Afghanistan is not known for its stellar women’s rights record. Over the past century, the status of women has been on a metaphorical see-saw; small improvements have brought hope, only to be followed by drastic steps backward, bringing the status of women to an even lower position than before. The war in Afghanistan brought promise of steep reform and the reemergence of female empowerment in the country. It’s been just over a decade since the war began, however, and there’s been little improvement for women in that time.
The presence of the Taliban was a significant source of the injustices toward women in the country. During the reign of the Taliban, from 1996 to 2001, women were barred from receiving an education, having a profession, and even leaving their homes. Women were only allowed out in the company of a close male family member and were required to wear a burqa to cover any visible skin. Even with the Taliban’s loss of power, many of these laws have not been overturned. Women have received the right to vote in elections, a major feat after the Taliban’s repression. Girls’ schools, however, face the constant threat of attack. Since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, over 1,000 girls’ schools have been attacked in retaliation by Taliban sympathizers.
A particularly harmful practice is the ancient practice of baad. Baad is the ancient practice of giving away a young girl as a form of reconciliation and justice between conflicting families. This practice is looked down upon by many and prohibited under national and Sharia law. Perpetrators can face up to ten years of imprisonment; however, with opium production and trade as high as ever (pardon the pun), the practice is still widespread and frequently occurs with little to no repercussions. Farmers depend on opium production in order to make a living and must rely on loans by traffickers to help pay off production costs or living expenses. Many are unable to repay this debt and young girls are often the cost.
In an attempt to address its worsening women’s rights practices, Afghanistan approved the Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW) in 2009, which promised to end all “customs, traditions and practices that cause violence against women contrary to the religion of Islam.” This includes customs such as baad, child marriage, and the buying and selling of women. While this law is a tremendous step forward, it has yet to be implemented. In fact, in the same year, President Hamid Karzai publicly supported the Shia Family Law, which legalizes spousal rape and prohibits women from leaving their home without the permission of their husbands.
Many organizations are working to help give Afghan women the rights that they deserve. Women for Women International provides year-long classes which help women in the country better understand their rights and the steps to attaining them. They provide women with extensive job training and support in order to allow women to make their own living rather than rely on the care of the men in their lives. This provides a means for women to escape their abusive husbands or gain some independence. However, as illustrated previously in my blog, a major obstacle in female empowerment programs such as this one is convincing men to allow women to leave the home and begin working. Gender is a highly sensitive issue, with values and customs deeply ingrained within society. Something as simple as providing job training to a young woman can be perceived as destructive to the family and society. In order to gain the approval of the family, Women for Women International provides small living stipends in order to encourage families to allow women to take part in the program.
Another NGO called Womankind has worked in Afghanistan since 2004, attempting to reduce violence against women. More recently, the organization has worked towards improving literacy rates for women, as well as promoting general female empowerment. The organization also has been monitoring the implementation of the EVAW law since November 2011. This has been done by working to build awareness in law enforcement agencies (many are ignorant of the law’s existence), lobbying decision-makers for speedy implementation of the law, and training law enforcement officers on the provisions of EVAW.
These are only two of the many organizations working in Afghanistan to improve women’s rights. It will certainly be a long while until we see any drastic equalization between the sexes (especially with the Shia Family Law still looming); however, EVAW, if it is ever implemented, does provide some hope.