News: Alarm bells sound for women’s rights in Afghanistan

Jennifer Rowell, head of policy and advocacy for Care International in Afghanistan.

Women’s rights were once the poster issue for Western intervention in Afghanistan, and images of women shrouded in burqas fuelled outrage against the extremist Taliban regime.

But nearly a decade later, says a senior Canadian aid official, women are facing a new rights battle, and may have little chance of winning unless there is a radical shift in the political landscape.

“We are entering dangerous times,” warned Jennifer Rowell, head of policy and advocacy for Care International in Afghanistan. “The greatest concern is the policy of reconciliation and reintegration (of militants). If anyone tells you everything is rosy for women in Afghanistan they’re wrong.”

This week reports claimed Taliban officials and President Hamid Karzai’s government have begun secret, high-level talks to hammer out a deal to end the war. Although the Afghan government denied the reports, it confirmed lower-level talks. Meanwhile, Washington is seeking a stable solution to allow an exit of American troops without a return to civil war, Canadian and Dutch troops are pulling up their tent pegs, and other NATO troops will likely follow.

“In the reconciliation process, women’s rights are a card on the table,” said Rowell. “I’m afraid they will be the first thing to be sacrificed in the negotiations.”

The main points of contention for a prospective peace deal appear to be Taliban demands that NATO gives a firm timetable for withdrawal, releases all Taliban prisoners and drops the terrorist label applied by Western countries. The Karzai government is asking the Taliban to give up their weapons and renounce violence.

But so far there are no guarantees of women’s rights, and advocates fear they are being sold out as peace moves continue.

“We’ve talked to thousands of women, and those who are aware of what’s happening are deeply concerned,” Rowell said by phone Wednesday during a visit to Toronto to give a lecture at University of Toronto.

“Reconciliation always means some kind of compromise,” she added. “One option is that certain insurgents are allowed to take over and govern parts of the country. But no one is standing up and saying, ‘Here are the basic minimums that must be met by all parties before this can go ahead.’ ”

Although Karzai has maintained that citizens must abide by the constitution — which states that all men and women have equal rights and duties under the law — the language is beginning to “slip,” added Rowell, who has worked in Afghanistan for the last 18 months. “It’s no longer said that they must adopt the constitution as their own, but ‘respect the inherent principles’ of the constitution. That is a major change and we can’t pretend it was an accident.”

Women’s rights have made progress since the Taliban government fell in 2001, with some able to return to work and take part in public life, and a record number of women running for parliament in the last election. Afghanistan’s largely illiterate women and girls now have the chance of going to school.

“Education is a huge success story, going from only a few hundred thousand kids in school — none of them girls — to well over 7 million, one-third of them girls,” said Rowell. But she added, “In the south and southeast that doesn’t apply. In some places only 1 per cent of teachers are female, so very few girls are allowed to go to school at all.”

Those who do, face an ever-present danger of attack by Taliban, criminals and conservative forces who throw acid in their faces, bombard school rooms with suspected poison gas, kidnap students and burn down school houses. Estimates say education-linked attacks have almost doubled since 2008 and about 1,000 are expected by the end of this year.

The future of Afghan women’s rights depends on the response of Western countries as peace negotiations move on, said Rowell.

On Tuesday Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon announced an action plan for putting UN Security Council resolutions on women into force. “Canada has long advocated the need to ensure that rights and well-being of women and girls are integrated into peace processes and other responses to armed conflict,” he said.

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