Where is the Freedom for Afghan Women?

In 2001 as the impending invasion of Afghanistan beat like a drum through the newly traumatized nation then President George W. Bush declared the liberation of Afghan women as a primary goal of the war. While the current U.S. and Afghanistan governments continue to work to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the eight-year-old promise to help relieve the oppression of women and girls has largely gone unmet.

During his address last week at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama relayed several military goals and a commitment to law and order. But he did not mention women and girls. This week Human Rights Watch released the report "We have the Promises of the World," chronicling the oppressive conditions women and girls continue to face in Afghanistan.

The Karzai government will now work with Taliban fighters who are willing to give up violence and support the efforts of the Afghan government. "Women have concerns about reconciliation with Taliban but their priority is peace. What is needed is honest discussion about what reconciliation agreements mean for women," said Rachel Reid, researcher for Human Rights Watch and co-author of this weeks report. Reid went on to say, "Women want to be apart of the conversation. They want to be engaged because they bear the biggest cost."

Similarly, both the U.S. and Afghan administrations have committed to support local tribal leaders in establishing militias in rural areas to police the Taliban. "In the past local militias given guns and money have disappeared or committed human rights abuses themselves or they start polarizing with another group," Reid said.

But Reid, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than two years, said sometimes there is little difference in the mindset of the Taliban, tribal leaders or the parliament when it comes to the rights of women and girls.

"In the Jirgess or traditional councils where Afghans go if there is a crime or they have a complaint, a girl can be given as compensation for the crime, it's called baad. Girls are traded like property," Reid said. The entrenched cultural norms take time to change. "Many organizations are on a six month to one year funding cycle. This will take a generation to change," she said. While Reid was disappointed that President Obama's address did not mention women's needs she said the U.S. congress has approved programs for women and girls.

Sivanka Dhanapala, a senior regional coordinator for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), said "Some women find the situation intolerable because of forced marriage at a young age. Some set themselves on fire as an attempt to escape." Because of that, he added, there is a special burn unit in a hospital in the province of Hera.

While on paper President Hamid Karzai's government promises the equality of women and men in Article 22 of the Constitution, many argue the situation on the ground does not reflect that commitment. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women's (UNIFEM) gender development index Afghan women are second to last in the entire world.

Many young women are forced into marriages some before the legal age of 16. The controversial Shia Personal Status Law that received international attention in April of 2009 was often referred to in the international media as the rape law. It mandated women have sex with their husbands every fourth night. The law was amended and signed by president Karzai in July of this year. It now states that women cannot leave their homes without the permission of their husbands or fathers, that custody of children will be given to fathers and grandfathers, and their husbands can refuse food to women if they refuse to oblige their husbands sexually.

"The Shia Personal Status Law sets a terrible precedent. The law reflects the realities of many women's lives but it doesn't mean you take customary law and enshrine as state law. It just makes it harder for women." Reid said.

Currently, there is one female minister in the government, the minister of women's affairs. Over the past few years, women in public life have come under severe threat. Lt. Col. Malalai Kakar was the highest-ranking female police officer. She was shot on her way to work in 2008. Similarly, Sitara Achakzai a member of a provincial council and respected local leader was shot in 2009.

In both incidents the Taliban claimed responsibility but there has not been an arrest in either case. The murders and threats often have a ripple affect for women in Afghanistan, which contributes to a culture of fear and intimidation. This extends into the Afghan refugee population in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. "Afghan women living in Iran would rather stay in Iran than return to Afghanistan because they have access to education and can work in Iran," Dhanapal said.

"Not all the news is bad. One of the more heartening aspects is the opening of many girls schools," said Dhanapala. He went on to say, "when you drive through the countryside and see girls going to school in their bright uniforms it gives you hope to persevere." Senzil Nawid, author and scholar on Afghan women, said the women of Afghanistan are incredibly resilient. "If security is improved the women will bounce right back," Nawid said.

Nawid points out that the cultural oppression of women began when the Afghan communist parties overthrew the first Afghan president in 1978. At that point a bloody civil war ensued. "Women were the victims, they were treated horribly under the radical Marxists regimes and the Mujahadeen forces," Nawid Said. She went on to say that orphaned young men were trained in Pakistan and part of the training was based in Pashtun and Wahhabist Islamic traditions. These customs forbid women from working outside the home or pursuing formal education.

"The Obama administration has to address the corruption within the Afghan government. The culture of impunity needs to be tackled. It's a huge factor in the rise of the insurgencies," Reid said. Over the next few weeks President Karzai will be appointing ministers and cabinet people. "The government has lost credibility. We have to be very watchful in terms of the appointments," Dhanapal said. McChrystal and President Obama have stressed the training of Afghan security forces and the rule of law. Yet, according to Reid the police force is poorly trained. "They do not have enough civilian law enforcement training they are trained as paramilitary troops really. They have to know the law to enforce it," she said.

Nawid said President Karzai is in a difficult position. "He started the country from scratch. There was nothing, no army, no educational institutions, no economy or civil servants," she said. While assuring the international community that he wants equality for women through commitments like the millennium development goals that state "achievement of primary education for everyone and the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women." But President Karzai's actions and desire to retain Shia support appear to contradict these goals.

While the situation that women face is profoundly challenging, they continue to speak out in spite of threats. Reid shared a story about a 13-year-old girl who ran away from the man she was forced to marry. Through a series of unbelievable and courageous steps, the young woman ended up at a safe house in the capital Kabul. While the parliament, local leaders and her husband's family demanded she go back, the girl refused. Reid said her actions are threatening because it's a young woman standing up for herself. "She told me she met with the president who told her it was safe to go back to her husband's family. She said she told him 'if you think it's safe why don't you send your wife or one of your children." Reid finds great hope in the courage of this young woman whose attempt to demand her rights have not come from outside Western influence. "She knows her rights and is fighting for them," Reid said.

It is hard to know how the Obama administration will support women's rights in Afghanistan, as there has been little public attention to the matter. Reid said that sustained work by local Afghan NGO's is essential. "The biggest question in Afghanistan, is if you have a willing partner in the Afghan government," Reid said.

Charity Tooze is a freelance journalist currently producing a documentary about Iraqi refugees. Previously she produced a television series by and for young women, www.ritesofpassage.tv.