The South Asia Channel

Fighting the Good Fight for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

In 1997, Mavis Leno and Eleanor Smeal, co-founders of the Feminist Majority, in collaboration with a group of concerned Afghan Americans, helped to bring the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban regime into the public eye.  Their advocacy not only influenced U.S. policy on Afghanistan, but seared the cause of Afghan women's rights into western consciousness.  Seventeen years later, Leno and Smeal - now signatories of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People along with iconic feminist Gloria Steinem and other staunch Afghan right's advocates  - are still advocating on behalf of Afghan women, who find themselves again facing the prospect of substatnial setbacks. 

Afghanistan is at a critical juncture where security and peace hang in the balance with the pending U.S. and NATO military withdrawal planned for the end of the year, compounded by increased violence unfolding around the April 2014 presidential elections.  The moment has sparked fears that any advances in women's rights will be traded away in post-election bartering and reconciliation attempts with the Taliban.

President Hamid Karzai recently rejected Article 26 of a draft criminal prosecution code  that would prevent relatives from testifying against alleged abusers, which activists warn would have a disastrous effect on domestic violence prosecutions in Afghanistan. Often it is either a relative committing the abuse or the sole witness to the act. Karzai asked the Afghan Parliament for changes to the legislation.

Karzai's rejection was a victory for Afghan women and girls, but more remains to be done to protect and realize women's rights in Afghanistan. For example, targeted attacks against women's rights advocates, female police officers and female government officials continue.

Last year, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in reports of attacks against women, according to the United Nations, with little rise in prosecutions. And now, a small but consequential change to the criminal code could make domestic violence-already rampant in Afghanistan-nearly impossible to prosecute, and pose a serious threat to critical protections for women and girls embodied in Afghanistan's groundbreaking law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), passed by presidential decree in 2009.

The EVAW law provides new criminal penalties for various abuses including child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, rape, sale of women and girls, and baad, the giving of girls to resolve disputes between families.

The proposed criminal procedure code effectively excludes parents, grandparents or siblings from testifying in court. However, most violent acts against Afghan women are committed within the family and not outside, according to a recent UN report on the implementation of the EVAW law in Afghanistan.

Other worrying developments which threaten women's rights are the reduction in women's quotas in Afghan provincial councils from 25 percent to 20 percent last year, the resumption of a nationwide debate to reintroduce stoning as a punishment for adultery, and the appointment of former Taliban insurgents as members of the independent Human Rights Commission.

Soraya Sobhrang, the representative for women on the national Human Rights Commission, has deplored the situation in light of the imminent withdrawal of international troops from the country by the end of this year. She argues that the rights of Afghan women were one of the official justifications for military operations in the first place. However, in her estimation, the international community appears to have abandoned Afghan women, failing to bring "fundamental change to the lives of women in Afghanistan."

Countries that spent billions trying to improve justice and human rights are now focused largely on security, and are retreating from Afghan politics.  However, the international community still holds the upper hand, and should put more pressure on the Afghan government providing further financial assistance only on the condition that women's rights are adequately protected as enshrined in the 2004 Afghanistan Constitution, which states in Article 22 that "the citizens of Afghanistan - whether man or woman - have equal rights and duties before the law."

The Obama Administration has demonstrated clear support for Afghan women despite the stressed relationship between Presidents Obama and Karzai regarding the Bilateral Security Agreement.  Both Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry have been vocal advocates for Afghan women's rights, participating in public fora to discuss their achievements and their ongoing challenges.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have crossed partisan lines to join in active support of Afghan women's rights and have been concerned with recent developments that threated to roll back Afghan women's gains.  The two former first ladies of the United States are honorary co-chairs of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, founded in 2003, which continues to provide support for Afghan women.  They have admirably joined forces to advocate for Afghan women and children, and personally support initiatives that promote the cause of Afghan women to the U.S. public, while at the same time focus on developing sustainable livelihoods and providing leadership skills for Afghan women. As two of the most respected women in the United States, their voices help keep the cause of Afghan women in the public eye.

Afghan women's rights activists are fearful of recent developments in Afghan society, and worry that the new law could eliminate all hard-fought gains Afghan women have achieved so far. The decision as to whether he will sign this controversial bill into law rests on the shoulders of President Karzai and the legacy he wishes to leave behind.

Khorshied Samad, a former Fox News Channel television correspondent and Kabul Bureau Chief, is the Director of External Affairs Communications for The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia. She is an advocate for women's rights and socio-economic empowerment.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images