by Kate Hughes
Ten years ago, Afghan women were promised a bright future. After decades of civil war, and repressive Taliban rule, they entered a new era in which they were once again able to work, send their daughters to school, and even stand for parliament. But now these hard-won gains are under threat, and women fear that they will be abandoned as international military forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.
There are now 2.7 million girls in school and women are back at work. But the number of women in the civil service has dropped from 31 percent in 2006 to 18.5 percent in 2010 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women have experienced some form of violence.
When international forces first went into Afghanistan, women’s rights were much discussed. Wives of Western leaders came out publically in support of Afghan women. Notably, Cherie Blair and Laura Bush spoke about the importance of supporting Afghan women. Cherie Blair said our support of Afghan women was vital “so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see.”
Yet, as the conflict has continued and Western nations have become more weary of war, focus has shifted away from women’s rights and towards how and when to bring troops home. Unfortunately, advocates of women’s issues have increasingly struggled to get the funding they need. For example, even though Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with 1 out of 11 women dying in pregnancy or child birth, The Independent reported “Not a single penny of the British government’s £178m (USD284m) annual Afghanistan reconstruction budget is being spent trying to save the tens of thousands of women who die in childbirth.”
Despite increasing challenges for Afghan women, a brave and bold women’s movement is pushing for change. The Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) is a decidedly mobile and active campaigning group that serves as a well-established network for the growing number of women’s organisations operating in the country. AWN has a strong presence in Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad and works through local partners in several Afghan provinces. AWN acts as a network of organisations and undertakes its own projects that address issues such as gender-based violence, youth empowerment, and girls’ education.
“One of the major concerns is the absence of Afghan women in discussions and decisions on peace,” says Samira Hamidi, AWN’s director. “No negotiation or decision can be complete if half the population’s views are ignored.”
In the political sphere, AWN specialises in global advocacy conversations that will shape the country’s future, as well as in-country campaigns. For the 2009 presidential elections, AWN launched the 5 Million Women Campaign that mobilised women to influence the political agenda of different candidates. The campaign did not try to appeal or align itself with any one candidate. Instead it aimed to unite women as a strong voting block and present women’s issues as a vote winner to candidates. To give the campaign a strong visual identity, women wore green scarves edged in red and black stripes (the colours in the flag of Afghanistan), into which they sewed messages such as, “Our vote is our future.” Men joining the campaign wore green caps, edged with red and black.
Another group trailblazing women’s activism in Afghanistan is Young Women for Change (YWC). Founded in April 2011, Young Women for Change is made up of young activists who have grown up in the more liberal Afghanistan of the last 10 years. In many ways YWC are similar to many student-run feminist groups around the world. They focus on educating fellow students about gender inequality and campaign on such issues as violence against women.
This year, marches against street harassment took place all over the world. The Slutwalk movement started out with a march in Canada in April 2011 sparking a global movement of marches against street harassment that spanned America, India, and Europe. Afghan women, lead by YWC also took to the streets in July this year to march against street harassment. This was Afghanistan’s first ever march against violence against women, something that would have been unimaginable, and quite frankly impossible, 10 years ago.
Though their messages and issues may echo feminist issues globally – their campaigning environment is exponentially tougher. One must remember that women in Afghanistan still face acid attacks, violence in the home, and even being killed for working outside the home. This summer, two women in Kandahar were murdered on their way home from their offices precisely for this reason.
Activists globally have an important role in supporting the struggle of Afghan women. For many of us in the West, our countries have contributed troops and millions of dollars in aid each year. On December 5, the international community will meet in Bonn, Germany to chart the course for the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014. This will be a vital opportunity for world leaders to reaffirm their commitment to Afghanistan’s women and girls.
Citizen’s need to stand up and make sure our governments remember the rhetoric of “women’s rights” so trumpeted at the time of international intervention. We need to demand that our governments do not sell out Afghan women for the sake of peace at any price.
To show support of the green scarf that has come to symbolise Afghanistan’s women’s movement, Oxfam and others have launched the “Green scarves for solidarity with Afghan women” campaign. They are calling on people to wear green scarves and upload images to a photo petition. These images will be used to build a photo wall at the Bonn conference, demonstrating the movement of global solidarity with Afghan women.
Aqlima Moradi from YWC in the campaign video sums up the importance of global solidarity by saying “the fight for human rights is something that is everyone’s responsibility.”
Add your face to the photo petition today. It is our responsibility to act.
• Video courtesy of channel16org‘s YouTube Channel. •
About the author:
Kate Hughes is a global campaigner working for Oxfam GB. Kate studied International Relations at both the University of Exeter, UK and EWAH Women’s University, South Korea; specialising in UNSCR 1325. Committed to campaigning on the issue of Women, Peace and Security, Kate has worked on such campaigns as Join me on the Bridge; Run for Congo Women; No Women, No Peace; and Green Scarves for Solidarity with Afghan Women. As well as a passionate commitment to gender equality, Kate is also committed to environmental issues and dreams of being self sufficient one day.