Women in Afghanistan have made important legal and political advances since the removal of the Taliban regime after the U.S. led invasion in 2001, yet those gains could be erased after the 2014 security transition from the international coalition to Afghan forces.
In a new report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) sheds light on the precarious legal status of Afghan women — a status far stronger in theory than in practice. Gender equality is ensured by the war-torn country’s post-Taliban constitution, and the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law criminalizes rape for the first time in the nation’s history and compels the government to protect women. Unfortunately, equality on paper hasn’t led to security in reality. According to the report, “Years of prioritizing counter-insurgency over community policing have impeded the emergence of a police force able and willing to protect women from violence.” Additionally, just 1 percent of the Afghan National Police are women.
There is a growing fear among Afghan women that the withdrawal of the international forces at the end of 2014 might leave them helpless to oppose a rollback of the laws that have helped them slowly gain a more equal stake in Afghan society. As the ICG notes, girls were banned from schools under the Taliban and women largely forbidden from employment. Over a decade after their removal from power, 40 percent of all Afghan schoolchildren are girls, and due to constitutionally mandated quotas, 27 percent of parliament is composed of women.
But the Taliban are far from vanquished, and this year’s peace talks between President Hamid Karzai’s government and the ultraconservative Islamist group have ignited fears among women. While the Karzai-appointed High Peace Council has stressed that any peace plan “must not jeopardize the rights and freedoms that the citizens of Afghanistan, both men and women, enjoy under the Constitution,” the ICG notes with concern that women on the Council have not been included in direct talks with the Taliban.
Afghan women have real reason to be concerned with the coming security transition. Even in the current government, “conservative members of parliament have strongly opposed the EVAW law, calling it un-Islamic,” while the Taliban have insisted its decision to endorse the current constitution — and its affirmation of gender equality — will come from its hard-line religious leaders. As recently as August, a new electoral law reduced the 25 percent quota for women’s representation in provincial councils to 20 percent. The legal standing of women is eroding, and the return of the Taliban may damage it further. According to the ICG, the Taliban “acknowledges it condones attacks on teachers and students who fail to comply” with their schooling philosophy, which includes the separation of boys and girls, the refusal to teach English to girls, and a greater emphasis on Islam.
The international community has, at least rhetorically, taken steps to solidify the gains made by women in Afghanistan. At a meeting in Tokyo, $16 billion in civilian aid was pledged to the country so long as human rights (including women’s rights) were upheld and corruption was reduced.
The ICG certainly holds the international community responsible for ensuring that the progress Afghanistan has made on women’s rights does not collapse after the transition. The group recommends that donor countries help fund the development of a true, effective community police force, and use aid to develop education and health service infrastructure, which will in turn provide job opportunities and services for women. The ICG also encourages donor countries to enforce the conditions of the Tokyo agreement by limiting aid if current laws protecting women are weakened.
But most of the responsibility for holding the lines in the fight for women is held by the Afghans themselves. One of the major obstacles for women in Afghanistan is the lack of ability — and lack of will — to prosecute crimes against women under the EVAW law. According to the ICG, building a professional police force with viable career paths for women, as well as fortifying the formal justice system, could ease this problem. Additionally, protecting female journalists, healthcare workers and educators in rural areas could weaken the threat of violence against women and encourage their growing participation in these vital fields.
As the security transition draws nearer and a brokered peace with the Taliban seemingly inevitable, the progress of Afghan women over the last decade is falling under threat. The world must partner with Afghanistan to protect that progress. As the ICG warns, “Women’s empowerment cannot be fully achieved without peace, but a sell-out on their rights would undermine prospects for a stable, inclusive, democratic post-transition Afghanistan.”
Christopher Butterfield is an intern for ThinkProgress.