After the fall of the Taliban everyone wanted to come and work for women’s rights, they were proud to say they were here to help Afghan women. Slowly, slowly this disappeared. Maybe the international community saw that we had two or three women in the cabinet, and thought, it’s ok, now they have their rights. But we have lost everything, from those cabinet positions to the donor attention. Women are not a priority for our own government or the international community. We’ve been forgotten.
—Shinkai Karokhail, member of parliament, Kabul, June 4, 2009
The international Human Rights Watch has published a devastating 96-page report on the situation for women in Afghanistan. "We Have the Promises of the World": Women’s Rights in Afghanistan explores the reality of everyday life for Afghan women, somewhat improved since the Taliban was forced out of the government, but still rife with intimidation, forced marriage of young girls, rape, including gang rape, and murder, including assassination of high-level women activists. Police and courts and other government machinery is still quite hostile to women, and not just in back-country areas or those where the Taliban has made a resurgence.
None of this should be a surprise in a country where vast numbers of women show up to vote clad in the burka, the attire many outsiders equate solely with Taliban rule, and where desperate women and girls are still routinely imprisoned for "running away from home."
Rachel Reid, of Human Rights Watch, said the situation "could deteriorate". She added: "While the world focuses on the Obama administration’s new security strategy, it’s critical to make sure that women’s and girls’ rights don’t just get lip service while being pushed to the bottom of the list by the government and donors."
The horrendous situation for Afghan women, which conventional wisdom had placed in a positive light since the Taliban's brutally misogynistic rule was overturned in 2001, began coming to light again earlier this year when the Afghan parliament approved a law that amounted to sanctioning marital rape in the country's Shia communities.
The furor over the Shia law highlighted the fragility of the gains made by Afghan women, human rights activists, and reform-minded politicians. The dominant political factions of Afghanistan remain ideologically hostile to many of the rights that many women have started to enjoy since the fall of the Taliban, such as freedom of movement, freedom to work, and the right to education. Many of the women interviewed for this report observed that the space for them to work as activists for change has diminished over the past few years, as the government has come to increasingly rely on conservative factions to maintain political control.
In the wake of the Shia law controversy, with the world looking closely again at the status of women in Afghanistan, many inside and outside the country are becoming aware again of just how few and fragile the gains have been and how steep the challenges remain. Whereas the trend had clearly been positive for women’s rights from 2001-2005, the trend is now negative in many areas.
The Human Rights Watch report focuses on five areas: attacks on women in public life; other violence against women; child and forced marriage; access to justice; and girls’ access to secondary education. None of these makes for pleasant reading.
Here's an excerpt from the section titled "Guilty on Arrival: Women’s Access to Justice":
A lawyer from Mazar-e-Sharif told Human Rights Watch that women are particularly vulnerable to abuse when they have been accused of zina:
We have two main problems when a girl is arrested for adultery or zina. When in police detention, police sexually harass them. When the girl or women tries to stop this, they try to rape them. If this doesn’t happen, they prepare a statement for the girl, admitting zina, without the agreement of the suspect,
and send a false statement to the prosecution without reading the statement to the girl.
A lawyer working in the Kabul region gave another example:
We worked with a girl who had run away from home. She had terrible problems with her family, and she went to police. The police immediately accused her of having committed zina. She said she hadn’t, but they insisted on performing an examination. Three of them put her on the table and made her take off her clothes, and touched her, calling it a medical examination, and claiming to be doctors. She was terrified. What could she do? Nothing ever happened to these men.
Forced gynecological examinations are themselves a form of degrading sexual abuse, with particularly far reaching implications in a society with such deep taboos about women’s chastity and sexuality.
Why this abuse by the police is so widespread comes into sharp focus when the numbers are taken into account. Although there are 78,000 police on the payroll throughout Afghanistan, the United Nations puts the actual figure of serving policemen at 57,000. Of these, 550 are women. Recruiting more is extremely difficult since anyone who signs up is considered a "bad woman," with nothing left to lose.
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