Long road ahead for Afghan women
December 19th, 2012
01:45 PM ET

Long road ahead for Afghan women

By Heather Barr, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Heather Barr is Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher. Follow her @HeatherBarr1. The views expressed are her own.

In Afghanistan, this year’s observance of International Human Rights Day, December 10, began with the murder of a rights advocate.

An unknown gunman shot and killed Najia Sediqi, acting head of the Afghan government’s Department of Women's Affairs in the eastern province of Laghman, as she traveled to work that morning. Sediqi’s murder is appalling, but not surprising.

Sediqi had held her post only a few months following the murder of her predecessor, Hanifa Safi. Safi was killed on July 13, when an improvised explosive device attached to her car was remotely detonated. Safi’s husband and daughter and six other civilians were wounded. No one has claimed responsibility for Safi's murder, nor for Sediqi’s. There have been no arrests in either case.
The murders of Sediqi and Safi are more than just a measure of Afghanistan’s ongoing slide toward lawlessness and violence that is likely to accelerate as the international community draws down its support in concert with the departure of international combat troops by the end of 2014. They are also highly symbolic attacks on the tentative progress toward women’s rights, embodied by the Department of Women’s Affairs offices, since the U.S. invasion toppled the repressive Taliban regime in 2001.

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Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has a Women’s Affairs office. These offices, outposts of the Ministry in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, are the front line in the Afghan government’s effort to advance women’s rights – and to fight violence against women. The overall effort by the Afghan government to promote women’s rights has fallen far short of what it should, but no one can question the challenges that the staff of the DoWA office face, working every day to help women in often insecure provinces in a country where many view women’s rights as an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty.

Under these desperately difficult working conditions, some Women’s Affairs officials show exceptional courage and compassion. For example, Human Rights Watch has heard of cases where, in provinces with no shelter for women fleeing violence (there are only 14 such shelters in all of Afghanistan) Women’s Affairs staff members have protected battered women in the staffers’ own homes, at great personal risk.

They have their work cut out for them. The roll call of Afghan women and girls who have been victims of targeted violence just this year is far too long to recount. But a few cases tell the story of many more women and girls:  Anisa, 22, was a student and polio vaccination campaign volunteer shot to death in Kapisa Province in December; Giseena, 15, was killed and nearly beheaded in November in Kunduz Province by a rejected suitor and his friend; Mah Gul, 25, was murdered by throat slashing in October in Herat Province, allegedly for refusing her in-laws’ demand to become a prostitute; Sabira, 15, was lashed 101 times in September in Ghazni Province for immorality after reporting that she had been raped; Benafsha, 22, an actress, was  murdered in Kabul in August; Najiba, 22, was killed in June by her husband in a public execution in Parwan, which was filmed and watched around the world.

There are many more cases, including some investigated by Human Rights Watch. Friba, 35, who is deaf and mute, was raped in April or May in Parwan Province, and has tried to kill herself repeatedly, while also being threatened with “honor” killing by her family. Rabia was burned to death in Kunar Province in August, in what her in-laws say was an accident but her parents believe was murder. Masoma, a teenager, was executed in September in Herat Province after running away to escape forced marriage; the man she ran away with was also killed.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reports that 4,000 cases of violence against women occurred in April through October of this year, an increase of about 1,000 cases over the same period in 2011. When President Hamid Karzai signed Afghanistan's Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2009, for the first time, many forms of abuse of women were made a crime. However, enforcement by police and prosecutors has been desperately lacking.

Foreign support for women’s rights in Afghanistan is also on the wane. International engagement in Afghanistan is declining sharply, with cuts in assistance already under way. Foreign aid, including for essential services for women and girls, is likely to decline dramatically in the years ahead. With increasing rates of violence, declining international interest, and a national government unwilling to make protecting women a priority, the reality is sinking in that guarding the slow-but-important gains in women’s rights in Afghanistan will only get harder in the years ahead.

Gains in women’s rights have been an undeniable, if fragile, victory over the last decade. As Afghan women face an increasingly dangerous future, there has never been a more important moment for the United States and other countries that have been so closely engaged in Afghanistan for the last 11 years to lay out solid commitments for how they will support Afghan women in the hard years ahead.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Women

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. chaag

    Reblogged this on naidychaag.

    December 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    More evidence that the Communists should have won that country's civil war some 30 years ago. The suffering of these women in Afghanistan today proves that very fact. The West needs to stay out of these countries and mind it's own business!

    December 20, 2012 at 11:41 am | Reply
    • Sayitnow

      So you want all MIddleeasterners to move out of the West and mind their own business and stay put in the East and all westerners to move out of the East and mind their own business. Good luck.

      December 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  3. Hahahahahahahaha

    Towel Head men must really be afraid of women. What a bunch of p_u_s_s_i_e_s!!!!!! Hahahahahahahahaha

    December 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  4. Beverly Kaeintz

    The fact that there are only three responses (so far) to this article is telling.

    December 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  5. RLTJ's

    You mean a long way to westernize them. Or, change traditional roles they play in society.

    Women have always roles in society. They re the mothers of all the sons of b-–s. Boys and girls think more like their mothers.

    December 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  6. RLTJ's

    When a young woman is betroth to a male, it is not called slavery of women. It is called culture. The groom might not even like the girl. It was talked over by parents, among them the mothers.

    The young bride in her time may not do that to her children. Nothing keeps her to stick to old culture should she decide to practice different.

    December 20, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Afghansitan is one of the worst places on earth for women. Especially in rural areas, where tribal culture prevails, violence against women is most evident. Women have to do all the chores and perform their duties, but have absolutely no rights whatsoever. There's little hope that their lot will be improved in the near future, much is uncertain after withdrawal of Western troops and the presidential election in 2014.

    December 21, 2012 at 8:12 am | Reply
  8. rightospeak

    If the endless wars stopped and foreign occupation ended their lives would improve. The pipeline from Caspian Sea to Karachi may never happen-so it is all for nothing.

    December 21, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  9. darrenhankins

    Only when the women realize Islam is dark religion. Islam will on subs-agate the female race to third or fourth class citizen to please it twisted male overload.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  10. rightospeak

    Writing about human rights on the subject of Afganistan is just foolish Imperial Propaganda.. Afganistan is under occupation and foreign values are jammed down people's throats. Unfortunately jornalism serves only our oligarchs that profit from endless wars – they care less about human rightds.Many drone kills make the human right conversation ridiculous.

    December 25, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply

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