The EU's duty to defend women's rights in Afghanistan

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 12:00 GMT

A female Afghan National Police (ANP) officer gives instructions during a patrol training session, at a training centre near the German Bundeswehr army camp in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan December 3, 2012. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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Despite 12 years of armed conflict, investment and capacity-building by foreign governments in Afghanistan, including by EU governments and the EU itself, women’s rights remain in peril in Afghanistan

United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron may feel that his country’s Afghanistan mission is ‘accomplished’—but Afghan women paint a much bleaker picture. Despite 12 years of armed conflict, investment and capacity-building by foreign governments in Afghanistan, including by European Union governments and the EU itself, women’s rights remain in peril in Afghanistan.

Violence against women and forced marriage are rife while high-profile female government officials and civil society activists face threats and attacks by the resilient Taliban insurgency.  All too often, the government appears unable or unwilling to bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes. Worse, in the last year Afghan government officials have themselves attacked some of the most basic legal safeguards for women.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, November 25, news broke that Afghan government officials had participated in preparing a draft law that would have reinstated the Taliban-era punishment of execution by stoning for adultery. This is only the latest example in a recent string of serious setbacks or attempts by government officials and parliamentarians to roll back women's rights.

These attacks threaten to unravel the fragile but important advances in women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.Those gains are real and deserve recognition, particularly in the areas of education, health care, and the role of women in government and politics. But delivering long-term, sustainable improvement in the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan is still a distant goal:  literacy and female school attendance remain low while maternal and infant mortality remain high. The Taliban insurgency has largely maintained the same approach to women’s rights as that of the Taliban regime, which barred women from education, working—or even leaving their homes unescorted.

The threats to women’s rights in Afghanistan demand meaningful EU action. On January 20, EU foreign affairs ministers had an opportunity to take concrete steps to address the threat to Afghan women’s rights when they met in Brussels to discuss the EU's Afghanistan strategy. The conclusions of the meeting expressed concern about the situation of women in Afghanistan and called for urgent action to better enforce women’s rights, but it was unclear how the foreign ministers intend to ensure that this urgent action happens.

This matters because the EU institutions, together with the 28 EU member states, have significant influence in Afghanistan, both politically and financially. As we told ministers in a recent letter, at this crucial time the EU and its member states need to make it absolutely clear that women’s rights are a non-negotiable, core aspect of the EU's relationship with Afghanistan.

The EU has committed itself to women's rights often enough. High Representative Catherine Ashton and other officials have stressed that a country cannot be safe and secure unless its women are, and that “women are essential to democracy.”

Now is the time to put those words into action.

In recent meetings Human Rights Watch had in Brussels and other European capitals to discuss these attacks on women’s rights, diplomats and officials largely agreed that women's rights matter and that they face increasing threats in Afghanistan. But their expressed concern about these abuses didn’t always extend to offering meaningful support in combatting them.

Some officials claimed that this was the “wrong time” to discuss women’s rights. Others reasoned that women’s rights are not linked to security, “which is what matters right now.” There were concerns by a few officials that pushing women’s rights was awkward or inappropriate at a time when – in their view - the government and Taliban are negotiating and a deal could be achievable. The timing of the upcoming April presidential election was also seen as a potential complication to advocating for women’s rights. And, too often, we heard that even if this would be the right time for such advocacy, and even if this were a true emergency, they didn’t have the leverage to do anything more.

The women and girls of Afghanistan don’t have the luxury of time. If now is not the time to discuss women's rights, when is? After more police women get murdered? When more women's rights activists have fled the country out of fear?

The lack of vocal, consistent criticism and concern by the EU and others about the deterioration in women’s rights in Afghanistan makes it easier for those inside and outside the Afghan government to roll back advances women achieved since 2001 without fear of international protest.

For example, in May 2013, the Afghan Ministry of Justice added a provision to a new criminal procedure law that prohibits family members from testifying against each other. That prohibition would effectively prevent prosecutions for domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.

On May 18, 2013, conservative parliamentarians attacked the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW law), the most important law on women’s rights since the constitution, calling for it to be overturned as counter to Islam. Also in May, the lower house of parliament reduced reserved seats for women on provincial councils. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has compounded the government attack on women’s rights by informing women’s rights activists that he will no longer publicly back the Violence Against Women law.

The EU needs to ensure that Afghan leaders and activists on the frontlines of the battle to protect women’s rights receive firm political and financial support. In the words of High Representative Ashton, “The battle for women's rights is becoming the decisive contest between prejudice and democracy.”

Following the January 20 meeting, the EU has an opportunity to ensure that message is heard in Kabul loud and clear.

Heather Barr is Human Rights Watch's senior Afghanistan researcher. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherBarr1. Gauri van Gulik is the organization’s global women’s rights advocate,  @gaurihrw