as a first step toward the establishment of a broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government”. By the end of 2014, the ISAF mission will be concluded and almost all international forces are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan. A NATO force will be left behind in order to help with the training of Afghan forces. On the 20th and 21st of May 2012, Heads of State and government, as well as Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers met at the NATO Summit in Chicago. The declaration of the summit contains a review of the achievements during the last decade: “the lives of Afghan men, women and children, have improved significantly (…)”.
Has NATO Met its Promises?“They have not fulfilled their promises. The situation for women in Afghanistan is getting worse, every day”, claimed the 20-year-old Reena, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who told Zahra’s story. After hearing about Zahra’s case, RAWA admitted the girl into one of their safe houses. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is an independent political and social organization of women fighting for human rights and social justice. They are being watched, and due to this, they have to operate semi-underground. Frequently, they receive threatening letters and phone calls, “but there is no other way if you want to bring a change”, said Reena. In every area, the situation of Afghan women would be dismal, including education, employment, and health, freedom from violence, political participation, and equality before the law. Forced marriage, and oppression of women belong to the bitter everyday life in Afghanistan. “Day by day, women are being raped, and since we have foreign forces in our country, even by them.”
Violence against Women IncreasedA study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) registered 1026 cases of violence against women in the second quarter of 2011. By contrast, in 2010 there were 2700 cases in total. A nationwide survey by Global Rights of 4700 Afghan women, found that 87.2% had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence including forced marriage in their lifetimes. The forms of violence include physical violence, rape, and ‘honor killings’. However, the country’s 2004 constitution guaranteed a number of important rights for women, including the right to an education, the right to equality before the law, and the right to work. In 2009, the Elimination of Violence against Women law, which criminalized many harmful traditional practices, has been introduced by the Afghan government.
Claudia Söder, Afghanistan expert at the women’s rights organization Medica Mondiale blamed first of all the insecurity in the country for the increase of violence against women, “recently, we even have the feeling that the situation for women in Afghanistan deteriorated”. NATO’s military intervention cannot be considered as a success in terms of women’s rights, and NATO has chosen a wrong approach; they gave weapons to Afghans but a majority of the recruited men were not military trained and in most cases are completely illiterate. Moreover, NATO’s focus was on the military rather than on the civilian population. Another big issue is the high rate of corruption within the Afghan government and society, “just because a law is written on paper, it does not mean that it is implemented in society”, said Ms Söder.
“They show a wrong picture in the west. They show that the war they are fighting for is a good war. But that is not true.” – Reena, RAWA Member of the Foreign Committee
Education has been a top priority for both the Afghan government and the foreign forces while a majority of girls’ schools were closed down under the Taliban. According to the 2011 Education for all Global Monitoring Report, there are now 2.7 million girls enrolled in school, 38% of the 7.3 million total students. However, a visible change took place in major cities whereas the number of schools in rural areas, where 80-90% of Afghans live, is still very low and with very poor standards. Furthermore, the dropout rate because of underage marriage is very high and due to this, a majority of girls’ visits school for only a few years. 57% of all marriages that take place in Afghanistan are classified by UNIFEM as child marriages (under 16 years old) and 70-80% as forced marriages. Moreover, “how can girls and boys study when there is war and when the situation is so unsecure?” asked Reena.
Naida Nashir Karim, chairman of the Afghan Women’s Association Germany (Afghanischer Frauenverein e.V.) said it was particularly pleasing to see that a significantly higher number of political positions are held by women nowadays and that women appear to be becoming more self-confident during the last decade. Overall, she does not believe that the promises made by NATO were kept. “Military troops will never be able to make peace. They rather protect themselves.” Karim, who was born in Kunduz, also supports the opinion that western media show a wrong picture of the situation in Afghanistan. “If a woman is stoned by the Taliban, western newspapers will report about it. But no one cares when civilians are killed by the NATO”, claims Karim.
According to the Islamic scientist Abbas Poya at the University of Freiburg in Germany, there have been some visible changes concerning the question of women’s rights in Afghanistan. What is grotesque though, is that these women represent only an urban minority. Overall, the picture shows that in countries where “the West” is not military involved, human and women’s rights are a focus of the discourse. The discourse changes however, where western military is present. In that case, issues such as security, occupation policy, and foreign interests take a central place.
Has the Media Lost its Interest?However, it seems that the future of Afghanistan’s women is not on the top media agenda these days and its focus rather on the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014. In addition, France’s new president aims to redeem his election promises and has therefore put forward a pace that its NATO partners dizzy. And all over sudden, it is no longer spoken about the original objectives, to rid the country out of oppression and religious fanaticism.
The Shia Personal Status LawIn March 2009, the diminishing status of women’s rights came back into focus when the Shia Personal Status Law was signed by President Hamid Karzai and passed by the parliament and the highest Afghan religious leaders, in an apparent attempt to garner political support from powerful political factions. The new law regulates marriage, divorce, and inheritance for the country's Shia population (about 15-20% of the population). According to the law, women are subordinated to men they may even be beaten by them. It includes provisions that require a woman to ask permission to leave the house except on urgent business, a duty to ‘make herself up’ or ‘dress up’ for her husband when demanded, a duty not to refuse sex when her husband wants it, and a duty to have sex every four days, unless a woman has health problems. The marriage age for women is lowered from 18 to 16 years.
Even after ten years of commitment of the international community in Afghanistan, the Shia Personal Status Law -which seems rather in the past and not in the future-, could be adopted. Why? Looking at the whole country, basically, structures have not changed much within the last ten years, said Islamic scientist Abbas Poya. Especially in the width of the society, nothing has changed. Due to this, laws like the Shia Personal Status Law can still be adopted in Afghanistan. “The law is actually a bit symbolic”, said RAWA member Reena. There has been violence against women before and after the new law. However, fear and helplessness would have increased because what men do to women is legal now. “There is no hope for women.”
NATO’s Response“Our objectives in 2001 were certainly too ambitious”, admits Dr. Philipp Wendel, NATO’s public relations officer. Meanwhile, they became more realistic. To strengthen the security situation in Afghanistan continuously is one of their major goals at the moment. “Within the past ten years, we were able to improve women’s access to education and to public services. For instance, there is actually a female general officer in the Afghan army which we do not even have in the German Armed Forces”, said Wendel.
Furthermore, the birth mortality rate would have declined significantly as well as the mortality rate of women who die during pregnancy or birth. However, the strengthening of women’s rights can only be realized in a long-run. “In terms of women’s rights, we expect regress after the withdrawal of a majority of NATO troops in 2014. Nonetheless, we are very satisfied about the development of the Afghan Army during the last decade and we will continue to support the Afghan forces.” A serious effort on the part of the Afghan government must be continuously exerted.
How will the Future Look Like?Zahra has been living in a safe house for almost two years. She got to know a different life, where she now has opportunities she did not even imagine could exist, where nobody is stopping her and where she can study and live her life almost the way she wants to. Zahra does not want to lose this new life, but she also longs for her family and especially for her younger sisters. Sadly, Zahra won’t be able to see them soon because it is certain that her father and her brothers would kill her in case of a return.
Zahra’s fate is shared by many Afghan girls. What do they wish for their future? “We want peace, no war. We want democracy and social justice“, answered Reena. To improve the situation of Afghanistan’s women permanently, the society needs to accept women as a part of society. To make this happen, it needs a change in people’s ideology and in their way of thinking.