Sunday, 7 December 2014

Taliban peace talks a threat to women’s rights in Afghanistan, Oxfam warns

As London conference looms, aid agency calls on international community to ensure rights of Afghan women are not rolled back. Afghan women in Bamiyan vote during April’s elections. Oxfam fears that progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan could be undone. Afghan women are at risk of being excluded from peace talks with Taliban insurgents, leaving many fearful that, 13 years after a US-led force ousted the extremists from power, the men who banned them from schools and work could once again rein in their rights, Oxfam has warned. In a new report published ahead of the London Conference on Afghanistan, the aid agency has urged the international community and the newly-elected president, Ashraf Ghani, not to sacrifice women’s rights in future peace talks with the insurgents, who denied women basic freedoms while in power between 1996 and 2001. With Afghanistan preparing for life after the majority of foreign troops withdraw, Ghani takes over at a critical juncture. The Taliban are gaining ground, there is a crippling budget crisis, and there are fears that international donors may turn away, endangering the fragile, hard-won gains made over the past decade. Supported by: About this content “The international community used women’s rights to help justify its presence in Afghanistan. Having brought about some improvements and invested more than $100bn[£638bn] in aid, it would be a tragedy if progress was reversed,” said John Watt, Oxfam’s country director for Afghanistan. “As donors rush to the exit, Afghans should not have to worry that the world will forget promises made to Afghan women and allow women’s rights to be negotiated away.” Activists have urged the Afghan and British governments to defend women’s rights strongly at the London conference on December 3-4, warning that any failure to do so could have potentially disastrous consequences. Oxfam’s deputy head of humanitarian policy and campaigns, Shaheen Chughtai, said the international community needed to identify progressive, positive “agents for change” in Afghanistan and support them. “We are still near the beginning of this journey,” he said. “It is achievable, we see every day living examples of what can be achieved … We also see that unless that effort is sustained, not for months or years but for decades, those gains can be rolled back.” Oxfam observed that women had been consistently excluded from peace talks since 2005, suggesting that unless this discrimination was reversed, peace would be unsustainable. The aid agency tracked 23 known peace talks involving the Taliban, the Afghan government and the international community. It found that during talks between the international community and the Taliban, there were no women present. During talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, women were only present during two rounds of talks. Advertisement “It’s the international community’s conduct around the peace process that is causing some of the greatest concerns among Afghans,” said Chughtai. “If the right people aren’t in the room, if they aren’t properly consulted and involved, those fears of what will happen to their country become very real.” When the Taliban were in power, girls were not allowed to go to school, women were banned from leaving their homes without a male chaperone, not allowed to work and obliged to wear the head-to-toe-covering burqa. Oxfam noted that many gains had been made since then: of the 8.3 million students in school, nearly 40% are girls, women’s access to healthcare has improved dramatically and, between 2001 and 2012, women’s life expectancy increased from 56 to 62 years. But already, conservative political forces are trying to roll back some gains, while extremists are increasingly targeting women in the public eye. Human Rights Watch documented a string of attacks against high-profile women in 2013, including the shooting of lawmaker Rooh Gul in Ghazni province. Just this month, Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken lawmaker and ally of Ghani, was targeted by a suicide bomber. She was slightly injured and three civilians were killed. There have also been attacks against female police officers. The Oxfam report said that entrenched cultural practices – such as honour killings and baad (the exchange of women to end family conflicts) – continued to violate women’s rights. The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Act has come under threat, with some lawmakers saying it violates sharia law, while quotas for women’s representation in provincial councils have been cut. The “meaningful” participation of women should be a precondition for talks with the Taliban, Oxfam said. It urged the Afghan government to commit to upholding the protection of women’s rights enshrined in the constitution. Stories from Afghanistan show just how high the stakes are for women, and there are already signs of rights being eroded, said David Haines, Afghanistan country director for the aid group Mercy Corps. Through its Invest programme in Helmand province, Mercy Corps has trained about 22,000 people, including 6,500 women, over the past three and a half years. Some women learned tailoring and dressmaking while others studied for pre-university examinations. Haines said that – in a deeply conservative society where more than 90% of women are illiterate – the vocational training was the only chance many women had to interact with people outside their homes. “We established that [the training course] was a safe haven, and since then it’s been massively oversubscribed. It increased women’s economic value within the family unit.” Traditionally, less than 20 women from Helmand would go for university education. However, about 80% of the 1,500 women who did the pre-university exam training with Mercy Corps went on to tertiary education. Haines said this was “a sea change”, but added that these gains are already being rolled back by conflict and an economic slowdown linked to the troops’ withdrawal. “Very few families in Helmand are going to let the young women in their families go to universities or to start careers in the civil service … because there is a massive increased risk of violence … The natural inclination in a conservative family is to draw people in,” Haines said. “There is a real danger that the psychological breakthrough that women can contribute economically is under threat.”


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