"In June 2001, Saira Shah, a British journalist, revealed the horrific lives of many ordinary Afghani women. She was assisted in her efforts by RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She exposed an Afghanistan where women were excluded from jobs and medical care, where education was denied them and where war widows were forced to beg on the streets of Kabul. This was Afghanistan under Taliban rule. On International Women’s Day in 2007, some six years after our invasion, RAWA said that,
“the world came into motion in the name of liberating Afghan women and our country was invaded, but the sorrows and deprivation of Afghan women has not just failed to reduce but has actually increased the level of oppression and brutality”.
UNIFEM, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have many statistics on Afghanistan, and I will share some of them. Some 86 per cent of Afghani women are illiterate; 87 per cent of the Afghan population still believe that a woman needs male authorisation to vote; every 29 minutes a woman dies in childbirth; and 50,000 war widows live in Kabul alone, and many still beg on the streets. The number of girls in secondary school is decreasing; 80 per cent of women face forced marriages; nearly 60 per cent are married before the legal age of 16, despite the 2005 protocol to,
“eliminate child and forced marriage by 2008”.
Sadly, that honourable aim is unlikely to be met by then or at any time in the near future.
I acknowledge that some progress has been made. As we know, 27 per cent of Members of the National Assembly are women, but only one serves in the Cabinet and, sadly, too many are ineffective and subdued. Indeed, in recent provincial council elections, not enough women came forward to take up the women’s quota, resulting in some of the reserved women’s seats reverting to men. I pay tribute to Malalai Joya, a brave and determined young Afghani parliamentarian who more than deserves the international accolades that follow her, but whose life is under constant threat.
Amnesty International writes that,
“women continue to face severe violence both within and outside the house”.
Abduction and rape is widespread, and officials are killed merely for
registering women to vote. An extremely disturbing phenomenon is the
ever increasing number of Afghan women who seek death by fire: women
who are set alight or set themselves alight in sheer desperation. Cases
of self-immolation have doubled in Kabul in the past year alone, and
the situation is even more acute in the city of Herat. Human Rights
Watch believes that contributing factors are severe governmental and
social discrimination, illiteracy and an incompetent justice system.
The pictures alone do not fully describe the plight of these women. It
is a subject close to my heart and one of which I have direct
experience. I chair a women’s empowerment charity, the Savayra
Foundation, which seeks to empower women in Pakistan through education
and training. Sadly, I meet many abused and desperate women, but one in
particular remains vivid in my mind. Aliya, a beautiful 21 year-old
woman, a loving mother of two, was set alight by her husband in her
home in the Pothohar region of Punjab. She presented herself to me with
severe burns and disfigurement from her scalp to her waist. She is a
woman whose children fear her because of her appearance. She is a woman
who simply longs to hug her young son.
Whenever we go to war, we must ensure that our actions leave women
safer and stronger, and we must ensure that never again do we allow
women to be abused on our watch in a country that we have invaded to