Nearly fifteen years have passed since the US ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. It was a terrifying time for millions of Afghans as bombs rained down on their war-weary nation. For many Afghans, however, it was also a time of hope - especially for Afghan women.
As NATO troops marched into Afghanistan, we were reminded again and again of the terrible abuses of women's rights committed by the Taliban. Women were prevented from working, attending school, or even leaving the house without a male relative. Some were stoned to death for being victims of rape. And of course, women were forced to cover themselves head to toe in burquas which were, in the Western mind, the trademark of Afghan women's oppression.
Despite the dangers of war, many were hopeful that the US/NATO intervention would usher in a new era of progress for Afghan women. The US and NATO countries promised to fight for improvement of women's rights. Reports on the situation in Afghanistan were filled with images of girls attending school and women in Western clothing sitting side by side with their male counterparts in the Afghan Parliament.
However, after fifteen years of occupation, it has become evident that few real gains have been made for women's rights in Afghanistan - and in fact, in many ways women are worse off today than they were under the Taliban. This is not simply the opinion of an outsider looking in, but a sentiment expressed time and again by Afghan women (especially in rural communities), aid workers, and Afghan women's rights activists. In an interview with Los Angeles-based Uprising Radio, Reena, a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (who goes by a pseudonym for security reasons) explained: "[people say]'life under the Taliban was hard enough already, so how can you say that the US occupation was not better than it was under the Taliban?' But they don't know some very important things which the US did in Afghanistan. For example, the government that the US installed which was headed by Hamid Karzai but was composed mainly of warlords and fundamentalists that are no different than the Taliban... These people are actually worse than the Taliban and our people have very bitter memories of these people from the civil war of 1992-1996."
Indeed, while it is important to have women in government, their presence has little impact in a country where the government holds little real power outside of the capital. Besides this, many of the men in parliament hold ties to Afghanistan's notorious warlords, who hold the real power across much of the country. In order to get a real idea of position of Afghan women in society today, one must observe the condition of important basic indicators such as health, education and legal rights for the majority of the female population.
Basic Health Care Denied
The struggle which the majority of Afghan women face is not the struggle to be represented in parliament or to have an equal opportunity to join the police or military forces. It is something far more basic: the struggle for their very right to live. The instability caused by a decade and a half of war has added another threat to the health and survival of Afghan women. Night time raids of homes, bombings, and fighting between militant groups and US/NATO forces has created a lack of security which disproportionately affects women and children.
In the field of health care, for example, the lack of security is a major contributing factor in the country's staggeringly high maternal mortality rate. Many women are never seen by a doctor during their pregnancies, since this would often involve a long and risky journey to the nearest hospital. Others may have a hospital nearby, but there are no female doctors available to see them, since the few female doctors available often stay in cities, where the security is greater. Despite a push to train more midwives, only 38% of Afghan women have a skilled attendant at the birth of their child, and just 32% give birth in a hospital. While the maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan has decreased, the numbers remain unacceptably high. Four hundred women out of every 10,000 will die during pregnancy or childbirth. By contrast, in neighbouring Iran, 25 women out of every 10,000 will lose their lives.
Those who do survive pregnancy are often left with permanent and painful injuries as a result of a lack of health care and poor nutrition, among other factors. Lack of proper pre- and post-natal care also results in a high infant mortality rate - 66 babies out of every 1000 will die before reaching their first birthday. While the US and NATO have often celebrated the improvement in infant and child mortality rates over the last decade and a half, a critical analysis of data from the World Bank shows this has little if anything to do with the military mission there. The improvements in this area are exactly on par with other developing countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. The number of Afghan women and children dying from preventable causes remains far too high, much higher than neighbouring countries.
Failure of Education
Much has been made of the improvements to Afghanistan's education system since 2001, particularly for girls. The US Agency for International Development claims that the number of girls in school has risen from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million today. The trouble is, evidence on the ground shows that these numbers are totally inaccurate. A 2015 report on the state of education in Afghanistan by BuzzFeed News found the number of girls attending school to be over counted by almost 40%. As well, it is not entirely true that no girls attended school under the Taliban. Many girls attended schools in private homes, and some NGOs even ran schools which were tolerated by the Taliban as long as they didn't make themselves well-known. This is not to say that the right of girls and women to attend school is not important; it surely is. However, we must also ask what gains are being made in actuality, not just on paper. The fact is that today the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated so much that it has made it as least as difficult for girls to attend school in some regions now as it was under the Taliban.
Fearing the acid attacks and poisonings targeted at girls' schools, many parents who would otherwise send their daughters to school have opted to keep them home. Poverty is a major factor as well - some young girls are sent to work or beg for their families; other families cannot afford to buy textbooks and supplies for their children. A 2011 report by CARE International found that while 50% of parents wished for their daughters to graduate from university, many were forced to pull them out of school. The biggest factors in girls not completing their education were poverty, insecurity, and early marriage.
The Afghan female literacy rate is just 24% today (CIA World Factbook). This contributes to a lack of women in vital professions such as teaching and medicine, which in turn has further negative effects on women's health and educational outcomes.
The lack of education of girls and women today is a real tragedy for all of Afghanistan in light of the great gains their education could bring to the country. UNICEF found that, "...children of Afghan women with education are less likely to die in infancy and childhood, more likely to be immunized, and more likely to complete primary school than children whose mothers had no education. Among Afghan women, those who had attended school are more likely to use a method of contraception and have adequate prenatal care than their peers with no education."
Domestic Violence on the Rise
Another threat to the safety and security of Afghan women is domestic violence. We have heard their stories: Sahar Gul, a child bride from Baghlan Province, who was tortured nearly to death by her in-laws for refusing to enter prostitution. Aisha Mohammadzai, married at fourteen and permanently disfigured by her husband for trying to escape his abuse. Their stories are heart-wrenching and sadly, all too common. In fact, nearly 9 in 10 women report experiencing psychological, physical, or sexual violence in the home.
One might wonder what would possess a parent to force their daughter into marriage at such a young age. While conservative cultural and religious norms certainly play a role, the reality is that many feel they have no choice. Poor families are often forced to sell their daughters into marriage so the rest of the family can survive. Others marry their daughters off young for fear that they otherwise be kidnapped and held for ransom by one of Afghanistan's notorious drug lords, who have become incredibly powerful since the fall of the Taliban.
Rather than decreasing, domestic violence has in fact risen sharply since the occupation of Afghanistan began, with the UN reporting a 28% increase in 2013 alone. While some of this may be attributable to an increase in reporting, there are undoubtedly other factors which have caused domestic violence to continually rise. A report by Global Rights Watch found that women whose husbands had no income were more likely to experience violence. With the unemployment rate in Afghanistan at around 40%, there is no doubt that the desperate situation which many families face is a contributing factor. In addition, drug production and use has skyrocketed across Afghanistan since 2001, with the country now supplying around 90% of the world's opium. Many women report that the violence started or worsened after their husbands became addicted to drugs.
Unfortunately, there is no way out of this terrible situation for many women. Even if they were able to obtain a divorce - a difficult thing for a woman to do - where would they go? How would they survive? A handful may be able to stay with their families, but for economic and cultural reasons, this is usually not possible. There is very little employment available, least of all for women. Many of the country's widows are forced into begging and prostitution to survive.
Those who can no longer suffer the abuse often take their own lives. The Afghan health ministry reported 4,136 cases of self-immolation in 2014 alone. Two thousand three hundred of these were women. While poverty, insecurity, and unemployment have caused a sharp rise in suicides among men as well, "Gender-based violence is among the main causes for women's suicides and self-immolation. According to research, the most common reason for self-immolation is forced or child marriage," UN Population Fund representative for Afghanistan Dr. Annette Robertson notes.
Afghan Government Revokes Women's Rights
Ostensibly aiming to tackle the problem of violence against women - and after a great deal of lobbying by Afghan women's organizations - the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was enacted in Afghanistan in 2009. Both US/NATO forces and some Western NGOs and women's rights groups hailed it as a great success for Afghan women. The law criminalizes and proscribes punishment for a number of crimes against women, including forced marriage, child marriage, rape, domestic violence, and the exchange of women to settle debts. While in principle this law is important, in reality the Afghan government has done little to enforce it. As well, this law was decreed by Hamid Karzai during a parliamentary recess, and, according to Afghan law, still needs to be passed through parliament. When it finally went to parliament in May 2013, it failed to pass in its current form. To date, it has not been passed through parliament, and as a result many justice officials do not apply it in relevant cases. In fact, a 2013 UN report found that EVAW law was only applied in 17% of cases.
Furthermore, the corrupt and conservative US-backed Afghan government has in the meantime passed other laws which restrict women's rights and in fact make it nearly impossible to apply many aspects of the EVAW law. The Shia Personal Status Law passed in 2009, which was widely criticized for effectively legalizing spousal rape in Shia households.
In 2014, the Afghan government made a small but significant change to the criminal code which makes it difficult to prosecute in cases of domestic abuse, rape, and forced marriages. The law prevents relatives from being ordered to bear witness against the accused. Since much of the violence against women occurs in the home where only other relatives could witness it, women bringing charges against their husbands or other family members would find it almost impossible to have someone corroborate their story.
As well, it is all but impossible for an Afghan woman to apply for a divorce, even if she were to take the risk. In order to obtain a divorce, women require an ID card - however, they must have the consent of their husband or father in order to obtain one. Eighty percent of rural Afghan women have no ID. Also, while men have the right to divorce their wives for any reason, Afghan women can only divorce their husbands in cases of violence or where the basic necessities of life are not provided. If a woman requests a divorce due to violence, she must have two witnesses.
The struggle for equal rights for women under the law has been one step forward, two steps back. As well, the total lack of government control over much of the country means that justice is administered not by government officials but by local warlords or the Taliban in the areas which they control. As a result, any change which could be considered even a minute amount of progress does not apply to the majority of Afghan women.
US Responsible for Destruction of Women's Rights
To look at the situation in Afghanistan today, one might wonder if there is any hope for Afghan women. Certainly the media has portrayed Afghan women as helpless victims and Afghan men as cruel beasts. But the story of Afghans as a backwards people who need the 'help' of the US and NATO occupiers to bring them into the 21st century is one of the most clever and terrible lies ever told. To truly understand the extent of the tragedy which has befallen Afghan women, we must take a brief look at their history.
Afghan women gained the right to vote in 1919 - just a year after women in Canada. The early and mid twentieth century saw a series of slow but steady gains for women's rights. By the 1970s, women were walking around Kabul freeely and attending university classes alongside men. By the 1980s, they filled many of the country's important professional positions. Progress was slower in the rural areas to be sure, but widespread literacy programs had been established to educate men and women alike.
As former US President George W. Bush noted in December 2001, "Before the Taliban came, women played an incredibly important part of [Afghan] society. Seventy percent of the nation's teachers were women. Half of the government workers in Afghanistan were women, and forty percent of the doctors in the capital of Kabul were women. The Taliban destroyed that progress."
George Bush is very correct in his observations - however, he conveniently left out an important fact - that is, who was behind the Taliban's rise to power. The Taliban grew out of the remnants of the Mujahadeen - a group of radical Islamist fighters whom the US sponsored and trained to fight the Soviet Union during their occupation of Afghanistan. Even the textbooks used by the Mujahadeen (and later the Taliban), such as "The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy" were secretly produced by the US Agency for International Development. This curriculum promoted violence, hatred, and many of the social ills which exist in Afghanistan today.
The cruel reality for Afghan women today is that the US, which is claiming to promote women's rights in Afghanistan today is the very entity responsible for destroying their gains in the first place by imposing war and occupation on Afghan people.
No Liberation Under Occupation
After 15 years of occupation, the US, the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world have utterly failed to bring any meaningful improvement to the lives of Afghan women. After the photo-ops are over, many girls' schools sit empty. Clinics have no staff to serve female patients. As we have learned from women's activists in the country, many Afghan lawmakers are simply warlords dressed in suits. The small improvements which have been made do not extend to the majority of women who live in rural Afghanistan, and even these improvements should be credited more to NGOs working in the country than to foreign occupation.
Upon learning the dirty history of the US in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that this is not just a matter of corruption or ineptitude on the part of those in charge of the mission. While they have played lip service to the cause of human and women's rights, they have at every turn supported those who oppose these rights.
The ideology of the Taliban was never the real problem for the US - the US helped to foster this ideology in the first place! The claims of supporting human rights, women's rights, and democracy in Afghanistan were never more than an clever tactic to put a human face on an inhuman and unpopular war.
The real objective of the US in Afghanistan was to turn the country into a base of operations in order to maintain their military, political, and economic control of the region, thereby gaining the upper hand over regional competitors such as China and Russia. Despite talks of "troop withdrawal" and "non-combat mission", the fact is that the US and NATO plan to maintain a permanent presence in Afghanistan. The large embassy, bases, and other infrastructure they have built in the country are evidence of this.
Liberation cannot be brought to women at gunpoint. If any improvement is to be made to the lives of women in Afghanistan, it must come from Afghans themselves. The past 15 years have proven that the US and their allies are not capable of improving the women's situation in Afghanistan, and indeed, have done much to make it worse.
As Reena, RAWA spokesperson stated in her interview with Uprising Radio, "[o]ur people need to be united. They have to break the barriers of the divisions that the US occupation has brought upon Afghanistan. They need to fight the foreign occupiers. Afghanistan has a glorious history of driving out foreigners whenever they have tried to take over Afghanistan. This is the only way.”
There is Hope: Afghan Women Organize
Amidst the horror and sadness in which most Afghan women live, there is hope, however. Many Afghan women have become aware of their rights thanks to the dogged work of aid groups and women's organizations. Some are taking the brave steps to organize and protest for their rights, even in such a dangerous atmosphere.
The fact that Afghan women are increasingly organizing to demand their rights is perhaps the greatest improvement made to the women's situation in the country in the past decade and a half - but it is no thanks to foreign occupation. In fact, many of the country's vocal women's rights activists are also vocal opponents of the occupation. In this way, Afghan women are in fact carrying on the legacy of one of Afghanistan's most important national heroes, Malalai of Maiwand. Malalai was a seventeen year old woman who rallied Afghan fighters to victory over the British in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. Malalai herself died in battle, but lives on in the hearts of the Afghan people, and Afghan women in particular.
Support Women's Rights! End the Occupation!
Afghan women need our support. They need us to stand beside them in the struggle for their rights. What they do not need is foreign occupation. The US and NATO will not solve the problems of women in Afghanistan, especially when they are supporting and legitimizing a government of men who think much like the Taliban.
Of course, the problems of Afghan women will not be solved overnight simply by ending the occupation - it will take much more work to undo the physical, economic, and psychological damage which decades of war have brought to Afghanistan. The wounds of the nation will need to be healed bit by bit - but this process can only begin when Afghanistan is freed from the meddling of foreign interests.
The most important support we can give Afghan women is to demand an end to the occupation of their country. Given the important role that the government of Canada has played in the US/NATO occupation of their country, this is the least we can do. We must educate, organize and mobilize people in North America and around the world to build a movement for the liberation of Afghanistan - and Afghan women in particular. We must make the US and NATO hear our message loud and clear:
Yes to women's rights!
No to occupation!
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