Groups of women throughout Afghanistan wore blue headscarves on Sunday, March 8, 2009, to show support for women’s rights and celebrate International Women’s Day. President Hamid Karzai spoke in Kabul and called on Afghan religious leaders to end violence against women and reject the traditional customs that treat women as property. Similarly, Afghan women gathered for the 53rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations taking place March 2nd to 13th reported progress in the rights of Afghan women. While recognizing improvements in the lives of Afghan women, a significant struggle for basic human rights for women remains.
The Taliban government ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. During that time, women were forced to stay at home and required to wear a body-covering burqa in public. Girls were banned from participating in the education system. Women accused of adultery were stoned to death in stadiums and faced imprisonment if they tried to leave their husbands and any abuse. In the eight years after the end of this conservative regime the country has seen significant improvement in the rights and lives of Afghan women. Now, two million girls are attending school. Women are becoming business owners and currently make up 89 of the 351 Afghan parliamentarians. In addition, during International Women’s Day celebrations, lawmaker Shalah Attah recently announced that she will run for president in the upcoming elections in August.
However, continued instances of oppression and violence against women demonstrate that the struggle for basic human rights continues for women in Afghanistan amidst worries of a re-emergence of the Taliban. Despite recognized progress, over 87 percent of all women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic abuse, which, according to UNIFEM, makes Afghanistan one of the most dangerous parts of the world to be a woman. In his speech, President Karzai noted that the number of women working in government ministries has actually dropped to 21 percent from an earlier figure of 32 percent. A U.N. report on human rights in Afghanistan said that "threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase."
Rape reports have increased along with a witnessed resurgence of the Taliban and public attacks on women. Among those recent incidents are the assassination of Malali Kakar, the most senior female police officer in Afghanistan, along with a series of acid attacks and kidnappings of school girls, in addition to teachers receiving death threats.
In addition, women still face violence and traditional customs such as trading of women as brides to settle feuds and forced marriages which represent 60 to 80 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan. Despite the high incidents of domestic abuse, there are currently only five shelters for women and girls fleeing abuse throughout Afghanistan. Suraya Pakzad, founder of Voice of Women Organization, has been running one since 2006 in Herat. She has a floating population of 35 to 42 women and girls trying to escape family violence. The minors she helps are usually runaways from forced marriages and include girls as young as 9 and 11 married to men in their 40s and 50s. The shelter works on a budget of $1 per case.
Self-immolation remains very common among Afghan women trying to escape abuse, forced marriages or other oppressive traditional practices. One such incident involved a widow who burned herself alive just one day before President’s Karzai’s International Women’s Day speech.
Compiled from: The Associated Press, 2009, via Google; Women’s E-News, “Afghans Question ‘Good Taliban’ Times Ahead, March 13, 2009.