The South Asia Channel

Women's Rights as a Bargaining Chip in Afghan Politics

The two men vying to be the next president of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have pledged to protect women's rights, which have in the past year become a political bargaining chip in outgoing President Hamid Karzai's quest for a legacy. Both men signed a petition organized by more than 100 women's rights organizations calling for equality and an end to violence.

On the presidential polling days, the initial April 5 vote and the June 14 runoff, women were photographed wearing blue burqas and holding up ink-stained fingers to prove they had voted, their anonymity confirming the cliché of their victim status.

In a country where the exact population is not known, it is impossible to know how many people are of voting age, and authorities have not released a definitive voters roll. Eyebrows were raised at the announcement by the election monitoring body, the Independent Election Commission, soon after run-off polling closed that 38 percent of women had voted. Men voting by proxy for women is a widespread practice in Afghanistan's conservative constituencies.

This year's election season has reignited interest in women's rights, mainly concerns that once the international combat troops have withdrawn and the aid commitment to the country is reduced -- cut in half, in the case of the United States -- there will be little oversight to ensure those rights are not eroded.

The concerns reflect the vulnerabilities that Afghan women face: that the rights hard won by and for them could be bargained away as part of a deal with Islamist insurgents who want women silent, invisible, and compliant as a condition for peace. Karzai, long a supporter of women's rights, suddenly fell silent a year ago as conservative parliamentarians attempted to take those rights away.

Women are guaranteed the vote by Afghanistan's constitution, which set aside many of the restrictions placed on them during the five-year Taliban era. Before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, women were not permitted outdoors without a male relative, were barred from work and education, and sometimes were even beaten in the street for wearing white shoes, as white was the color of the Taliban's flag.

These abuses were reversed in law: In 2004 women were granted equal rights; five years later violence against women became a crime when the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was passed by presidential decree. The new constitution granted women access to education, work, and health care. Women sought and won elected office under official quotas; they joined the security forces; they started businesses.

Quietly, EVAW was implemented, albeit imperfectly, by courts across the country. Karzai's credentials as a modernizing president were burnished, and many basic quality-of-life measures improved for Afghan women -- most notably maternal mortality, which the World Health Organization says halved between 2005 and 2013. Now there is one death in childbirth every two hours, compared to one every 25 minutes in recent memory.

Gains in education remain one of the major indicators cited as proof of progress, though the Afghan government's National Vulnerability and Risk Assessment shows wide discrepancies in the numbers of boys and girls in primary, secondary, and tertiary education.

According to the World Bank, female literacy is now 12 percent, up from 5 percent in 2002. For teenagers, ages 12 to 16, literacy for girls is 36 percent, compared with boys at 62 percent -- figures that closely correlate with the school attendance numbers of each sex.

The sort of profound change that redresses these imbalances, in one of the world's poorest countries, needs time. Just a decade after the demise of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places on Earth to be female. If the last 12 years have brought progress, events of the last 12 months have shown there is still a monumental task ahead, not just to hold onto gains but to extend them to all women and girls across the country.

For Norwegian academic Torunn Wimpelmann, the roots of the problem go deeper than one generation's access to schoolbooks. "[W]omen's lack of access to property ownership, extremely rigid notions of female propriety which severely restrict their mobility and conduct, and continuing reports of exceedingly brutal violence against women who defy family and societal control all testify to a society that remains one of the most gender-unequal in the world, comparing unfavourably also with other countries in the region," says her May report for London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Leaving Them to It? Women's Rights in Transitioning Afghanistan."

According to an op-ed by Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, opponents of women's rights have been "taking advantage of growing international fatigue with Afghanistan." In the past year, she has written, parliamentarians "have argued for the repeal of EVAW and tried to abolish a set-aside of seats for women on provincial councils."

Writing in a recent article, she says: "The courts reversed the 10-year sentences handed down to the in-laws who brutally abused 13-year-old bride Sahar Gul in a case that had previously been seen as emblematic of the positive impact of EVAW."

Women police, legislators, and activists have been attacked, some fatally, and have been threatened "without receiving support from the government," she has written. "Karzai undermined the credibility of the government's human rights commission by appointing unqualified new commissioners, including a former Taliban government official who urged repeal of EVAW. A committee including representatives of key government institutions prepared a draft law that would have reinstated stoning as a punishment for adultery."

Ghani is regarded as having solid credentials in his commitment to women's rights: his wife, Rula, is a Christian Lebanese-American who has attended campaign rallies with him, and addressed a gathering of women in Kabul on March 8, International Women's Day. Abdullah made the right noises during his campaigning, though his track record shows less evidence of his support for women's issues.

The realities of Afghanistan's political landscape could see the attacks on women's rights continue, no matter who becomes president. As international interest in the country wanes -- already the foreign media presence is winding down -- opponents of women's rights could become emboldened and the new president forced to give ground on these issues as he deals with the mountain of problems he inherits: corruption, nepotism, weak governance, lack of transparency, capital and human flight, and an empty treasury. As Karzai demonstrated, women's rights are an easy trade.

"I really worry about women's rights," a senior Afghan official, a man, said to me ahead of the first round of Afghanistan's presidential election. "I fear that the gains will be traded for political advantage and once the foreigners have gone there will be no one here to keep an eye on things, for the women's sake."

Lynne O'Donnell is an award-winning journalist and author based in London.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images