Afghanistan: Women deny Karzai the credit for limited progress made on women’s rights since 2001 Print E-mail
 13 March 2014 (ARR Issue 479, P142)

Women's Day Speech by Afghan President Falls Flat

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” argues one critic.

By Mina Habib - Afghanistan

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have expressed anger at President Hamed Karzai’s apparently flippant remarks at a March 8 event. They say his administration has little right to claim the credit for the limited progress made on Afghan women’s rights since 2001.

In a speech made to mark International Women’s Day, President Hamed Karzai acknowledged the continuing problem of gender violence, and said more needed to be done to help women in the areas of education, the law, and economics.

In somewhat elliptical remarks, he said, “The men in Afghanistan should not test their power on women. If they have power, they should go and test it against America. Trying their power on women indicates men’s weakness.”

The main focus of Karzai’s speech was the forthcoming presidential election – in which he is not a candidate – and the importance of female voters.

“If women hadn’t been present in the 2009 elections, the Americans would have finished me,” he said, explaining that it was the female vote that helped him win.

Rights activists received Karzai’s words with little warmth, arguing that despite some improvements in women’s lives – better access to education, improved maternal mortality rates and increased employment – Kabul had failed to address many serious issues. (See for example Afghan Women Face Growing Threats.)

Fatana Gailani, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Association, said the expectation had been that Karzai would use the March 8 speech to lay out his government's plans and proposed bills for his final period in office.

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” she said. “He came out with a few slogans and funny remarks, some of his supporters applauded him, and he left. But women’s problems cannot be solved with such remarks.”

Gailani said Karzai’s comments ill-befitted the president of a country struggling with security, economic and political troubles.

“I see no achievements for women in the past 12 years,” she said. “If a few women are ministers, deputy ministers and [government department] directors, if women work in government institutions, and if girls go to school – these are things we’ve had for the last 50 years, with the exception of the Taleban era. Where are the achievements?”

Gailani said the international community needed to bear some of the responsibility for continuing to support the Kabul administration.

“Why does the international community provide huge amounts of money to a government mired in corruption, as well as to NGOs that do business in the name of women? Why hasn’t the international community monitored the expenditure of this money? In fact, they too have paved the way for corruption, and they have deceived women with slogans that they chant from far away.”

One of those who attended the Women’s Day event agreed that it was a massive disappointment.

“Women were hoping that since the end of Mr Karzai's term was near, he would speak about ensuring and protecting women’s rights in the future, as well as endorsing laws and practical plans,” said the participant, who asked not to be named. “But he continued to make jokes as he’s done in the past, and then left the gathering.”

Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women, with gender-based violence on the increase. Figures from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) indicate that 5,700 cases of violence against women were recorded last year, 17 per cent more than in 2012. The real figures are much higher, since most incidents go unreported.

Last year, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to ratify key legislation on the elimination of violence against women. Although the law was passed by presidential decree in 2009, activists hoped it would gain greater legitimacy if it were ratified by parliament.

The bill was rejected in May 2013 after a short 15-minute debate, and has been shelved indefinitely.

Among the dignitaries addressing the Women’s Day event was the current minister for women's affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, who called on the country’s next president to support the achievements made in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

But Shahla Farid, a law lecturer at Kabul University and a member of the Afghanistan Women's Network, argued that the Karzai government has made insignificant progress in this sphere, while the women’s affair ministry had achieved nothing.

“We visited Karzai several times to demand basic rights for Afghan women until we convinced him [to address them],” she said, adding, “If Karzai had a strong will to ensure women’s rights, he would have appointed the kind of person to the ministry of women’s affairs who would have been committed to do it.”

In reality, she said, “We have seen no achievements from the ministry to date.”

Farid said that whatever gains had been made were the result of pressure from the international community and from Afghan women themselves.

“The achievement of this [presidential] term was Karzai’s endorsement of the law on violence against women, which was rejected by the parliament but is still enforceable legislation,” she said. “The presence of women in parliament is an achievement owing to international pressure. There have been no other achievements one could count in this current term.”

Latifa Sultani, head of women's rights section at the AIHRC, agreed that legislative changes had been positive. The government had signed international conventions on women's rights, and gender sections had been created in government bodies.

But in practice, Sultani said, little had been done to stem the rising tide of violence against women.

“The perpetrators haven’t been not prosecuted. Dozens of cases of murder and abuse have taken place, but the perpetrators have escaped, or else no one arrested them,” she said. “Furthermore, we have witnessed a decrease in the representation of women in [public] institutions recently. There are no women in district-level government institutions.”

In Sultani’s view, “What achievements do exist are so flimsy that they could be wiped out entirely by one small negative shift.”

As for the 11 male candidates now standing for president, Sultani said the AIHRC had told them about its programmes for women. “We asked them to review their own commitments on human rights and the involvement of women in power, and to ensure the promises they made to women were not just about securing their votes,” she said.

Farida of the Afghanistan Women's Network said the candidates appeared ill-prepared to advance women’s rights.

“When we talked to them about their plans to work on women’s issues, they had no practical plans. We provided them with some strategies to consider in the future,” she said.

The withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan, expected to be complete by the end of this year, is a source of concern for many women.

Sultani said the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement needed to be signed as soon as possible. Karzai has delayed signing off on the deal, which will allow limited numbers of American troops to stay on after 2014.

“We are asking the international community to train, equip and support the Afghan armed forces – whether the government wants this or not – so that the tenuous Afghans have made in the last 13 years, particularly in the field of women’s rights, will not be lost.”

These concerns are shared by many in the international community. Afghan activists noted a recent petition signed by stars including Hollywood actors Keira Knightley and Salma Hayek, calling on British prime minister David Cameron to continue protecting women’s rights after the troop withdrawal

Many ordinary women feel abandoned by both the world and their own government.

Narges, who works for a foreign organisation, said that the plight of women in Afghanistan had served as a convenient tool to elicit international funding.

“Everything achieved for women in the past 13 years was just on paper,” she said. “Afghan women are exhibited in the marketplace as a commodity for fundraising. That is the only value of women.”

Despite a number of requests, the Afghan ministry of women’s affairs declined to speak to IWPR for this article.

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

 London ~ Saturday 8 March 2014

Hamid Karzai under fire on Afghan women's rights

Hamid Karzai's government is under fire this International Women's Day, accused of selling out on Afghan women's rights as it tries to woo the Taliban into peace talks.

Politicians, rights organisations and analysts say that the Afghan leader, by endorsing an edict calling women second-class citizens, has endangered hard-won progress in women's rights since the Taliban fell from power in 2001.

The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation denounced authorities for trying to strike a balance between receiving foreign aid and "keeping the conservative forces of Afghan society happy".

"In practice, the demands of extremist elements residing in the presidential palace, particularly those in the judicial bodies as well as the Afghan Ulema Council, always outweigh those of the international community," it said.

Last Friday, the Council, Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority, issued a non-binding edict saying that women were worth less than men – a statement released by Mr Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president on Tuesday.

"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and other aspects of life".

Such advice effectively implies that women should not go to university or to work at all, no matter that in the lower house of parliament, for example, 27 per cent of seats are reserved for women.

The edict went on to say that women would wear "full Islamic hijab", should respect polygamy – Islam allows a man to take up to four wives – and comply with Sharia law on divorce, which severely restricts women's rights.

It further stated that "teasing, harassing and beating women" was prohibited "without a sharia-compliant reason" – leaving open the suggestion that in some circumstances, domestic abuse is appropriate.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Mr Karzai, who has formally outlawed violence and discrimination against women, caused consternation on Tuesday by publicly endorsing the statement, saying that it "reiterated Islamic principles and values" in supporting women.

In response, Afghanistan's first deputy speaker, Fawzia Koofi, who was this week listed as one of the world's "150 Fearless Women" by US website The Daily Beast, accused the Council of returning women to the dark days of Taliban rule.

Fawzia Koofi

"This move by the Ulema council drives Afghan women rights towards Talibanization," she told AFP. "Nobody has the right to interfere in women's rights, not even President Hamid Karzai."

Many women are increasingly concerned that Mr Karzai's desire to end the Taliban insurgency through peace talks means that their hard-won rights will be compromised in order to bring the hardline Islamists into mainstream politics.

"It could be a message to the Taliban that he could make compromises amending the constitution," Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir told AFP.

In Kabul and major cities in Afghanistan, enormous progress has been made in women's rights since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, which banned girls from going to school and women from working.

Women were whipped in the street by the religious police if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping blue or white burka, and those accused of adultery were executed at a sports stadium after Friday prayers.

Since the Taliban fell, however, the number of girls in education has soared from 5,000 to 2.5 million, according to the government and aid groups.

But in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is very much the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all.

The case of a woman named Gulnaz, who does not know her real age but says she is 20 or 21, attracted worldwide attention when she was jailed for adultery after being raped by her cousin's husband.

Mr Karzai pardoned her, and she was released in December after spending two years behind bars, but faces great social pressure to marry the man who attacked her, to provide security for her baby and restore her family's honour.

In January, the president described violence against women as "cowardly" and pledged to take action against the perpetrators in the wake of a horrific case of the torture of a child bride, locked in a lavatory for six months.

Heather Barr, researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said at best Karzai was giving out mixed messages on women's rights.

"This thing from the Ulema council is really, really frightening ... because it is about all women, rather than individual cases," Barr told AFP.

Despite Mr Karzai signing legislation to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, implementation is poor to non-existent.

According to aid group Oxfam, 87 per cent of Afghan women say they have suffered from physical, sexual or psychological abuse or been forced into an arranged marriage.

Source: AFP

 London ~ Saturday 8 March 2014

Afghanistan still one of the worst places to be a woman, says EU ambassador

Franz-Michael Mellbin criticises prosecution of 'moral crimes' and says Hamid Karzai's government has failed Afghan women

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

Franz-Michael Mellbin said the Afghan government had failed to prioritise women's rights. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

President Hamid Karzai's government has let down Afghan women, according to the new EU ambassador to Kabul, who singled out the failure to end prosecution of rape victims and other abused women for "moral crimes" as a particular "disgrace".

Franz-Michael Mellbin said that despite huge practical improvements in areas from maternal mortality to the number of girls in schools, Afghanistan was still one of the worst places to be a woman and a frontline in the global battle for women's rights.

Mellbin, who previously served in Afghanistan as the Danish envoy, declined to criticise Karzai directly but said the government overall had failed in its responsibilities to be a voice for women's rights, as conservatives opposed to women having any role outside the home gathered strength.

"We cannot be satisfied with what has been done. Right now what I feel is unfortunately very much lacking is that the government is not showing a sense of priority and urgency that we'd like to see," he told the Guardian in an interview to mark International Women's Day.

"What we are lacking is a strong official voice to counter those reactionary voices … this makes it very difficult to fight for progress. We look in vain for strong government policy."

Karzai has always described himself as a supporter of women's rights, but recently there has been heavy pressure on the fragile gains made after the Taliban's fall from power.

Last year a landmark law to prevent violence against women was pushed out of parliament, the quota of seats for women on provincial councils was cut, and a proposal to reintroduce stoning as a punishment for adultery – used more against women than men – put forward by the justice ministry.

Earlier this year, parliament passed a law that gagged victims of domestic violence by preventing relatives testifying against each other, although it was later modified on Karzai's orders.

Many women believe this is happening because political interest in Afghanistan is fading in the west as troops head home. They fear that with the complete departure of foreign forces this year, conservatives will chip away faster at their rights or simply use them as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban.

"I understand why Afghan women are very worried about the future, and they are, they constantly raise this issue with me," Mellbin said, adding that he was inspired by Afghan women's determination to seize every opportunity made available to them.

"All over Afghanistan women today are 'first movers'. Some will be the first woman in their family to go to school, others to open a business or take public office. There is a tremendous awareness among Afghan women that they are trail-blazing for the next generation, for their daughters."

He plans to make women's rights a priority during his time in Kabul, as part of the EU's "value-driven foreign policy", at least until he sees a government more focused on protecting and expanding gains so far.

"I do not subscribe to the view that silence is an option," Mellbin said. "We need to be more ambitious. Our agenda has to be continued progress, continued advancement."

The ambassador said the campaign for the presidential election on 5 April was encouraging, with all the leading candidates to replace Karzai, who cannot stand again, pitching themselves as modernising nationalists.

"We're trying to prepare a list of issues that we would like to raise with the new government with regard to women's rights as soon as it comes into power," he said.

He plans to push for an end to the trial of women for "moral crimes", which are mostly violations of social norms, such as running away from a forced or abusive marriage. Rape victims have also been jailed for having sex outside marriage.

"[The prosecution of] moral crimes is something that is a scourge for women in Afghanistan, it means that girls and women who are victims … are further victimised by the state," he said. "Its a disgrace for any country to have such an institution."

Activists are likely to welcome Mellbin's stance, after strong criticism of western nations that fund the Afghan government but have often seemed unwilling to speak out on women's rights.

"Over the past year, through an escalating series of serious attacks on women's rights, the response from donors has largely been a deafening silence," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"No government as dependent on foreign aid as this one has the luxury of not caring what donors think. Donors need to speak out quickly and forcefully every time there is an attack on women's rights. When they fail to do so it just makes it look like they don't care."