Will Australia Stand up for the Rights of Women and Girls in Afghanistan in 2014?

Image by Lauras Eye

Image by Lauras Eye. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com and shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As we celebrate the 104th International Women’s Day there is a vicious power struggle over women’s human rights and survival going on in Afghanistan. It is a struggle that the Australian government – on behalf of all Australians – needs to weigh in on by strongly advocating for the protection of all human rights in Afghanistan. We must advocate especially for the rights of Afghan women and girls when they are most under threat with the withdrawal of international troops from the country at the end of 2014.

“Women axed to death in Badghis”, “Pregnant teacher and policewoman hanged”, “Man guns down wife”, “Women beaten to death by husband”, “Female parliamentarian kidnapped”… The news headlines over the past six months, featured on the website of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) make for harrowing reading. Such is the reality in Afghanistan. The evidence from 2013 on violence against women and girls is shocking. That everyday violence includes targeted femicide of women in public roles by Taliban insurgents, the female share of conflict-related civilian deaths and injuries, wilful honour killings, and family and intimate partner violence. The United Nations Secretary-General’s 22 November 2013 report on the protection of civilians (S/2013/689 para 9) notes that “[t]he first half of  2013 saw the number of women killed and injured increase by 61 per cent compared  with the same period in 2012. Child casualties increased by 30 per cent compared with 2012.”

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission reported the alarming increase in civilian casualties in 2013 with women and children civilians making up nearly half of the 2959 deaths and 5656 injuries – the worst proportions since 2009 – and this does not include reported domestic violence. We know that virtually every woman and girl in Afghanistan has experienced violence perpetrated by a male relative [Living With Violence: A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan, p1]. All these forms of violence and harm disproportionately affecting women and girls, whether they have occurred in the home, in a café, on the road or a village square, should be seen on a continuum given the culture of impunity toward this violence as the Taliban increases its presence in Afghanistan. The presence of fundamentalism and the return of the Taliban mean that every male relative is empowered to lash out against wives, daughters and sisters without any consequence.

In its 2013 worldwide report, Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that “with international interest in Afghanistan rapidly waning, opponents of women’s rights [have] seized the opportunity to begin rolling back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule.”

Examples of this rollback in 2013 include the reduction in the gender quota for women’s representation in parliament from 25 per cent to 20 per cent; the parliamentary challenge to the 2009 Elimination against Violence Against Women law that almost annulled it; the attempt to alter the criminal code to prevent relatives of an accused person, for instance a perpetrator of sexual or gender-based violence, from testifying against them which was fortunately repealed by President Karzai due to large street protests for women’s organisations this month. But Karzai’s days as President as numbered with a national election in April and a slate of 11 candidates for president that is “dominated by warlords and fundamentalists who share the Taliban’s view that women should never be allowed out of their homes”.

The question arises then what should we as citizens and our government do?

In January, a Oxfam Australia-led Joint Agency report “Afghanistan at a Crossroads” by 24 Australian and civil society organisations contained a number of recommendations to the Australian government to consider as the penholder for the UN Security Council on Afghanistan and the resolutions on the UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) mandate renewal on 19 March. Some key recommendations included: requesting UNAMA to support the implementation plans of the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan and to finalise the forthcoming Afghanistan National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security; and to stress the need for the Afghan government to ensure sufficient female police and searchers are available to enable women to safely exercise their rights to vote in the 2014 Presidential election”.

Amnesty International Australia is also extremely concerned about women’s rights being trade away in the peace negotiations with the Taliban and notes the absence of women from those peace talks involved the United States and Afghan governments. AI Australia stresses “Australia should follow the recommendations made last year during the Senate inquiry on aid to Afghanistan, and directly fund Afghan women’s organisations, so that they can continue to hold their government to account.”

This is a crucial recommendation given the powerful, collective voice of Afghan women’s networks and organisations and their role in resisting any political moves to further roll back of women’s rights.

Foreign Minister, the Hon. Julie Bishop in during question time in Parliament on 11 February affirmed Australian support for UNAMA and the protection of women’s human rights in Afghanistan. She noted that Australia would continue to “encourage Afghanistan to finalise and implement a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and hold elections that maximise voter participation, especially the participation of women.”

WPSAC is keen to redouble these Australian efforts particularly in its UN Security Council role. In a letter to the Hon. Julie Bishop on February 14th, stated that

“we would like to see Australia visibly promote the rights of women and girls in that country by hosting a UN Security Council Arria Meeting of Afghan women politicians and civil society leaders. If as Minister of Foreign Affairs with a strong record of commitment to women’s participation and leadership you chaired this UN SC meeting during Australia’s Presidency in November 2014 we believe this would seriously advance the role of women in the Afghan peace process, transition and reconciliation”.

Please join us in these key actions to support those struggling to sustain and progress women’s rights in Afghanistan during the 8 days of Activism on Women, Peace and Security and throughout 2014.

Jacqui True, Monash University.