The October 2001 US-led international intervention to oust the oppressive Taleban regime was accompanied by a pledge by the Afghan government to protect women’s human rights and promote gender equity in Afghanistan, but eight years on the condition of Afghan women remains bleak as Shahla’s predicament testifies.
There have been some advances in respect for women’s rights since the fall of the Taleban, notably through the establishment of the Ministry for Women’s affairs, a constitution that grants women equal status to men, improved access to education and representation of women in parliament. But Afghan women and girls still face endemic violence, including domestic violence, abduction and rape by armed individuals, trafficking, forced marriages, including ever younger child marriages, and being traded in settlement of disputes and debts.
A small number of brave women human rights defenders dare challenge the status of women and promote human rights through a variety of activities such as reporting abuses by local warlords, running safe houses, raising awareness of child and forced marriages and providing education programmes and family planning services.
These courageous women frequently face intimidation and attacks, particularly by powerful elements in society, some of them members of the government, others allied with the Taleban and other anti-government forces. In some cases, these women even suffer attacks from their family members who may be politically opposed or embarrassed by their outspokenness. In many instances women human rights defenders have faced death threats and kidnapping attempts against themselves and their families, as well as physical attacks, including acid attacks. Some have fled the country while others have been killed for raising their voice.
In 2007, Zakia Zaki, director of Radio Peace in Parwan province and known to be vocal against warlords, was shot dead while sleeping aside her two young sons. Zaki had previously received several death threats after criticising local warlords and the Taleban. No one to date has been brought to justice for this terrible crime.
Laila, a human rights defender working on justice for victims of war crimes told Amnesty International: "Since 2007, I have been under systematic pressure by unknown people who were calling me, sending me emails, following me and threatening to kill me. During the first six months of 2008, there were at least two kidnapping attempts on my children on their way home from school."
A lack of political will, together with discrimination against women in both the formal and informal justice systems, reinforces a climate of impunity and entrenches cultural attitudes and abusive practices that repress women’s rights. The police, the courts and local jirgas (tribal councils) seldom address women’s complaints and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice for attacking women or violating their rights.
Although Afghanistan has signed the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and its Constitution guarantees equal rights for women and men, the government – along with the international community that provides some 90% of Afghanistan’s income for public spending – has failed to ensure that the human rights of all Afghan women and girls are respected, protected and fulfilled.
As a genuine step to advance the status of Afghan women, the government must take immediate and effective measures to ensure that human rights defenders are able to play their vital role in promoting and protecting human rights in Afghanistan, without the fear of violence or intimidation.
To mark International Women's Day, take action to demand that women human rights defenders are properly protected in Afghanistan.