US: Don't Abandon Afghan Women

March 8, 2012

“We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always . . . [it is] essential that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled in the reconciliation process.” -U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton speaking to female Afghan officials in 2010

President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s legacy on women’s human rights will face a defining moment with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

When the U.S. and NATO entered Afghanistan in 2001, one of the justifications of the mission was to ensure the protection of human rights, including women’s rights. More than ten years later, peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S. jeopardize women’s human rights.

So where is the Obama Administration’s plan to protect and advance human rights in Afghanistan?

What the women of Afghanistan desperately need, and what they deserve, is a U.S. action plan for Afghan women. The Obama Administration needs to articulate clear and measurable steps that will ensure that women’s and girls’ rights are not traded away in the transition. Human rights – and women’s rights – must be non-negotiable.

Modest advances in human rights for women and girls have been made in Afghanistan during the past ten years of U.S. occupation. Girls’ access to education has increased, new laws have been enacted to protect women from gender-based violence, and the Afghan government has taken steps to enforce these laws.

Most importantly, the new constitution gives equal legal status to women and men and sets aside a quota of one quarter of all parliamentary seats for women. Two parliamentary elections held in 2005 and in 2010 actually saw women take slightly more seats than their allotted quota.

The groundwork has been laid. But peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S. jeopardize even these small gains as the U.S. searches for a quick exit. Women’s and girls’ human rights face threats from both the Afghan government and the Taliban. These threats are already being realized.

On March 3, Afghanistan’s president publicly endorsed a code of conduct set forth by a council of clerics. This “code” puts women’s security and dignity at risk, providing for circumstances under which husbands can beat their wives and encouraging “segregation of the sexes.”

No coherent plan exists to ensure that women’s and girls’ human rights are protected as the U.S. extracts itself from this conflict. With the escalating violence and resentment of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, this challenge compounds daily.

The stakes for Afghan women couldn’t be higher. Despite some gains, women still lack access to their basic human rights.

  • 87% of Afghan women are illiterate
  •  Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an expectant mother. According to UNICEF, maternal mortality rates range from 1,400 to 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 births.
  • In areas under insurgent control, incidents of torture and other ill-treatment of women, including beatings and brutal punishments, are common. Often horrific punishments are dispensed following a “trial” by a local Taliban “court.” In August 2010 in the province of Badghis, the Taliban forced a woman to abort her fetus and then shot her dead, for alleged adultery.

Help us call for a U.S. Action Plan for Afghan Women now.  Here are some of the steps that a U.S. Action Plan should contain:

  • Push for implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in the courts in Afghanistan.
  • Ensure that peace talks do not result in impunity for serious violations of human rights and war crimes.
  • Push for gender parity in all negotiating teams, including a 30% quota for women on the Afghan government team.
  • Promote and fund women’s empowerment programs.

These steps aren’t easy; nothing about this conflict has been. But there can be no just or sustainable peace without women’s human rights. The U.S. must step up and affirm that it should and will help protect Afghan women. Their human rights, their safety, their very lives must not be sacrificed as U.S. troops withdraw from the country.