A few kilometres north of Kabul, a 22-year-old woman collapsed to the ground. The man with an AK-47 gun continued to shoot as the crowd in the background chanted, “Long live the Mujahideen.”
The Chicago Summit Declaration on Afghanistan issued by the Heads of State, Government of Afghanistan and Nations contributing to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is clear on the ‘importance of full participation of all Afghan women in the reconstruction, political, peace and reconciliation processes in Afghanistan.’ More recently, the Tokyo Declaration ratified on July 8, emphasised that ‘the equality of men and women, enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, will be key to achieving a more pluralistic society in Afghanistan.’
However, there was no mention of targeted commitments or projects to tackle violence against women and ensure progress, in either of the conferences. Nor was a specific budget allotted for this purpose. With such a plan in place, the future of Afghan women seems more uncertain than ever.
According to Shama, a female student at the University of Kabul, Afghan women face hardships throughout their lives. “A woman is trapped. As a child, when she is just 13or 14 she is given off in a forced marriage, mostly in exchange for money. Her husband beats her but she can’t run away or seek a divorce as it will then turn her into an outcast in the society and her children will be taken away from her. So instead, she burns herself or commits suicide,” she says. The average life expectancy for a woman in Afghanistan lingers at a meager 44 years – one of the lowest in the world.
The nature of this latest video casts many doubts on the future of Afghanistan. While there is no denying that more Afghan girls are attending schools than before, the female mortality rate has gone down to a record low and more women are employed today than they were in 2001; these progressions have been extremely measured. The work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations has been pivotal in the last decade, however, these bodies are presently working under ‘war conditions’ and with the foreign troops leaving in 2014, it remains to be seen whether the progress of Afghan women would continue to be a top priority.
“This is deep-seated issue and cannot be erased in a matter of years. Before the Taliban rule, half of the working population of Afghanistan comprised women. We were encouraged to go to school and pursue higher studies. In 1996, suddenly I could no longer go to college without a male family member. Women who were doctors and teachers were forced by circumstances to be beggars and even prostitutes. Although the restrictions were lifted in 2001, the damage was done in those five years. Since then, in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all, ” Shama explains.
The Afghan social structure has been vehemently dominated by religious extremism and tribal nepotism. After a decade of reform, the ideology remains strong. A major step was taken by the Afghan government in support of women’s equality by enacting the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) in 2009. The EVAW law defines 22 different forms of violence against women and punishments for persons found guilty of committing such acts. Judicial officials in many parts of the country have begun to apply the law but its use represents a very small percentage of how the government addresses cases of violence against women.
According to official data, EVAW is most widely implemented in the cities of Herat and Kabul and least in Kunar and Logar. A possible reason for low reporting of violence against women in these border zone cities may be the influence of the Taliban with their oppressive ideology towards women. The reach of the central government in these regions is limited which restricts the availability of civic services such as schools, hospitals, courts, and police forces, compared to the rest of the country. Support programs for victims of domestic violence are lesser in number than in other cities as both local and international non-governmental organisations find it more difficult and dangerous to work in these areas.
“Women in Afghanistan are very humble and religious. In the beginning when I came here, there were no women to be seen in bazaars or on the street. Now they are getting trained to take up positions in the Afghan National Police (ANP). Foreign organisations have also employed more women as victims tend to open up to them better. But even now no comparison can be created between them and women in the west,” explains a British soldier deployed in Herat, indicating that there is a long way to go for Afghan women to enjoy the same freedom as women elsewhere in the world.