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Archive for the ‘Women’s Rights’ Category

Real progress has been achieved over the past decade in improving the status of Afghan women, especially in the areas of education and health care. Girls and women are now able to go to school and many are taking advantage of that opportunity. Access to health services and maternal care has improved substantially across the country. The National Solidarity Program of community-based economic development has empowered many women to play a more active role in their communities. A quarter of the seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women. In Kabul women are more actively involved in public life. These are substantial gains, described by one observer as “irreversible.”

In the all-important area of personal security, however, conditions have deteriorated. During my recent visit to Kabul, member of the Afghan Women’s Network said that the situation is more dangerous and uncertain for women now—despite the presence of 150,000 international troops. Insurgent groups have increased their control over many parts of the country.

Foreign military operations are oriented toward battling insurgents, the women explained, not protecting civilians. “No one protects us in the streets,” said one woman. A researcher exclaimed, “I’d rather trust my life to the thieves than the soldiers or police.” We don’t need policies that are created in Western capitals, said another woman. “We need to be involved in designing and monitoring our own security policies.”

Women have equal rights on paper, but in reality their freedoms are being undermined. Women are threatened not only by the Taliban, said the director of a coordinating agency for relief groups, but by Afghan government officials, the very same agencies Western governments are supporting. “Those guys in the government are the ones who passed the family law,” the agency director said, referring to the Personal Status Law adopted in 2009, a measure that legalizes rape in marriage.

The U.S. has concentrated on building the Afghan National Army and National Police, which will soon number 300,000 troops. This huge security force is unsustainable financially, and it has done little to provide security for Afghan women.

The U.S. is creating local police forces, supposedly to enhance security, but these poorly trained troops are responsible for many abuses, including murder, rape, arbitrary detention and illegal land grabs. These crimes are documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report.

As the U.S. and other countries begin to scale back their military involvement in Afghanistan, the challenge for the future will be preserving the gains women have achieved while ensuring greater protection for Afghan civilians, especially women. That will require a shift in strategy away from military combat operations toward a greater emphasis on development and human security.

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Last week I traveled to Afghanistan as part of a delegation from the Dutch development agency Cordaid. I was there to update the findings of our report last year, Afghan Women Speak, and learn how the security transition and initial stages of Western troop withdrawal are affecting the prospects for peace and human rights.

Entering an active war zone quickens the pulse, but during our brief trip all was calm in Kabul. No attacks occurred in the city, although the steady pace of military operations continued in the provinces, as did reported drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan national police and army troops are visible at many major intersections in Kabul. Amidst the city’s dense traffic we saw a number of ‘technicals,’ Toyota pickups with 4 to 6 armed and uniformed Afghan men sitting in the back, holding automatic weapons and in some instances RPGs.

Only once did we feel vulnerable, while waiting outside the security entrance to a government ministry near the presidential palace, blast walls and guard towers outside all the buildings, our group of six civilians standing exposed on the side of a busy boulevard, warily watching the passing vehicles.

During interviews with more than a dozen Afghan women leaders, researchers, international aid workers and former Afghan government officials, we learned of persistent dangers and threats to the country’s future.

  • Afghan women face continuing repression.  They are witnessing the erosion of previous gains as Taliban control spreads in the countryside and reactionary warlord influence increases within the Kabul regime. The government’s own security forces are often responsible for violations of women’s rights.  Check back in a few days for a more detailed account of what we learned.
  • The withdrawal of foreign forces will produce an economic crisis for the government of Afghanistan, which remains almost completely dependent financially on the U.S. and other foreign governments, especially to pay for its huge 300,000-person security forces.  I wrote about this funding failure in an earlier post.
  • A new security agreement between Kabul and Washington is likely to call for the continued presence of U.S. military forces in the country beyond the 2014 transition deadline. This is seen as necessary to provide security for Kabul, but it could also have the effect of prolonging the insurgency and impeding prospects for reconciliation.

It was clear from what we heard that maintaining security requires more than deploying a large number of troops. It also requires proper governance, functioning courts, the rule of law, and an end to the impunity and abuse perpetrated by Afghan government officials and security forces. If the Afghan people cannot trust their government, no amount of military force will be able to assure genuine security and stability.

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