Lal Bibi is demanding justice. In May, the 18-year-old Afghan woman was abducted by five armed men, chained to a wall, raped and beaten for five days. The men responsible were all members of the US-trained Afghan Local Police, essentially a militia charged with quelling the growing armed resistance to the occupation in Afghanistan. The situation is grim for the young woman, who went through the ordeal because her cousin allegedly offended a family with ties to the local militia commander.
“If the people in government fail to bring these people to justice I am going to burn myself,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “I don’t want to live with this stigma on my forehead. People will mock me if these men go unpunished, so I want every single one of them to be punished.”
Lal Bibi's story is just one among thousands in the ongoing tale of injustice against Afghan women and girls. A number of stories of Afghan girls being raped and beaten at the hands of US-trained police forces have surfaced recently. This spring alone, there have been five reported cases of women killed, mostly by their family members. As well, two girls' schools have come under attack in Takhar province. The girls were poisoned in their classrooms, most likely by conservative radicals opposed to the education of women.
These are just a couple of incidents which are a reflection of the horrifying reality of daily life for women in Afghanistan, who have faced many years of brutality and suffering. However, they also bring to light an important question: why, after nearly 11 years of the US and NATO “improving women's rights” in Afghanistan, do abuses of women's rights run rampant in the country?
Where are Afghan Women Today?
In the lead up to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the grim women's rights situation was cited as one of the main justifications for the US and NATO sending troops to the country. Pictures of women hidden under burqas filled the media, as did reports of the Taliban placing bans on women receiving an education, working, even wearing high heels. The forces behind the US/NATO invasion and occupation promised to improve the situation. So, where are Afghan women today after ten years of occupation of their country?
One simple statement sums up the situation of women's rights in Afghanistan today: Afghanistan is the worst place in the world to be a woman. This was the result of a 2011 study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Reasons for this include desperate poverty, nearly non-existent health care, ongoing violence and insecurity and systemic violence against women.
Basic health care is a right denied to most Afghans, but Afghan women in particular. When it comes to maternal health, Afghanistan is also one of the worst places in the world to be a mother. A 2012 report by Save the Children ranked Afghanistan 164th out of 165 countries in terms of conditions for mothers. Only Niger, which is currently experiencing a major food crisis, ranked lower. According to the Afghan Health Ministry, about 18,000 women die during childbirth each year - about one in every 11 women. In comparison, the maternal mortality ratio in neighbouring Tajikistan is about one in 430. In Canada, it is about one in 12,800. One of the main reasons for this is a lack of access to health care before, during and after childbirth. A 2010 survey by Save the Children found that only 14% of Afghan women have a medical professional attend the birth of their child, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths of mothers and children.
Afghan women are also denied the basic right to live in safety. Numerous annual reports by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have found a steady increase in domestic violence. In 2006, Global Rights reported that 87% of Afghan women had experienced some type of physical, sexual or psychological violence. To make matters worse, women who experience this violence typically have no recourse. In fact, today hundreds of Afghan women sit in jail because they are victims of crimes. Victims of rape are charged with adultery, while those who run away from violence at home are accused of conspiring to commit adultery. While the government of Afghanistan has made a show of eliminating this violence by passing the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in 2009, the law is rarely implemented in a legal system rife with corruption. Most legal cases still go through tribal courts, where women have virtually no rights or voice. To make matters worse, in 2011, the United States put $15 million into the funding of these courts, thereby supporting the continued injustice against women.
However, the injustice faced by women in Afghanistan's legal system does not appear only in the local level or the tribal courts. At a recent conference of the Afghan Parliament's Women's Affairs Committee, Afghan Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb called safe houses for women fleeing abuse places of “immorality and prostitution”. With this sort of anti-woman attitude from the man at the highest level of Afghanistan's so-called justice system, how can women expect to receive fair treatment in the courts?
The War on Women's Rights
The US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan has done anything but improve women's rights in that country. Many of the US' allies in the country - including those in government - are warlords who are opposed to women's rights as much or more than the Taliban ever were. Although they may talk of improving women's rights, the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai published a statement in March which declared, among other things, that women are subordinate to men and must have a male relative with them when they leave the home. This is the new “democratic” government, “committed to women's rights” that the US, Canada, and other NATO countries support politically, financially and militarily.
There have been no real improvements for women's rights in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. In fact, the ongoing bombings, violence and general lack of security in the country have only made an already difficult life nearly impossible for women. The forces which are there under the guise of protecting them constantly terrorize Afghan women and their families through midnight house raids. Those widowed at the hands of US and NATO troops are often forced into prostitution in order to survive, while thousands of others resort to begging or are forced to sell their children in order to survive.
Given the terrible conditions of life for women in Afghanistan, it should come as no surprise that suicide rates among Afghan women are on the rise. A report published in 2009 by Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that "self-immolation is being used by increasing numbers of Afghan women to escape their dire circumstances, and women constitute the majority of Afghan suicides.” The report went on to record that in Herat province alone, 80 women had attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire. Many of them died.
The US and NATO occupation forces have claimed victories for women's rights in Afghanistan such as the opening of new schools and clinics and women becoming members of parliament or of the Afghan National Police. However, these so-called gains are merely a carefully crafted performance with no real substance behind them. They proclaim victory in educating women because a handful of girls' schools have been built, while under the Taliban girls were not allowed to attend school. However, in reality NGOs such as the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan operated schools for girls across the country, despite official restrictions on girls' education. “During Taliban [rule] we were never actually forced really to close girls schools,” Anders Fange, a Swedish lecturer on Afghanistan who formerly worked for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, stated in a 2011 interview with Radio Free Europe. Today, however, 550 girls schools have been closed due to numerous attacks and a general lack of security.
The most basic human right is the right to life and to live secure from harm - a right which Afghan women are denied. Until women in Afghanistan have the right to live safely and securely and be treated like human beings, what is the importance of having a few women in parliament or in the police force? After all, how can the average Afghan woman receive an education, work, or enter political life if she is struggling just for day-to-day survival? The so-called “sucesses” brought by the US/NATO occupation are a thin veil for the suffering faced by the vast majority of Afghan women.
Under the Taliban, life was extremely difficult for Afghan women. They had few rights, education was extremely limited and certainly not encouraged and they were constantly victims of violence. Today, under the government of President Hamid Karzai and the US/NATO occupation, Afghan women have few rights, extremely limited access to education, and are constantly victims of violence. However, today Afghan women also must contend with the constant insecurity and suffering brought by war and occupation.
Some will argue that the terrible situation for Afghan women is inevitable, that it is an endemic part of a fundamentally anti-woman culture. While it is certainly true that sexism is an ingrained part of Afghan society (as it is all over the world), Afghanistan's recent history shows that the idea that it would be impossible to achieve women's equality in the country is patently false. The following was published in a report by the US State Department in 2001: “Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s; and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women were making important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women.” Does this sound like a society that is fundamentally against women's equality?
What Can be Done?
With the United States claiming they will end their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, the question of women's rights in Afghanistan has again surfaced in the media. Many media institutions as well as aid organizations have said that if the US and NATO leave Afghanistan, the women's rights situation in the country will worsen. However, the statistics show that the last ten years of occupation has brought nothing but hardship and suffering to Afghan women. Many Afghan women quietly acknowledge that, as bad as life was under the Taliban, they would prefer it to foreign occupation. Furthermore, the support for many of the biggest enemies of women's rights by the US and NATO has only served to make the struggle for equality more difficult.
The only real solution is for Afghan women to fight for their own rights. This is no small task, but it is one already being taken on by Afghan women's organizations - and through their history, Afghan women have proven they are fully capable of this responsibility. However, they cannot fight for their rights when they are fighting for their very survival. The most important action we can take to support our sisters in Afghanistan is to call for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Afghan women will face a monumental task in the struggle for their rights, yes; but equality, freedom and justice have not, and will never be, brought from the barrel of a gun.
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