Thursday, 30 May 2013

For women in Afghanistan, one failure offers fresh hope

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan female politician, took a lot of flak last week after she insisted on tabling in parliament a debate on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. Predictably, the debate didn't go well. President Hamid Karzai passed the law by presidential decree in 2010. While its implementation is uneven, it is nonetheless considered to be a substantial advance for women's rights in Afghanistan. The EVAW criminalises 23 acts of violence - including child marriage, forced marriage and rape.

And yet, Ms Koofi insisted that for the law to be truly meaningful, it must receive parliamentary approval - which would give it a higher status and make it easier to enforce, and prevent any future president from overturning it. Presidential elections are scheduled for next year, and under the constitution Mr Karzai cannot run again.

Local and international rights activists called the debate move "insane", predicting - correctly as it turned out- that the conservative MPs who dominate the Afghan parliament would seek to water it down or abolish it.
That's precisely what happened. The five MPs who spoke in the 20 minutes before the speaker suspended the debate called the law "ungodly" and against Sharia.

The speaker decided to send the law back to a joint commission for additional consideration.
Critics of Ms Koofi said her move was personally motivated: as the only person to have declared her candidacy for next year's presidential election, she supposedly calculated this move would get her name recognition and win her women's votes. They also argued that, given the sensitivity of the issue, now was not the time to seek to reinforce the law. What is in place now is better than nothing.

But with about a year to go before elections and a year before Nato troops withdraw entirely, now is precisely the time. Already there are concerns that women's rights will diminish after 2014. Surely it's better to have this debate now, while the international community still has some attention focused on Afghanistan.
Ms Koofi deserves credit for her insistence. She is to be admired for taking the initiative in this sensitive area and attempting to show leadership.

I covered women's issues, among other things, in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012 as a reporter and editor. The lack of political leadership displayed by Afghan rights activists during this time was something I witnessed repeatedly. Time and again, when women's rights came under assault, local activists and organisations were caught flat-footed. They would then flail around as they sought to come up with some response. There would be a ferocious debate between factions on whether to take a stance on a particular issue or say nothing in the hope of not drawing attention to it.

Eventually, one of the UN agencies or international aid organisations would declare their intention to issue a statement. At this point, the Afghans would say: "Back off, we'll handle it." But even then, consensus was rare. Unifem, as the UN agency for women was then known, and the Ministry for Women's Affairs were agencies that could have acted as leading or unifying forces but rarely took that role.

Sustained progress in women's rights must be Afghan led. And while Ms Koofi's gambit didn't end well on this occasion, it must be hoped that she will inspire other women activists to keep pushing for change.
But where does the debate go from here? Many hope that the EVAW law will now remain buried in parliament's joint commission until the opposition moves on to other issues. Things do not look optimistic in the short term: those on the ground say conservatives are feeling emboldened.

However, there are glimmers of hope, particularly at a grass roots level. One organisation, Young Women for Change, is particularly progressive. It recruits young men to take part in the group's activities and act as male ambassadors. I met three remarkable young professional Afghan men who spend evenings and weekends volunteering and building a women-only internet cafe. They do outreach work, engaging and talking to other men in the wider community. They help challenge societal attitudes and behaviours towards women.

Widespread change will take time. But it can only be hoped that pressure brought by women like Ms Koofi at a political level, in tandem with initiatives at the local level, will eventually make a lasting difference.

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