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Afghan Women: The Struggle for Rights

Struggle for Rights

By Nisha Varia

Published in The World Today

Images of long lines of Afghan women patiently waiting to cast their votes in last October’s presidential election, and the candidacy of a female doctor for president, seem vividly to symbolise the progress of women since the fall of the Taliban just over three years ago. The images of hope are not wholly misleading. Large numbers of women participated as voters, poll workers, and civic educators in many parts of the country. However, the real test – for women’s rights, and for Afghanistan itself – lies ahead, with local and parliamentary elections. This time women will run for office in greater numbers, and the rule of local warlords will be at stake as never before.

The parliamentary and local elections, to be held later this year carry a greater risk of violence, vote-buying, and intimidation, with intense jockeying for control over districts and provinces. Given the slow pace of disarmament and demobilisation and the continued security vacuum, the omens are mixed, at best. From attacks on girls’ schools to death threats, violence against women remains routine.

The areas with the most Taliban and insurgent activity continue to be particularly hostile to women’s rights. The insecurity and attacks have prevented many aid projects in the south and south-east. Thus, in Zabul province, only one percent of seven to twelve year-old girls attends primary school. In Uruzgan province, only two percent of those who cast their ballots in the presidential election were women.

Facing Danger

In theory, women’s political rights are clearly outlined in the new constitution. It guarantees men and women equal rights and duties before the law, and reserves a quarter of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, for women. One-sixth of the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga, is also reserved for women, by presidential appointment.

In practice, things look very different. Independent candidates face violent retaliation if they run campaigns advocating justice and women’s rights. The worry is that the only women who will feel safe enough to stand will be compliant daughters, sisters and wives of local commanders, or other proxies, who promise to toe the party line.

Women still struggle to participate in the country’s evolving political institutions. This is not just a question of social expectations, or about the conservatism of Afghan society, it is to do with power. Those who put their heads above the parapet powerfully describe the dangers that they face. From Kabul to Kandahar to Herat, women talk of how the failure of disarmament and the continued dominance of regional warlords threatens their ability to work and speak freely.

Women aid workers, government officials, and journalists face harassment, violent attacks, and death threats. Those who challenge the powerful, conservative elements of the country’s political structures are targeted because they can be made into chilling examples for other women considering political activity.

Last June, gunmen fired into the home of a women’s rights activist who had spoken publicly about sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence against girls. The bullets missed her by inches. ‘To fear losing your life,’ she told me, ‘is part of living in this country.’

One organisation was forced to close a project that provided classes for internally displaced women in the central Panjshir region. Two armed men declared: ‘We don’t want to see you here again or else you risk your lives’. The provincial government could not provide safety guarantees. In the words of one staff member: ‘Nothing worked. We felt we had lost’.

In the north a woman working for a literacy programme was repeatedly threatened by local strongmen. They told her: ‘We will kill you as an example to other women’. A magazine editor says she has been threatened many times, but has not even reported the threats, because to do so would be pointless. ‘If I want to report it, what can [the government] do? Nothing at all.’

The pervasive mood of fear, and the lack of accountability for perpetrators of violence, could seriously undermine women’s participation in the elections. These are not isolated examples, I talked to more than eighty women from around the country considering running for office. Almost all say they expect warlords and dominant political factions to intimidate them through violence or threats if they decide to become candidates.

Some say they will not run because they are afraid for themselves and their families. These fears of harassment are often reinforced by previous threats women faced during the emergency and the constitutional Loya Jirga grand councils, or in their everyday work. As one female community leader in northern Afghanistan said, ‘Most of the women who are running have connections with [General Rashid] Dostum or [Governor Mohammed] Atta. Their men will come at night and make problems for my family so it’s not possible [to run for parliament]. I have to sit quiet’.

Others are determined to be candidates – but are clear about the risks. One woman told me: ‘I am sure, 100 percent, [military factions] will make problems for me. I will try, what else can we do? For five years, they should take us hostage? If they kill me, no problem, but I will run for parliament’.

Warlords Remain

Part of the underlying problem is that many of the men who replaced the Taliban share the same views on women that made the Taliban so notorious. But another key reason is that the United States and its allies have helped prop up regional warlords and their factions – many with atrocious human rights records– in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. These warlords have had a chokehold on regional and local governments.

There has been no coherent strategy for helping President Hamid Karzai remove the warlords from power and replace them with civilians loyal to the central government. The replacement of General Mohamed Qasim Fahim as defence minister in Karzai’s new cabinet, is welcome. However, the president failed to appoint women to powerful cabinet posts, relegating them to traditional roles overseeing ministries for women and young people. And at the local level, many influential provincial governors – in effect, more militia leaders than civilian governors – remain in place.


NATO leads the international peacekeeping force but has repeatedly failed to muster the necessary resources to expand its presence throughout the country. NATO member states, while in theory acknowledging the security needs, and recently expanding their activities in the East, have not translated this into decisive action. In the meantime, much of the country remains lawless.

Again and again, Afghan women activists identify improvement of the security environment as the most significant step that the government and international actors can take to ensure their freedom to assert political rights without fear of violence. Almost all who talked to Human Rights Watch expressed their dismay at the failure of the disarmament process, the continued dominance of warlords, and the lack of accountability for abuses.

An expansion of NATO-led peacekeeping troops throughout the country and renewed efforts at disarmament could help transform it from the rule of the gun to the rule of law. Instead, Afghanistan remains one of the most poorly funded conflict zones in the world.

The Taliban stripped women and girls of their most basic rights. Banished completely from public life, the slightest infraction could result in arrest or execution. With the fall of that regime at the end of 2001, it seemed such nightmares were a thing of the past. But the pressures on women today are sometimes almost as severe as they were in that brutal era.

Three years ago, the US, Britain, and their allies pledged to support women in their struggle to reclaim their rights, and to provide a supportive environment for them to do so. After decades of conflict, those promises should be kept.

Nisha Varia, who was a recent speaker at Chatham House, is Asia researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, and the author of Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Attacks against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan.

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