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By Saira Zuberi and Shareen Gokal
June 2013 marked the handover of security from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops are preparing for their final withdrawal from Afghanistan next year after more than a decade of occupation. The growing concerns of women's and human rights groups and observers both within and outside the country over the transition process are well-documented. In the approach to the handover, there has been an escalation of violence with women and children the primary casualties. While both occupying forces and insurgents have been responsible for injury and loss of civilian life, the insurgents have been at the forefront of the most recent violence.
Worrying news of attacks against women in high profile and leadership positions, girls schools [1, 2, 3] and women and girls in the family and public sphere, and against what hard-won gains have been made in recent years is on the increase. While in 2012 civilian casualties were lower than they had been for 6 previous years, a UN report on the subject found that there was a 20% increase in the numbers of women and girls killed or injured during the last year.
Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving the lives of women and girls are also being targeted. For instance, the landmark 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended by a proposed revision to criminal laws, which would prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they have witnessed. This follows a series of efforts to weaken the law, including a recent debate in the lower house where some parliamentarians called for eliminating the minimum marriage age, abolishing women's shelters, and removing criminal penalties for rape and VAW.
Furthermore, quotas provided for in the Electoral Law which had set aside 25-30% of seats in the lower house, provincial and district councils for women candidates were threatened to be cut out entirely, but then were recently decreased to 20%; the proposed changes await review. Mary Akrami, executive director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, fears, the "fragile achievements made in regard to women's rights in [this] highly patriarchal society are faced with major challenges."
Speaking of her anecdotal observations, Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women Peace and Security in Afghanistan, notes that at the first Women Peace and Security Forum held in December 2012, less than 50% of the 30 women attending came with a mahram (a close male relative with whom marriage is precluded), but at the second forum in early July 2013, every single woman came with a mahram, stating that the security situation for women has changed. As Wazhma notes, this signals "there [are] more restrictions on women's mobility, personal attacks, assassinations, murders and intimidating women to leave their jobs, and in some provinces, the religious groups already started issuing fatwas to ban women travelling without a mahram from the house."
In the meantime, the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar and the announcement of direct US-Taliban talks, notwithstanding their eventual cancellation, show that the process of legitimizing the Taliban as an acceptable partner in peace-building is well under way. This formal acceptance of the political resurgence of the Taliban along with the fact that many of the leaders in the Afghan government are also warlords and war criminals poses a challenging backdrop for the transition process ahead.
Caught between foreign occupation, a corrupt government, warlords and the Taliban insurgents for more than a decade, it is crucial that the inclusion and meaningful participation of women be made non-negotiables in the transition process and in any discussions of peace and security. As former Afghan MP Malalai Joya so emphatically reminds us "only nations that liberate themselves can be free". There remains a wide chasm between the cynical geopolitical and military interests of the US and NATO forces, the human rights violations committed by the occupiers, and the empty rhetoric of liberation, democracy and women's rights.
But it remains to be seen what freedom from occupation will bring in the near future; whether it will open up the space for domestic activism and democratic self-determination as some are hoping, or continue to heighten insecurity, violence (particularly for women), and destroy any fragile gains in rights made in the last decade. What is clear is that there needs to be sustained pressure from activists inside Afghanistan with support from the international community to ensure that issues of peace and security as defined by Afghan women themselves are finally given the priority they urgently need as the country enters into this uncertain and undoubtedly challenging phase.
* Former Afghan MP Malalai Joya
--Saira Zuberi and Shareen Gokal work with the Challenging Religious Initiative at the Association for Women's Rights in Development