Friday

9th Dec 2016

Opinion

EU-Afghanistan: Mission accomplished, women abandoned?

  • Kabul: 'Threats to women’s rights in Afghanistan demand meaningful EU action' (Photo: Michael Foley Photography)

UK Prime Minister David Cameron may feel that his country’s Afghanistan mission is “accomplished,” but Afghan women paint a much bleaker picture.

Despite 12 years of armed conflict, investment and capacity-building by foreign governments in Afghanistan, including by European Union governments and the EU itself, women’s rights remain in peril.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Violence against women and forced marriage are rife, while high-profile female government officials and civil society activists face threats and attacks by the resilient Taliban insurgency.

All too often, the government appears unable or unwilling to bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes. Worse, in the last year Afghan government officials have themselves attacked some of the most basic legal safeguards for women.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November, news broke that Afghan government officials had participated in preparing a draft law that would have reinstated the Taliban-era punishment of execution by stoning for adultery.

This is only the latest example in a recent string of serious setbacks or attempts by government officials and parliamentarians to roll back women's rights.

These attacks threaten to unravel the fragile but important advances in women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Those gains are real and deserve recognition, particularly in the areas of education, health care, and the role of women in government and politics. But delivering long-term, sustainable improvement in the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan is still a distant goal: literacy and female school attendance remain low while maternal and infant mortality remain high.

The Taliban insurgency has largely maintained the same approach to women’s rights as that of the Taliban regime, which barred women from education, working—or even leaving their homes unescorted.

The threats to women’s rights in Afghanistan demand meaningful EU action.

On 20 January, EU foreign affairs ministers have an opportunity to take concrete steps to address the threat to Afghan women’s rights when they meet in Brussels to discuss the EU's Afghanistan strategy.

This matters because the EU institutions, together with the 28 EU member states, have significant influence in Afghanistan, both politically and financially.

As we told ministers in a recent letter, at this crucial time the EU and its member states need to make it absolutely clear that women’s rights are a non-negotiable, core aspect of the EU's relationship with Afghanistan.

The EU has committed itself to women's rights often enough.

High Representative Catherine Ashton and other officials have stressed that a country cannot be safe and secure unless its women are, and that “women are essential to democracy.”

Now is the time to put those words into action.

In recent meetings, Human Rights Watch had in Brussels and other European capitals to discuss these attacks on women’s rights, diplomats and officials largely agreed that women's rights matter and that they face increasing threats in Afghanistan.

But their expressed concern about these abuses didn’t always extend to offering meaningful support in combatting them.

Some officials claimed that this was the “wrong time” to discuss women’s rights. Others reasoned that women’s rights are not linked to security, “which is what matters right now.”

There were concerns by a few officials that pushing women’s rights was awkward or inappropriate at a time when - in their view - the government and Taliban are negotiating and a deal could be achievable.

The timing of the upcoming April presidential election was also seen as a potential complication to advocating for women’s rights.

And - too often - we heard that even if this would be the right time for such advocacy, and even if this were a true emergency, they didn’t have the leverage to do anything more.

The women and girls of Afghanistan do not have the luxury of time. If now is not the time to discuss women's rights, when is? After more police women get murdered? When more women's rights activists have fled the country out of fear?

The lack of vocal, consistent criticism and concern by the EU and others about the deterioration in women’s rights in Afghanistan makes it easier for those inside and outside the Afghan government to roll back advances women achieved since 2001 without fear of international protest.

For example, in May 2013, the Afghan Ministry of Justice added a provision to a new criminal procedure law that prohibits family members from testifying against each other. That prohibition would effectively prevent prosecutions for domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.

On 18 May 2013, conservative parliamentarians attacked the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), the most important law on women’s rights since the constitution, calling for it to be overturned as counter to Islam.

Also in May, the lower house of parliament reduced reserved seats for women on provincial councils.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has compounded the government attack on women’s rights by informing women’s rights activists that he will no longer publicly back EVAW.

The EU needs to ensure that Afghan leaders and activists on the frontlines of the battle to protect women’s rights receive firm political and financial support.

In the words of High Representative Ashton: “The battle for women's rights is becoming the decisive contest between prejudice and democracy.”

On 20 January, the EU has an opportunity to ensure that message is heard in Kabul loud and clear.

Heather Barr is Human Rights Watch's senior Afghanistan researcher. Gauri van Gulik is the organisation’s global women’s rights advocate

Opinion

Rising to the challenge of 'European Angst'

Liberals and the left need to think up new narratives to counter the rise of populist, eurosceptic and extremist parties. This will be the theme of a conference in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, with EUobserver as a partner.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Swedish EnterprisesMEPs and Business Representatives Debated on the Future of the EU at the Winter Mingle
  2. ACCASets Out Fifty Key Factors in the Public Sector Accountants Need to Prepare for
  3. UNICEFSchool “as Vital as Food and Medicine” for Children Caught up in Conflict
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC President Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Result of Austrian Presidential Election
  5. CESICongress Re-elects Klaus Heeger & Romain Wolff as Secretary General & President
  6. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAustrian Association for Betting and Gambling Joins EGBA
  7. ACCAWomen of Europe Awards: Celebrating the Women who are Building Europe
  8. European Heart NetworkWhat About our Kids? Protect Children From Unhealthy Food and Drink Marketing
  9. ECR GroupRestoring Trust and Confidence in the European Parliament
  10. UNICEFChild Rights Agencies Call on EU to put Refugee and Migrant Children First
  11. MIRAIA New Vision on Clean Tech: Balancing Energy Efficiency, Climate Change and Costs
  12. World VisionChildren Cannot Wait! 7 Priority Actions to Protect all Refugee and Migrant Children

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ANCI LazioRegio-Mob Project Delivers Analysis of Transport and Mobility in Rome
  2. SDG Watch EuropeCivil Society Disappointed by the Commission's Plans for Sustainable Development Goals
  3. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhD Positions Open – The Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU (PLATO)
  4. Access NowTell the EU Council: Protect our Rights to Privacy and Security
  5. ACCAThe Future of Audit Means Adaption to Today’s Global and Digital World
  6. Swedish EnterprisesNew Rules for EU Anti-dumping Measures
  7. European Jewish CongressTakes Part in Building Resilient Communities
  8. UNICEFUniversal Children’s Day: UNICEF Calls for Global Action on Child Rights Violations
  9. Counter BalanceThe EU Bank Cannot be a Key Player in Europe's Response to the Plight of Refugees
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEvidence of Human Rights Violations and International Crimes in Crimea
  11. Dialogue PlatformThe Failed Military Coup in Turkey & The Mass Purges
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Climate Solutions at COP22 in Marrakech