Afghanistan has lost another woman leader. Last week, Hanifa Safi — head of women’s affairs in Laghman province — had gone only a few metres from home when her car was blown up. Apparently a magnetic bomb was placed under the car, targeting Safi and her family. Her children, injured in the attack along with several other people, are now left orphaned as both Safi and her husband died in the attack.
The targeting of Afghan women in government positions is not a new phenomenon. Safia Amajan held the same position as Safi in Kandahar. Sitara Achakzai was a provincial council member. Malalai Kakar was provincial chief of female police in Kandahar. A number of women aid workers, whose names and identities are not recorded, have also been murdered.
In the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtonkhwa province of Pakistan a young woman aid worker, Farida Afridi, was similarly targeted earlier this month for her work on women’s rights.
Sadly, the Afghan government does almost nothing about such incidents apart from condemning them; there is rarely any serious effort to catch the perpetrators. In some cases, attempts are made to blame the killings on “personal disputes” or “family hostility”, or to imply some moral justification — in Safi’s case, that she “had been known locally for going out without her head covered”.
However, it is very important to understand what role women like Safi play on the ground. Politically, she was the most senior female representative of the Afghan government in women’s affairs at a provincial and sub-national level.
In that position, she was involved in a continuous struggle to defend the rights of women who were targets of violent acts. This puts a woman like Safi in a critical and socially sensitive position because she is struggling against social norms or harmful traditional practices that clash with the Afghan constitution and laws.
The official reaction to Safi’s killing contrasts sharply with that in northern Samangan province last week when a male MP and a number of civilians were targeted. President Karzai announced “an all-out investigation” into the attack. This raises the question of whether the government is serious about women’s rights, or whether it is only interested in showing them off for the international donor community?
It is crucial that the government of Afghanistan should move beyond slogans about women’s rights and ensure their protection in real life. Merely offering condolences to the families of the slain is not going to change much.
I had an opportunity to meet Safi and her colleagues from Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan during one of their workshops in Jalalabad a few weeks ago. These are exceptionally brave women who take great risks to not only secure other women’s lives, but do so in circumstances where their own safety and security is minimal. Safi shared concerns about her own safety when she said: “There is no guarantee about our safety and security when we implement rules in accordance with our laws. I deal with cases of violence against women on a daily basis, yet I don’t even have any protection, or my office vehicle to move around with. The central authorities always speak too much but do nothing to protect us.
“We defend other women’s rights but no one is there to defend our rights.”
Razia, another woman working in a government post in the country’s volatile east, said: “Our own male colleagues at the provincial government do not believe in our work. They say women should sit at home, yet I tell them, ‘If we all go sit at home, how are you going to manage cases where your own daughter runs away from violence in her family? Would you want her to go to other men or police to complain?’ Then they give no answer, so we continue in our work.”
Regardless of the fact that women working in government positions are targeted for political reasons or for protecting women and girls who become victims of harmful traditional practices, the government of Afghanistan should launch an immediate investigation into Safi’s assassination.
The government and its supporters should also listen to female defenders of women’s rights across the country who take the risk of their lives to work in the public offices. Listening to their needs and finding practical mechanisms to protect women working for public offices will be certainly one way of gaining trust in Afghanistan’s future.