I spoke at Amnesty’s Student Conference on 17th November 2012 on a panel with Tabassum Wolayat and Noorjahan Akbar of Young Women for Change. What follows has been reconstructed from the notes for the panel.


So much has been achieved in Afghanistan for women’s rights. We have women in parliament, girls in schools, the constitution enshrining equal rights and a law to eliminate violence against women that criminalises killing in the name of ‘honour,’ child marriages and giving away girls to settle disputes. However, progress made is far from sufficient. It has been estimated that 87% of women in Afghanistan face violence. The biggest fear of women under 30 in Afghanistan is sexual assault. The Eliminate Violence against Women law is only enforced in 10 out of 34 provinces.

Women face violence at home and then again for running away. In 2010, Bibi Aysha had her nose and ears cut off by her husband because she ran away from abusive in-laws. Alternatively, women who escape violence end in prison. Half of the women in Afghanistan’s prisons are there for zina or sex outside marriage. This includes women fleeing from forced marriage or domestic violence. In many instances, women who are raped or forced into prostitution are put in prison instead of being given medical care and psychological counselling and their perpetrator being punished.

Last year, Gulnaz was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being raped. Due to the mobilisation of human rights activists in Afghanistan and their allies outside, she was freed – although there was some concern that this might be conditional on her marrying her rapist. At the time, she said, ‘What kind of government is this? What kind of Afghanistan is this? My attacker committed a crime, and they arrested me!

There are many women and men who fight for women’s rights – who push to have women’s rights in the constitution and laws, run refuges and shelters, educate women and girls and work to change attitudes and behaviour – but they are in constant danger of violence. They are followed in the street, are verbally and physically attacked and their offices and homes targeted. Safiye Amajan, director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar was shot and killed in 2006. In July this year, Hanifa Safi, head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman was shot and killed. Sitara Achakzai, Malalai Kakar, Majabina, Nazaneen…all women who have been killed because of working for women’s rights. According to Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament, ‘You can’t be an active woman in Afghanistan and not feel threatened. It is part of my daily life.’ The government takes very little action. Not only does this climate of impunity threaten women’s lives, but it means they are less able to defend and promote the human rights of women and girls. I was at a conference in Istanbul in September this year bringing together women’s rights activists from across the region. When we were discussing what inhibits their work, fear was one of the major factors mentioned.

In addition to all of this, there are simply not enough refuges in the country to which women can go to. Those that exist struggle month by month for survival – and this is a country that has seen so much aid. Why has more of that not been for women?

Before going further, I want to dispel a myth. Often I hear about ‘culture’ and ‘religion.’ ‘It’s not their culture. They’re not like us. We cannot go in and try to turn Afghanistan into Sweden – or Denmark – or Norway.’ It is interesting, isn’t it? We do not hear this about the human rights of men – when we talk about freedom of speech for example – but whenever we talk about women, there is always someone talking about the need to be ‘culturally sensitive.’

In reality, women in Afghanistan had equal voting rights before women in the UK. Women in Afghanistan drafted the 1964 constitution, which provided for equality between women and men. Until the early 1990s, women were teachers, ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and parliamentarians. And, as we have seen from the news this week, Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because she was denied a life-saving abortion as ‘this is a Catholic country.’ ‘Religion’ and ‘tradition’ cut both ways. We cannot let narrow patriarchal interpretations of religion, tradition and culture destroy women’s lives and limit what half the population can and cannot do.

Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, promised that ‘We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before’. Women activists with whom I work fear that this is exactly what is happening, meaning the gains women’s rights activists and their allies have fought to secure will be lost. Nine out of ten women are worried about the Taliban returning to government, believing it would risk what has been achieved for women. Shakila Nadiri who teaches women to drive in Kabul says ‘Just the thought of losing what we have gained is very scary.’

And what is the UK doing? Not nearly enough. The top three things the UK should do on women’s rights in Afghanistan:

1)     Use its influence to support women to be part of peace and transition processes

Women are being shut out of negotiations and discussions about peace and transition. There are 9 women out of the 70 members of the High Peace Council – that’s 1/8 of the members and I hear the women are not part of the discussions that really matter. The international conferences have civil society conferences beforehand but these do not really inform the discussions and the women on the Afghan delegation are not the ones setting the agenda. At the local level, it is no better. The UK can and should do much more to use its influence to ensure women are part of the processes. As a women’s rights activist from Zambia says, ‘when women are not at the table, they are on the menu.’ Women in Afghanistan are not at the table and women’s rights are definitely on the menu.

2)     Work with and protect women human rights defenders

The UK has no system in place to protect women human rights defenders or women in public life. The EU has guidelines on human rights defenders – on what countries can do to prevent and respond to attacks on human rights defenders. This is not being implemented in Afghanistan. Given the attacks of which I spoke about earlier, the fact that the UK has no mechanism in place to protect these women is indefensible.

3)     Fund women activists to deliver services and conduct advocacy and campaign for women’s rights

Women’s rights and well being need to be front and centre of all aid to Afghanistan but the current UK development plan for Afghanistan does not prioritise women’s rights. I have two quick examples for you. As of 2011, the UK did not spend a single penny of its £178m annual Afghanistan reconstruction budget on maternal health. Afghanistan has the highest rate of women dying in childbirth in the world. This is 10 times the number of civilians killed in war. The UK does not spend a penny on maternal health. In order to address violence against women properly, the international community needs to spend at least $90m over 5 years – that is three times the amount currently being discussed. When Bethan and I ask UK officials whether women’s rights will be a priority in the new UK development plan for Afghanistan, we are told this is not likely. Again, so much international money has gone into Afghanistan, why has it not done more to help women?

I want to highlight the vital need to take action. Tahmina Kohistani, athlete and only woman from Afghanistan to compete in the Olympics said that ‘Even if the government has a peace deal, I fear that women will be prisoners once again. I don’t want this and I don’t want the international community to forget us.’ Amnesty, GAPS and other NGOs are launching a campaign action next week to ask the British Ambassador in Kabul to take action to support women human rights defenders. I really hope that you will join us.