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A Long Decade of Progress
There has been remarkable progress in the lives of Afghan women over the last long decade, with a number of legal reforms, new policies, and practical measures set forth to advance women’s rights and uality of life. Over the past few years, 28% of Afghan parliament seats have been filled by women. School enrolment of Afghan girls is now 38% of the total. The Afghan Ministry of Health reports a huge decline in the maternal mortality rate, from 1600 to 460 per 100,000 women. Women civic groups have spread all over the country, advocating women’s rights, organizing and training women to take part in business and in politics, holding the government and international donors accountable - both collectively and independently. The Afghan Women’s Network alone has 120 women groups, from all 34 provinces, as members.
Despite all this progress, the achievements remain fragile, and there are many gaps that necessitate continued commitment rather than over-optimism. There are many challenges ahead for maintaining the momentum and finding ground for pragmatic implementation of the commitments made, as well as sustaining the achievements of the past.
After a long-drawn presidential election process, Afghanistan is finally experiencing a peaceful democratic transfer of power. Simultaneously, the Afghan Government is renewing its relation with the international community of states, through signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, engaging in the NATO Summit and the upcoming London Donor Conference.
While Afghan women look positively at the progress of the past years, many questions and concerns remain. How will the new government ensure women’s participation in the governance structure while managing the expectations for posts by multiple parties under the umbrella of the new Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) is an umbrella organization of 120 women-led civil society NGOs and over 3000 individual women members National Unity Government? How will the unity government protect women’s rights and all those articles pertaining to human rights and gender equity in the 2004 Constitution under the inevitable constitutional reform process over the coming two years? What is the political will of the Afghan government and international partners to focus on shifting the role of Afghan women from home producers and subordinates in the informal economy to management and being in control of their own businesses? Furthermore, while women’s participation in peace processes is affirmed through commitment to the National Action Plan on Women Peace and Security (UNSCR 1325), how meaningful a role will there be for women in upcoming peace talks? And even more importantly, how will the international community partner with the government and the people of Afghanistan in the coming years to safeguard the achievements of the past decade and keep up the momentum of positive
change for Afghan women?
The Afghan Women’s Network
The Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), building on close to 20 years of struggle, advocates for continued international support for women of Afghanistan past the 2014 transition. In the last 13 years, there has been significant progress at the policy level. In the coming years Afghan women need focused support for implementation of NAPWA (the 10 year National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan), as well as for the implementation of the EVAW law (Elimination of Violence Against Women), addressing the continuous abuse against women compounded by years of conflict, an absence of effective law enforcement, and prevailing corruption. The articles specific to women’s rights in the Constitution of Afghanistan, which has been set forth to honor women’s struggle over the years, need to be safeguarded in the process of constitutional reforms. The national gender machineries need to be shielded from political power games, but should be staffed by strong leaders that can formulate gender sensitive national level policies, as well as effectively monitor women’s rights and their participation in national development. AWN appreciates the role of Norway, the United States, and other international allies for their commitment to keeping the Agenda on Afghan Women alive with hosting the symposium in Georgetown in November 2013, followed now by the Symposium on Women’s Rights and Empowerment in Oslo. Women in peace negotiations: There has been improvement in women’s participation in peace processes with the Government of Afghanistan developing a National Action Plan and women serving in parts of the current peace structure. AWN believes that the only way to ensure that women’s concerns are fully reflected in peace negotiations is for women to directly participate in them. The inclusion of women in negotiations should go hand in hand with a consultative mechanism, which provides input to the negotiating teams, where women have full oversight of the peace negotiations and during peace implementation.
Secure female political leadership by maintaining quota: Political quota has proven to be a very effective tool for ensuring minimum female representation in political decision-making bodies, and ought to be maintained, with minimum 25% as is currently the case for parliamentary elections. Quotas should be implemented at all levels, from the national parliament, via provincial councils and district councils, to the community level.
Recruit more women to the government administration by adopting threshold figures: The share of women within the administration, at all levels, is far below satisfactory, and progress has proven slow. AWN believes it is necessary to adopt ambitious thresholds for the share of women, with a clear timeline, and to adopt affirmative action measures to ensure women get the opportunity to enter government jobs. This is important at all levels, and in all sectors of the government, but AWN wants to emphasize that fostering job opportunities in the security sector is particularly critical.
Ensure economic empowerment for all through variegated approaches:
Women’s participation in business is far too limited, and, when women are active in business, given little notice. Programs to foster economic empowerment are therefore of crucial importance. With enormous variety in women’s education, skills, interests and opportunities, it is important to develop a wide menu of supportive measures that are effective in helping different women realize their specific potential.
Maintain focus on basic education for all: The new access to basic education for girls since 2001 is a sea-change. Securing future access for girls at high levels is important, while at the same time continuing to work on improving the quality of basic education, though the training of qualified teachers (women and men), and through improving the curriculum (with a particular emphasis on gender-sensitivity across all subject areas).
Improve access to higher education and leadership training: The expansion of the Afghan university sector has gone hand in hand with improved access of women to higher education, particularly in the urban centers. Considering the uneven situation throughout the country, with limited access to higher education in remote provinces, it is a huge challenge for young women to reach secondary education. There is a need for focus on leadership development of these vast groups of young women through programs such as PROMOTE to widen the definition of leadership and to include young women in distant provinces who can be change-makers in their communities. This widened focus on Afghan women leadership will require attention to the serious shortcomings in higher education regarding teacher qualifications, pedagogical quality, curriculum and literature, and the fairness of grading.
Strengthen women’s access to health services: The massive expansion of the health system, with basic health centers as well as clinics and hospitals, represents another major achievement of the post-2001 era. Despite incomparable improvements in maternal health, mortality when giving birth, and child mortality, Afghanistan still lags far beyond most other countries. Much can be done by simple measures - basic health education, advice and follow-up (particularly during pregnancy) and access to midwives - as long as programs are countrywide within reach of all.
Intensify the battle against sexual harassment: Widespread practices of sexual harassment - such as derogatory remarks or gestures - make women feel insecure and powerless. Sexual harassment prevents many from attending education, taking a job, or running a business. Overcoming sexual harassment ultimately requires many men to change their attitudes to what constitutes acceptable behavior. AWN proposes that a code of conduct and a complaints mechanism should be in place in all education institutions and work places, addressing sexual harassment of women in a sensitive manner. The purpose is to enable women to continue education and career-building in government and private institutions.
Scale up support for victims of domestic violence: There is little doubt that domestic violence is widespread in Afghanistan, and that very few of the victims ever get the support that they deserve. The ideal solution to domestic violence is to address it early, so that it can be handled within the family. Yet, there is a need for enhanced capacity - both in the form of legal counseling, women’s shelters, and protection programs - for dealing with cases of a serious and systemic nature.
All legal reforms to be fully anchored in consultations with civil society:
Virtually all legal reforms have an impact on women’s rights and their opportunities for empowerment. Legal reform is ultimately the prerogative of the cabinet and the parliament, yet it is important to ensure mechanisms are in place so that all suggested legal reforms are thoroughly assessed for their gendered impacts, with ample space and time given to public debate and to consultations within civil society.
Implement robust monitoring systems: All government plans and proposals ought to be specific about their intended impact on the rights and the participation of women. Effective monitoring is contingent on credible baseline data that capture the situation at the outset. Monitoring systems ought to strike a sensible balance between the need, on the one hand, to be sufficiently comprehensive to give a representative depiction of trends, while, on the other hand, being sufficiently simple to stimulate an informed public debate.
Institutionalize a bi-annual symposium on women’s situation: Inspired by the Oslo Symposium on Women’s Rights and Empowerment, the AWN would suggest that an event - with the aim to take stock of progress made, and discuss ways forward - is being held every second year, with the full participation of the Government of Afghanistan, Afghan civil society, and key international stakeholders. By institutionalizing an event of this nature, we ensure that women’s concerns continue to receive the necessary attention, and that all stakeholders remain committed to this important agenda.
Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) is an umbrella organization of 120 women-led civil society NGOs and over 3000 individual women members