Karzai: a legacy of failure on Afghan women's rights?

With more fundamentalists predicted to win seats in the forthcoming election, the future is likely to see once again the use of religion as an instrument of extreme gender based oppression in Afghanistan. Will President Karzai use his remaining days in office to cement the foundations of women’s rights?

Massouda Jalal
19 August 2013

As the departure of the international security forces approaches, each day turns every bit of hope into desperation for advocates of Afghan women’s rights. In 2010, soon after the United States announced the planned withdrawal of NATO and international forces at the end of 2014, Afghan women leaders communicated to SRSG Estefan de Mistura their concrete agenda for sustainable peace. They asserted that women should be recognized as the main victims of the conflict in Afghanistan and that security reform should lead to the improvement of women’s quantitative and qualitative representation in peace bodies, the armed forces, and the police. They also made a strong position that the international community should continue supporting women’s increased participation in peace and security processes. The bottom line of women’s agenda is that the rights of women should never be a subject of negotiation before, during and after the peace process. More importantly, women of Afghanistan expected a strong commitment to their protection from violence, State support to the victims and their families, and prosecution of all perpetrators of violence against women.

Unfortunately, women have been marginalized in the decision making for the peace process and their petitions have been ignored by national leaders. Except for a general statement that women’s rights will not be sacrificed in the name of peace, nothing concrete was taken to guard against the reversion of women’s status to the pre-2001 era.  President Hamid Karzai has been turning a deaf ear to the pleadings of women’s rights activists, claiming that he had already faced a lot of embarrassment in defending women’s rights would no longer do anything in this regard.  He now dances to the music of fundamentalism, drinks from the cups of people who are known butchers of women’s rights, and appoints them to positions where they could tear down the foundations of women’s rights that were painstakingly built a dozen of years ago. He has now elevated the practice of ‘baad’ to the level of national policy and law making - selling the daughters of his nation to appease the fundamentalists that he had brought to his administration.

The list of worrisome developments that betray the government’s submission to fundamentalist dictates is growing: :

1. President Hamid Karzai endorsed the Ulema Council’s declaration that mandates women to fully comply with the hijab, respect polygamy, refrain from travelling without mohram, and avoid mingling with stranger men in social situations such as education, shopping, office and public life.  Worse, this declaration directed the society to adhere to a tenet of women’s subjugation and avoid expressions that represent equal views about women and men.

2. Article 63 of the Afghan Constitution obliges the President of Afghanistan to “….to safeguard…the fundamental rights and interests of the people of Afghanistan, and with the assistance of God and the support of the nation, to make great and sincere efforts for the happiness and progress of the people of Afghanistan.” Yet, he marginalized women’s voice in the development of the peace and transition framework and blatantly ignored the fact that the women of Afghanistan never acceded to the idea of making peace with the Taliban. He disregarded the voice of half of the country’s population and is blindly pursuing the return of talibans to mainstream life, something that is highly inimical to the security and lives of women and girls.

3. Third, President Karzai never made good of his promises to implement the national policies and programs for the promotion of Afghan women’s empowerment and gender equality as detailed in the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (2008-2018).  Five years after its adoption, there has been no official account on the extent of its implementation and the source of public resources for its implementation, particularly at the sub-national level remains vague. 

4. Fourth, the government remained silent amidst Parliamentary debates on the legality of his decree on the Elimination of Violence against Women. It allowed Parliamentarians to foment false interpretation of the law as being un-Islamic and derided the provisions that guarantee protection of women against abuse by their husband and relatives.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Justice could have explained that this decree went through proper dialogue and analysis of Islamic and legal authorities and is in fact consistent with both international and Islamic laws.

5. Fifth, the government continues to fail in preventing violence against women and in providing services and access to justice to survivors. The latest report of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission indicated that 4,010 cases for VAW were recorded from March 21 to October 21 of 2012 which is 57 percent higher than the 2,299 figure of the same period for 2011. UNAMA also reported that prosecutors registered 1,538 incidents which are 34.39 percent higher than the data for the previous period. While there are 11 shelters for various VAW survivors and their children, these are all seriously under-resourced, inadequately secured, and improperly managed.  The protection of women against violence is largely being left to the hands of non-government organizations and international agencies.

Just recently, the President signed the National Election Law that removed the provision on the 25 percent quota for women in the provincial and district councils. This means that the forthcoming national election could bring more fundamentalists in government, both at the national and local levels. With their presence in positions of power, it means that a rights-sensitive law on the elimination of violence against women could not stand a chance of getting enacted. Worse, all the gains on women’s rights during the past twelve years are in danger of being challenged and overturned by policy makers who are un-enlightened about international standards of human rights. The future is likely to see once again the use of religion as an instrument of extreme gender based oppression in Afghanistan.

There are less and less reasons to be optimistic.  Yet, the government could still choose to do good for the daughters of this country, especially in the remaining months of President Karzai’s incumbency. It is never too late to make amends. He could use his remaining days in office to cement the foundations of women’s rights that were paved by his early administration. It is not a shame to take the side of what is fair and right. It is not an embarrassment to make a stand on behalf of half of his constituents. And it is not cowardice to accept that he is making big mistakes in sabotaging the gains of women under his administration. This is not about politics. This is about being a good President, being a dignified Afghan and being a champion of democracy in this part of the world.



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