x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Women's rights progress in Afghanistan in danger of rolling back

As tensions rise ahead of the 2014 departure of most international troops from Afghanistan, attacks on females are becoming more frequent, and many fear they will lose the rights they have gained since the Taliban were driven from power.

Ears and noses chopped off. Adulteresses - real or perceived - publicly stoned to death. Savage street beatings for dress code infractions. Schoolgirls poisoned, teachers shot dead and classrooms firebombed. Acid thrown in faces. Floggings. Gang rape.

Afghanistan might be the worst place in the world to be female, and the situation appears to be getting worse.

As tensions rise ahead of the 2014 departure of most international troops from the insurgency-riven country, attacks on women and girls are becoming more frequent, and many fear they will lose the higher social status and hard-won legal rights they have at least theoretically enjoyed since the 2001 Nato invasion drove the Taliban from power.

Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, said in the NGO's new global report: "The future of human rights protections in Afghanistan is in grave doubt. Corruption, little rule of law, poor governance and abusive policies and practices deprive the country's most vulnerable citizens of their rights.

"Many Afghans are now stuck between insurgents who would roll back rights and a government that doesn't care about protecting human rights."

He added: "Afghanistan needs donors who will support women's rights as a long-term priority. Declining foreign interest in protecting the gains of the past decade will increase the risk that women will face greater systemic abuses in the future."

Afghan women have a lot to lose. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, despite widespread and shockingly brutal violence against females who audaciously pursue what most people elsewhere would consider normal lives, the number of girls attending school has topped two million, and 25 per cent of government jobs and 27 per cent of the seats in parliament are now occupied by women.

However, the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force, cuts to foreign aid, the deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country and the government's failure to implement meaningful reforms are expected to contribute to a steady reversal of the trend towards a better quality of life for Afghan females.

Melanie Ward, the NGO ActionAid's head of public affairs, said in a report: "Since 2000, there have been some real improvement in Afghan women's rights but these are now hanging in the balance as violence against women increases in the run up to 2014.

"Attacks on women are mounting. Those that ActionAid works with tell us they leave their homes every morning [to go to work or attend classes] not knowing if they will return alive in the evening."

She added: "There is growing evidence of a brain drain in Afghanistan. Increasingly, the most educated Afghan women don't feel they have a future in their country and those who remain feel their choices to work are being taken away from them."

In the post-Nato era, the social status of Afghan females will arguably be the one true measure of the international community's success in helping to reshape this deeply troubled country.

But how successful will this nation-building project be if it ends prematurely? Will the foreign powers who promised so much in 2001 be throwing the country's women to the wolves when they head to the airport at the end of 2014?

Raihana Karimi, an engineer who runs a safe house for women escaping forced marriage and violence in Mazar-i-Sharif, seems to think so.

In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, she said: "I beg the US and the UK, do not leave us. Please stay. We are very vulnerable, we are very afraid."

* Paul Muir