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Women's Rights in Afghanistan: Two Steps Forward One Step Back

The murder of a young Afghan woman, Mah Gul, for reportedly refusing to prostitute herself, has again brought into stark relief the threat to...

The murder of a young Afghan woman, Mah Gul, for reportedly refusing to prostitute herself, has again brought into stark relief the threat to the human rights and safety of girls and women in Afghanistan.


Last week, the media reported that Mah, a 20 year old woman in Herat, Afghanistan had her throat slashed by relatives. Four people, including her husband and his mother have been arrested in connection with her murder. Reportedly married only four short months ago, Mah’s brutal murder serves as yet another call to action to support the women of Afghanistan working to claim their human rights.

In Afghanistan, where the U.S. continues to play a significant role, the ongoing security transition is putting women’s and girls’ human rights at risk. As horrific as the reports of Mah’s case are, domestic violence is far from the only challenge facing women in Afghanistan. Potential resurgence of the Taliban and other insurgent groups coupled with an Afghan government far too weak on women’s human rights are cause for great concern. That’s why Amnesty International is calling for a swift plan of action by the United States to support Afghan women’s rights.

When the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, women and girls in Afghanistan faced a dire human rights situation. Women had little freedom of movement and were, in effect, confined to the home. The Taliban banned women from seeking employment, obtaining an education, or leaving home unaccompanied by a male relative. They enforced these restrictions through beatings and torture.

However, more than ten years after the overthrow of the Taliban, modest advances have been made for girls and women in Afghanistan. The Afghan constitution now guarantees the right to equality for both men and women and sets a 25 percent quota for women’s representation in parliament.

Today, three million girls go to school, whereas under the Taliban, almost none attended school. Women make up 20 percent of university graduates and their numbers are growing. Roughly ten percent of all prosecutors and judges are women, when there were none under the Taliban. In 2009 President Hamid Karzai issued the Elimination of Violence Against Women law; giving survivors of violence hope for justice.

Violence against women, though, remains pervasive. Attacks on schools for girls continue. Amnesty International’s 2011 Human Rights Report on Afghanistan states that although 1,891 cases of violence against women were documented, the true number may be much higher.

This is almost beyond dispute given recent reports of young women like Mah. The Attorney General of Afghanistan admitted on TV that this case was, quote, “a lucky one in that it has come to the attention of the media and law enforcement agencies, so that justice can be served. However there are many hidden cases just like Mah’s, which go unreported and for which there is no justice."

Stopping violence against women and advancing these gains if the Taliban and other insurgent groups grow in influence will be difficult. Members of the Afghan Women's Network, a women's rights consortium, express grave concern about the future, but also fierce determination not to see the clock rolled back. They have also joined Amnesty International in outlining a specific action plan of steps that need to be taken in Afghanistan.

This plan of action outlines key steps, such as gender training for police officers, which will help ensure that women’s rights are supported and not rolled back.

Although any plan will come too late for Mah, each of us can take action now to make a difference for the women of Afghanistan.

Find out more and join us in demanding that the U.S. government take action and adopt an Action Plan for Afghan Women to ensure that their rights are not traded away in Afghanistan’s transition. Want to learn more about Amnesty International? Follow them here.

Cristina Finch is Program Director, Women's Human Rights at Amnesty International USA and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.

Image (cc) flickr user isafmedia

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