Fiona Hodgson is President of the National Conservative Convention and Chair of the Advisory Group of GAPS (Gender Action for Peace and Security)
“Make sure that there is someone to listen to our voices, to bring to the international community so that no-one forgets us,” implored one of the women I met in Kabul in June. “We cannot trust our government – we look to the international community”.
In 2001, when the UK government and its allies launched the military intervention to oust the Taliban, they pledged to advance women’s rights. So why, ten years later, as ninety delegations from around the world are heading to Bonn for an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, are Afghan women afraid? “I am really worried about Karzai's decisions. If he wants to talk to the Taliban, how can he guarantee our rights?” e-mailed an Afghan women MP to me two weeks ago. Most Afghan women with whom I spoke on my visit echoed these sentiments. They all had enormous concerns about how the transition discussions that are taking place will impact on them: of 1,000 women in Afghanistan surveyed recently, 86% are worried about a return to Taliban style government.
Much has been documented about how terrible life was for women under the Taliban. Women could not go to school, access to healthcare was near impossible, and they could not go out of the house without being accompanied by a male relation, all reflected in the Afghan saying that “A woman’s place is in the home or the grave.” Serious violations of the rights of girls and women continue in areas under Taliban control today and more generally across Afghanistan, women continue to face discrimination and violence. It is considered to be one of the worst places in the world to be a woman where 1 in 11 women die from mostly preventable pregnancy related causes, 1 in 5 children die by the age of 5 and an estimated 87% of women suffer from domestic abuse. Women who are raped may be prosecuted for sex outside marriage and imprisoned, whilst only a couple of weeks ago a mother and her daughter were stoned and shot dead due to accusations of ‘moral deviation and adultery’.
Although I had met many Afghan women here in the UK previously, I had no real idea just how difficult life continues to be for the women in Afghanistan until I visited. It is very uncomfortable simply to walk down the street as a woman. “Everything to do with women is delegitimised– and you are taught to be ashamed about being a woman,” I was told by one of the brave Young Women for Change.
However, ten years later, there is also a more positive story to tell and some real gains have been made. Women are able to work outside their homes, the constitution grants women and men equal legal status, there are laws to end violence against women and 27% of MPs are women. There have also been advances in healthcare, education and access to justice. For example, last week during his visit to London Mr. Farooq Wardak, the Afghan Education Minister, told us that 2.5 million girls are now enrolled in school.
There has been so much bloodshed in Afghanistan. The UN estimates that there has been 1,462 civilian deaths in first six months of 2011 and nearly half a million people are internally displaced. Critically, for us here in the UK, it has been so heart breaking to have lost so many of our wonderful servicemen and women, with many more left seriously wounded by the conflict. One of those killed, 51-year-old senior aircraftman Gary Thompson, said in an interview before he went on his last tour of duty: "I want women in Afghanistan to have the same opportunities my daughters have had." The gains made in Afghanistan, including progress on women’s rights, have been so hard fought for. We all have a duty to try and ensure that these gains so painfully made can remain.
Whilst President Karzai has included 13 women (out of a delegation of 40) in his delegation to Bonn, international pressure needs to remain to ensure we do not see any repeat of past compromises on women’s rights. For example, in 2009, President Karzai approved the Shia Personal Status Law, which in its original form legalised marital rape, ahead of the presidential elections in exchange for the support of Shia hardliners. At Bonn, women’s rights cannot be up for negotiation in this way.
There is overwhelming public and parliamentary backing for the UK to use its influence to support the work of the wonderful women’s rights activists of Afghanistan. Last week, 81 parliamentarians stood in front of kites made by activists to show their support for women’s rights in Afghanistan. The past few months has seen an unprecedented coming together of NGOs in support of the Afghan Women’s Network. The joint campaign run by GAPS, Amnesty International, CARE, Oxfam GB, Womankind Worldwide and Women for Women International led to solidarity vigils being held across the country and gathered almost 22,000 signatures petitioning William Hague urging him to act for Afghan women Moreover, a recent YouGov poll found that 74% of the British public agree women’s rights should not be sacrificed in search of peace in Afghanistan.
As one Afghan women told me recently, “the question is who will guarantee that from all the blood shed that all we have earned – that the freedom of education, the freedom of speech will not be broken under the Taliban – we need some guarantee, some collateral that those freedoms won’t go from Afghanistan.” The cost of the intervention has been high. All governments, at Bonn and beyond, have a duty to ensure the gains made so painfully remain. As William Hague stated last year “No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met – not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices are heard.” Peace is everyone’s priority but peace and security needs to be for the whole nation. It is crucial that the UK uses its influence to make sure women’s voices are heard, before, during and after these talks and that women’s rights are not negotiable.