Support Afghanistan’s human rights heroines

When you read about Afghan women, it’s usually as victims – beaten, maimed or even killed by abusive family members. But there’s another side to the story. Jawed Nader of the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) says Afghan human rights heroines are risking their lives to stand up for their rights – and they need international support.

It was International Human Rights Day when they gunned down Najia Siddiqui.

Najia – the top women’s rights official in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan, was shot by unidentified gunmen as she rode to work in a motorised rickshaw on 10th December 2012. She had taken over as Director of Women’s Affairs there earlier that year. It was a brave move – the previous Director, Hanifa Safi, had been assassinated in a bomb explosion in July.

 Najia was part of a growing movement of strong Afghan women determined to maintain – and expand – the rights they have won since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. These include the right to education, the right to work and the right to equality under the law. Since then, Afghan women have achieved things which would have seemed impossible a decade ago. These include running for President, becoming Afghanistan’s first female governor or becoming the country’s first female helicopter pilot.

But they are increasingly paying the price for their activism. Najia was one of 50 Afghan women and girls who were specifically targeted for assassination in 2012. Such attacks tripled over the past year, as international forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The pullout of these forces by the end of 2014 – and the possible economic and political fallout from their withdrawal – have profound implications for women’s rights in the following ways:

There are fears that the international media spotlight – which has helped to keep women’s rights in the headlines over the past decade – will shift away from Afghanistan after foreign forces leave. That will make it easier for traditionalists to try to roll back progress and confine women to their homes once more.

Aid budgets are being cut, reducing vital public services and hitting Afghan women hardest.

And, most worryingly of all, there’s talk of political reconciliation. That’s political shorthand for bringing the Taliban- the extremist movement which banned women from working or going to school – back into government. If that happens, Afghan women fear their rights will be traded for peace.

 And those rights still remain very fragile. Despite the progress of the past decade, a 2011 Thomson Reuter Foundation survey found Afghanistan to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.

Violence against women is all pervasive. More than 80 per cent of Afghan women are victims of domestic violence. Around 60 per cent of girls are married before the age of 16, some are sold to pay off debts. Rape victims and women fleeing forced marriage or violence are jailed for so-called “moral crimes”. Laws aimed at preventing violence against women are rarely enforced. And Afghan security forces have been accused of abusing women who have come to them for protection. Despite improvements in health care and education, the country still languishes near the bottom of international charts measuring maternal mortality and female literacy.

Afghan women are tough, resilient and brave enough to tackle these challenges themselves. They fear that the next year could be crucial in deciding whether the hard-won gains of the past decade will stand or fall. And they realise that some of them — like Najia Siddiqui – may have to pay the ultimate price for their stand.

But it’s a fight they cannot afford to lose. Afghan women continue to defy encroachments upon their rights, against all odds. What they need is strong – and continued – international support to ensure their voices continue to be heard.

BAAG is trying to ensure they get that support. This year we’re bringing together Afghan women and Western policymakers for a series of meetings in the UK and Europe. We also facilitate and support campaigns by our 30 member agencies who work with women in Afghanistan. They fund projects to help reduce violence against women and provide them with basic education and employment skills. They campaign actively on women’s issues and work on behalf of women unjustly jailed for “moral crimes”.

If you would like to do more to protect Afghan women’s rights, contact BAAG at [email protected]

If you want to help protect Afghan women, we would urge you to sign this petition from the No Women, No Peace campaign. It calls on the UK’s Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to take specific actions to halt violence against women in Afghanistan.

The first photo is of Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi and was shared by Chatham House under a Creative Commons licence.

The second is of Afghan governor Habiba Sarobi and was shared by US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan under a Creative Commons licence.