US: Don't Abandon Afghan Women

March 10, 2011

By Elsie De Laere, Afghanistan Country Specialist

Afghan women's rights activists

In his article “As priorities shift, US steps back from goals for Afghan women”,  published in the Washington Post on Sunday, Rajiv Chandrasekaran describes the quiet changes made by the US administration to divert the focus on the rights of Afghan women to ‘other priorities’.

As the Amnesty Afghanistan country specialist, I have invested a lot of energy and passion during the past four years, both here and in Afghanistan on behalf of Afghan women. I have served as a volunteer teacher trainer in Kabul and other provinces during nine trips between the summer of 2004 and spring of 2010.  Even though I admit I was always wary of the US and NATO public media efforts we were there in part to liberate the Afghan women, I witnessed first hand the little progress that was made on this issue.

I am dismayed to read that the US administration is considering the cause of women’s rights as a ‘pet project’, not a priority. When the going gets tough (as in security being worse now than some years ago), the women once again are shoved aside and resources are diverted.

This is especially bad timing as many people celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. On Tuesday I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in support of Afghan women, an event organized by Women for Women International and supported by Amnesty International. Women all over the world crossed bridges in support of women.

I read through the many comments made to gauge the readers’ responses to the article in the Washington Post. Some of the comments are not worth mentioning as their only aim is to shock and mock. I did detect, however, an interesting thread in some of the responses which I found to be legitimate and in need of a response.

Readers are asking themselves why so much money, their tax money after all, keeps being spent on programs to improve the lives of Afghan women during a time when there is a definite assault on women here in America. I too feel the attempts at weakening women’s rights as a very worrisome trend which, coupled with the current proposed budget cuts which support women’s access to programs like pre-natal care is cause for action. Much of what is happening in that regard will affect poor women and children and that makes it so much harder to advocate for poor women in other parts of the world or for women all together.

However, I would like to caution those of us who feel increasingly discouraged as to what we can do to help the plight of other women while dealing with potential serious set-backs to our rights as women right here in the US. If we as American women fail to stand with the Afghan women and women world-wide we will diminish our power as a group of constituents. If we as American men and women see the struggle of women in other places of the world as separate from our own, we may end up eroding the progress women made elsewhere.

Women’s rights are enshrined in internationally recognized and signed conventions and treaties which aim to promote equal rights for women. Afghanistan’s government has signed on to many of these conventions and treaties, like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). If we narrow the scope of our concern to our own struggle we will diminish the power of for many women elsewhere who look up at us for help, support and guidance.

Moreover, in a country like Afghanistan where there is a possibility of some Taliban being integrated into the government, we all should consider what will happen to all those brave men and women who have fought so hard to improve the rights of their mothers, sisters, and daughters in part by western organizations.

Questions to consider seriously: if the Taliban joins the government, who will and can ensure that progress made for women remains intact? Will all those who worked toward that progress be safe? It is distressing to read that language in the Afghan USAID programs has been diluted by omitting strong demands for women to be included.

This is not a time for us to back off, if ever there is. If a US government official describes the fight of Afghan women as a ‘pet project’, one which affects half of the Afghan population, one has to wonder how that person views us women right here in the US. United we stand so much stronger!

I encourage all of you to stand with the Afghan women in whichever way you can.

Take action now at the Afghanistan country page, or urge the US Senate to ratify CEDAW.