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Rights of Afghan women at risk

Equality remains far from inevitable and the modest gains are likely to be lost if the US completely disengages from Afghanistan

Gulf News

A full withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan appears inevitable. Reading and watching news in Washington, I can appreciate the intense focus on the military mission and on the men and women who have sacrificed to help my country. I worry, however, what will happen to Afghanistan after the US military departs. I have found little discussion of Afghanistan’s future or of what will become of US civilian and military efforts to help make the country a better place to live. Like many Afghans, I fear that Afghanistan will once again fall prey to civil and political discord, through either an expansion of the insurgency or a return to warlordism and widespread criminality.

I also worry that the slow progress in women’s rights will falter and may even revert to the norms that existed before 2001. Afghanistan observers are familiar with the litany of depressing facts and statistics that describe the lives and struggles of Afghan women: A 1-in-10 chance of dying during childbirth, chronic poverty, forced starvation for widows and their children, widespread domestic violence, lack of protection in tribal courts and a staggering number of attempted suicides each year. Women in Afghanistan are still bought and sold in specialised markets. With international help, Afghans have achieved significant milestones over the past 10 years. More than 10,000 women are estimated to have started small businesses. Sixty-five women represent constituencies in parliament. A few dozen women have even joined the military. Moreover, an estimated 2.4 million girls are receiving some degree of schooling; several hundreds have made it to college. These steps are all critical, but equality remains far from inevitable. Tragically, these modest gains and other advances are likely to be lost if the US completely disengages from Afghanistan. Women’s rights will be among the first gains revoked as tribal courts reassert their power. Girls will be pulled out of schools. Women’s businesses will be forced to close, first in the provinces and then in Kabul. Female political leadership will disappear.

Much can and needs to be done to promote civil, gender and human rights in Afghanistan. The country needs a strong central government that represents all Afghans. Afghan people need civic participation at the village level that promotes respect for the rule of law. We need strong leaders committed to and able to implement democratic practices and equal rights for women, promote universal education and strengthen border control while stopping trade in drugs. Afghan government institutions must mature. To develop popular respect for national laws, Afghanistan needs strong courts and a justice system that promotes fair outcome at the local level. All of these things would help improve the security situation in Afghanistan and the Afghan economy will grow as the country becomes more secure. But to achieve any of this, Afghanistan needs continued support from the US.

The international community has already helped Afghanistan a great deal. The constitution enshrines many of the universal, democratic values. I hope that as foreign forces withdraw, development groups will remain engaged. As US and coalition military power decreases, a commensurate increase of “civilian power” is necessary to sustain the modest advances of the past decade. Development programmes such as those run by the US Agency for International Development and the United Nations Development Programme could focus on recruiting aid from Afghans abroad. Such measures could help provide the skills and capacity that Afghanistan desperately needs, while speaking of women’s rights — and human rights — with a compelling Afghan voice.

In Afghanistan, most people I have encountered in research and in my daily life are thankful for US and international efforts to modernise the country. We realise that the nature of foreign engagement will change. To evolve towards a society that respects the rights of women and all minority groups, Afghans hope the US will increase support and incentives for programmes geared towards civil and human rights and for those who can come from abroad and set positive examples while speaking with an Afghan voice.

During my time in the US, I have seen the promise that a civil society can hold. I hope that when I return to Afghanistan, citizens of the country will be able to work with US partners to reflect this promise in Afghanistan.

— Washington Post

Afghani Barakzai is a Rumsfeld visiting fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. In Afghanistan, she 
manages the office and special projects at the Central Asia Development Group.