Four Afghan women met in London this International Women’s Day to talk with UK women’s rights campaigners about their achievements and day-to-day challenges.
Their achievements are many: the group assembled by ActionAid UK was made up of the only female governor in Afghanistan, Habiba Sarobi, two parliamentarians who sit in Kabul’s National Assembly, Shinkai Karokhail and Elay Ershad, and Asila Wardak director of human rights and gender in the Afghan government.
The discussion at ActionAid’s well-appointed headquarters in a quiet London side-street was wide-ranging and informative. The Afghan women’s answers revealed the numerous difficulties facing women in the republic, but overwhelmingly the daily struggle for many women is simply survival in the face of extreme poverty, domestic violence, discrimination and the lack of education. As Habiba Sarobi pointed out, for the overwhelming majority of Afghan women, the focus on just getting through the day often leaves no time for consideration of wider issues.
In addition, the impact of a civil war which, it might be argued, started with the Saur Revolution in 1978 and continues to this day, cannot be understated – as Habiba Sarobi noted, the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 had severe consequences not only in terms of international reaction, but also in the resulting withdrawal of support by the international community. Despite this, as Shinkai Karokhail noted, there is much determination not to return to the previous ways, where women were excluded from contributing to social, economic and political life, and relegated to isolated existences where it was rare to leave the house even for the simplest reason.
Funding from NGOs focuses on Kabul and, on the rare occasions where projects are funded in other provinces, there is a lack of coordination
Mention was made of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its call for the increased participation of women at every level, and how this might be a useful tool for women outside Afghanistan to help push forward these demands. Lynne Featherstone, the UK Parliamentary Undersecretary for Equalities, who was also at the meeting, stressed that women’s issues should be raised at all international meetings, by the representatives of all government departments, although she acknowledged there is no formal agreement or strategy for this at the moment. Women must be fully involved in peacemaking and strategic, policymaking processes, she said.
Asila Wardak talked about the experience of working with religious leaders to prioritise women’s issues, pointing out that although there is legislation in place to further the causes of women in Afghanistan, the unfortunate reality is that these laws are rarely observed or implemented. Habiba Sarobi added that, in a country where the religion of Islam has played a central role for centuries, the selection of which mullahs members of the women’s movement chose to work with is not only of considerable importance but also requires great care to ensure there are no conflicts of interest (for example, in matters such as child and forced marriages, the practice of giving away women and girls as compensation for crimes and ‘honour’ killings).
The panel debated the question of how much compromise is involved in accepting international funding, with Shinkai Karokhail observing that, although the international community may fund women’s issues, it is often only a short-term gesture. A distinct focus on Kabul has been noticed and on the rare occasions where projects are funded in other provinces, there is a lack of coordination between civil society and NGOs – a marked contrast to the good channels of communication which appear to exist between NGOs and government. However, the panel also noted that, during the civil war, it was often only the NGOs that provided certain essential services and resources.
Echoing the problem of short-term focus, Elay Ershad said that, although the annual International Women’s Day has achieved much in raising awareness of women’s issues globally, she personally would like to see every day being IWD. This can only be achieved by ensuring that all women are able to access their full rights.
The Afghan government plans to take control of domestic violence shelters, which Human Rights Watch expects will lead to ‘the closure of some shelters, restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, compulsory forensic examinations, a likely reduction in protection of shelter residents from abusers and the possible expulsion of women still in need of safety’
A key part of this process lies in the provision of education to all women and girls, regardless of their background or age. Women’s rights and women’s daily lives, she said, are two sides of the same coin and, through education and access to other resources, women can work towards creating sustainable livelihoods for themselves, which in turn would help to reduce the dependence that many women have on their husbands.
Many women have no income whatsoever and this is something which must change as an integral part of the process of furthering women’s rights. Shinkai Karokhail added that, although the world is sliding into global capitalism, women’s suffering remains an often ignored issue, with the plight of women in Asia and Africa being comparatively far worse than in many ‘developed world’ countries. However, for there to be real progress in rectifying this, women worldwide should be taking advantage of the more porous boundaries that globalisation brings, with women in ‘developed world’ countries using this to contribute to the support of their less privileged sisters by whatever means available; be it through voluntary work, taking part in political and other initiatives – or even just by spreading the word, discussing issues and generally working to raise awareness.
Finally, the question of violence against women and girls was raised. Shinkai Karokhail stated that, although the ‘official’ statistics show that 90% of Afghan women experience violence, she believed the real figure is nearer 99 or even 100% – a view with which Habiba Sarobi, Elay Ershad and Asila Wardak agreed.
Urgent action is needed to address the lack of accessible safe houses and domestic violence services. This subject is at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan at the moment; the government is considering ratifying a draft regulation that would allow it to take over the management of existing shelters for women, almost all of which are operated either by NGOs or the UN. A recent report by Human Rights Watch suggests that this would lead to “the closure of some shelters, restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, compulsory forensic examinations, a likely reduction in protection of shelter residents from abusers and the possible expulsion of women still in need of safety”.
Whether or not the regulation is enacted, it seemed to be accepted that, for the time being at least, the government are likely to continue monitoring the way shelters work. It was suggested that, ideally, any such role should be devolved away from central government – but that independent funding and resources would be needed to do this. In turn, this meant that Afghan women would still be reliant on the international community to work with them in securing the fundamental rights, freedoms and civil liberties that many women outside Afghanistan take for granted.