In The News

Where will Transition Take Women and Girls in Afghanistan?

December 4, 2013

Like most people I know in Afghanistan, I feel a palpable change that is taking place in our society. But until now, it was hard to really put a finger on what that change is. This year’s 2013 Survey of the Afghan People sheds light on how Afghan’s perceptions are changing: 59 percent of respondents reported that they “fear for personal safety,” the highest ever percentage of fear reported since the Foundation’s survey in 2006. Yet the survey also shows Afghans are showing their true colors of resilience in their optimism that the upcoming presidential elections will make their lives better (56%).

Survey of the Afghan People

Recent events, particularly as the nation gears up for the 2014 election, underscore just how fragile the situation is for women in Afghanistan. Photo/Susan Marx

Women’s participation in politics has increased over the past decade, and has consistently been held up as a major achievement for women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban. There are currently 68 women members in parliament’s lower house, 28 women senators in the upper house, a total of 117 women in all 34 provincial councils, three women ministers, one female governor, a woman director of the Human Rights Commission, a woman director of the Red Crescent, and nine women members of the High Peace Council.

However, recent events, particularly as the nation gears up for the 2014 election, underscore just how fragile the situation is for women. In the last half of 2012, two consecutive Ministry of Women’s Affairs provincial directors were assassinated within months of each other – Hanifa Safi was killed in July in a car bomb attack and Nadia Seddiqi was shot dead in December. In August this year, female parliamentarian Fariba Ahmadi Kakar was kidnapped by Taliban militants. A few days later, the vehicle envoy of female Sen. Roh Gul Khairzad was ambushed, killing her 8-year-old daughter who was inside.

The level of fear when running for public office significantly increased in 2013 compared to previous years of the survey, with women (67%) more afraid of running for public office than men (56%). Indeed, in late November, out of 2,713 provincial candidates registered for the 2014 presidential elections, only 308 are women compared to almost 400 in the last provincial council election of 2010. Out of the 11 presidential candidates, none are women, (although three candidates are running with female vice-presidents, among them Dr. Habiba Surabi the governor of Bamyan and Safiya Sediqi former MP of Nangarhar). The lack of female candidates also seems to be demotivating female voters to register for the upcoming 2014 presidential and provincial elections. Around half (59%) of all survey respondents say they would experience fear when voting, with more women (60%) having fear than men (56%).

Much of this fear stems from uncertainty over the security transition as it unfolds parallel to the political transition in the upcoming elections, and the economic transition as money flowing into the country decreases. With the military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) closing this year, the security transfer has meant more reliance on the fledgling Afghan Local Police (ALP) in the provinces. However, in many provinces the ALP themselves have been the cause of insecurity, especially for women, as cases of harassment, abuse, and kidnapping are increasingly reported. Survey findings also reveal a drop in confidence levels in ALP this year (from 39% last year to 32% this year).

In this context of heightened levels of fear, the big question remains: where will this period of transition take us, the women and girls of Afghanistan? We feel more uneasy on the streets and in our jobs (almost 40% of respondents are against women working), not knowing if our status as equal citizens will continue to be upheld as our international partners pull out and a new government is formed.

The survey shows that this uneasiness is not only isolated to small pockets of volatile regions, but represents a real documented change in perceptions about women that is currently unfolding across Afghanistan. The survey shows that people’s perceptions are trending toward conservatism: this year, fewer people agree that women should have the right to work (64%), to decide for themselves who to vote for (53%), equal representation of men and women in political leadership (44%), and equal opportunity for men and women in education (84%) than in past years.

This year, we also witnessed an unprecedented public polarization among women when parliament sent the law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) back to the review committees. The EVAW law, signed by the president in 2009, was a landmark achievement for girls and women in Afghanistan that criminalized rape and set punishments for domestic violence and forced marriage. However, MP Fawzia Koofi, head of the women’s commission, presented the law to parliament in May in hopes that it would be passed. After a heated debate the parliament instead sent the law back to all 18 review committees to ensure it was in line with Afghan laws and Shariah. Instead of looking for ways to come together and improve the EVAW law, women from the right wing political Islamist movement, Jamiat e Islah, publically denounced it as anti-Islamic in demonstrations in Kabul on June 12. Rising fears that religious leaders would water down the law pushed other women to demonstrate two weeks later against making any changes to the law. During this time, conservative male parliamentarians took the opportunity to take out the 25 percent women’s provincial council quota from the elections law and sent it to the lower house without female parliamentarians and activists realizing until it had been changed before it had been passed. Luckily this was caught before the upper house passed their vote and a 20 percent quota was renegotiated back into the law with an unfortunate loss in the end of 21 quota seats for women.

Nevertheless, the fact that nearly a third of the presidential candidates are running with a female vice president, coupled with high levels of optimism expressed about the next government, gives reason for cautious optimism. Let’s hope this optimism in the face of a fragile transition prevails.

Palwasha Kakar is the director for Women’s Empowerment and Development Programs in The Asia Foundation’s Afghanistan office and co-author of the 2013 Survey of the Afghan People. She can be reached at pkakar@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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