Afghan women’s rights are not negotiable

Opinion article written on the 06 Jul 2012

In recent weeks, there have been reports of young girls and teachers in the northern Takhar province of Afghanistan being poisoned in an attempt to stop them from going to school.

Classrooms were believed to have been sprayed with a toxic material before the girls entered, and drinking water laced with toxic chemicals, resulting in hundreds of young girls being hospitalised.

This is a terrifying illustration of the desire by some to control the lives of young women in this country. The real fear is that as international forces withdraw from Afghanistan and political deals are done with armed organisations like the Taliban, not enough will be done to protect women’s and girls’ rights and prevent more incidents like this.

It is these young women that must be at the forefront of people’s minds and public statements as the international community comes together in Tokyo on July 8 to look at the future of Afghanistan.

The Tokyo meeting will be the second major international donor meeting on Afghanistan following the recent NATO summit in Chicago to decide the future of the country.

With the fate of the international military presence decided, we must turn now to ensuring that the outcomes of the Tokyo conference focus on Afghans, and in particular on making a strong statement about Afghan women’s and girls’ rights and role in the transition.

The Australian Government, through its aid program, has demonstrated a strong desire to see Afghanistan achieve its hopes to become a stable and prosperous country.

Australia has been a generous donor to Afghanistan. The Government’s aid program allocated over $200 million in 2011-2012 and that is set to grow to $250 million per year by 2015-16. Its aid program has provided many Afghans, including women and girls, with the opportunity to attend schools, receive medical assistance, and address important development issues that affect the country.

Afghanistan has witnessed significant improvements over the past 10 years, achievements the Australian Government, together with Afghan authorities and the international community, can feel proud of.

There is little doubt that inclusive processes that take into account the needs and views of women are critical for the development of Afghanistan, and also for sustainable peace and security.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the significant gains achieved in the past decade of international presence in Afghanistan remain fragile and reversible, especially for women and girls.

In March 2012, the influential Ulema Council released a statement, seemingly endorsed by President Karzai, which called for negotiations with insurgents and reaffirmed the ‘secondary’ status of women.

Only days ago, the Afghan minister of justice claimed publicly (and later apologised) that women’s shelters in Afghanistan were turning into centres of ‘immorality and prostitution’.

Women make up 19 per cent of the High Peace Council, yet it is unclear the extent to which they will be provided with an active role and representation in the negotiation and reconciliation processes.

Women leaders are under increasing attack. Women do not have a seat at the negotiation table and are often excluded from processes to reintegrate Taliban fighters back into Afghan society. If these recent events alone are anything to go by, we should indeed be worried.

Women and girls are at risk of being left behind. Treated as passive recipients of aid and assistance, much more needs to be done to ensure this half of society has access to the same rights and opportunities as the other half.

Afghan women claim to fear the consequences of peace, as much as they fear the ongoing conflict, for they are all too aware that their gains could be rapidly reversed in a quick fix political settlement with the Taliban.

We have a moral responsibility, and an opportunity, to achieve something good in Afghanistan rather than simply focusing on avoiding something bad. As our engagement shifts, we need to ensure that Afghan women and girls become not only a development priority, but also a security and transition priority for the Afghan government and the donor community.

Demanding publicly and behind closed doors that women’s and girls’ rights are not traded away in any political settlement with the Taliban or other armed groups should be key to the Australian Government’s commitment to Afghanistan.

The Australian Government’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security – which outlines how they will implement five UN Security Council Resolutions to ensure the protection and empowerment of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict settings – now provides a framework for delivering on such a commitment.

The whole of government plan presents an opportunity for Australia to play a leadership role and transform the rhetoric of recognising women as powerful agents of change into action in Tokyo.

US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has been to date one of very few international leaders who has openly advocated for the rights of women in Afghanistan; the EU’s Catherine Ashton became the latest advocate by responding to the Afghan the minister of justice’s unfounded claims.

Australians and the rest of the international community need to speak out at Tokyo and beyond, and ensure that all Afghans know that women’s rights are not negotiable.

Andrew Hewett is executive director of Oxfam Australia. View his full profile here.