By Reva Dhingra (’14)
Ten years ago, Afghan representatives gathered under UN auspices in Bonn, Germany to piece together an interim government after the removal of the Taliban from power by the United States. This December delegates from Afghanistan and nations worldwide will again meet in Bonn to discuss pressing issues in light of the United States withdrawal, including efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. Amidst this uncertain transition, Afghan women and organizations such as Amnesty International have also raised concerns over the potential impact that reconciliation would have on progress made in regard to women’s rights.[i]
The preservation of women’s rights has been touted as a justification for initial and continued military involvement in Afghanistan. The brutal oppression women suffered under the Taliban has served as an important rallying point for the government and aid organizations alike, tasked with “liberating” Afghan women. Though the resulting positive impact on human rights has been variable, there have been some significant gains. In a survey conducted by relief and development group ActionAid, 72 percent of Afghan women say they have a better life now than during the end of the Taliban regime. Afghanistan currently ranks among the top twenty nations worldwide for number of women holding political office. Approximately 2.2 million female students are currently enrolled in school, exceeding the number during the Taliban’s rule.[ii]
Yet these civil and political gains do not reflect the harsh reality that many Afghan women, especially those living in rural areas, face from lack of access to basic human rights. As Jennifer Heath’s article “What War Has Wrought in Afghan Women’s Lives” notes, “the relentless fighting endured by the Afghan people” remains a formidable barrier to any progress in women’s rights and human rights in general.[iii] According to a 2009 UNICEF report, “decades of conflict and instability have disrupted Afghanistan’s basic health infrastructure,” and the current intervention has done little to ameliorate the effects of this instability. Afghanistan has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with more women dying from causes related to pregnancy or labor than from any other.[iv]
And even as education has improved somewhat, girls continue to represent less than 15 percent of children enrolled in school in southern provinces. This intransigence is mainly a result of the ongoing struggle with the Taliban in these areas, but also due to the often ineffective development policies.[v] Foreign aid for infrastructure remains insufficient and often finds itself at-odds with cultural customs and local needs. In addition, the violence of the conflict makes it difficult for aid to be effectively used to provide better access to healthcare and education. Even more troublesome is the governmental and local corruption that saps foreign aid and undermines progress in women’s rights.
In an interview with PBS in November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that one of the main conditions Washington has asked of the Afghan government during talks with the Taliban is to respect the rights of women and minority groups.[vi] Yet many Afghan women fear the potential willingness of Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government to place women’s rights subordinate to nepotism and so-called stability. And their fears are not unsubstantiated. The government has continually failed to effectively uphold legislation such as the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, with President Karzai actually pardoning three men convicted of gang-rape in 2008.[vii] And on December 1st, Karzai ordered the release of a rape victim convicted of adultery only on the expectation that she would marry her rapist (already married to her cousin).[viii] The government’s inability to adequately protect women’s rights exposes the fragility of current and future progress, which will be put under even more stress during the transition from U.S occupation.
Afghanistan and the international community are faced with what seems to be a catch-22. The United States and NATO intervention cannot and will not go on, due to both political and economic infeasibility and the disastrous impact of unending conflict on the lives of Afghan women and people in general. The need for adequate security, however, is clear: without a degree of stability, it will be impossible for U.S aid organizations and various NGOs to further provide desperately-needed access to basic healthcare and educational facilities. Yet to reach this peace, the government must reach some sort of reconciliation with the Taliban and other mujahedeen forces, which retain a strong influence in the borderlands of Afghanistan. But the continuing oppression of women in these areas and the government’s own track record do not bode well for the future of women’s rights post-reconciliation.