Gender op-ed by Douglas Keh

Mar 13, 2016

Today we mark International Women’s Day. In that spirit of celebration, I’d like to highlight some of the good news that we can often lose sight of when confronted with daily updates on security incidents and rights abuses. This good news can be summed up in a single sentence: despite all the challenges women still face in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the current situation is a huge improvement over what it was in 2001.

Today, more girls are in school. Some 46 percent now attend primary classes – up from almost none in 2001. There have been gains at the high school and tertiary level, too. Indeed, UNDP just helped Kabul University to establish the country’s first ever Master’s Degree in Gender and Women’s Studies, for which around two-thirds of the students are female. More women work in hospitals, legal practices and government offices, including the country’s first female governors and provincial council chair, and nearly 140 female lawyers working with UNDP’s Legal Aid Grant Facility.

Over the same period, the expansion of the media has provided women with a stronger voice and many more opportunities to have that voice heard. Just today, UNDP re-equipped a women’s radio station in Kunduz so that female journalists can once again broadcast information on education, healthcare and rights in one of the country’s more conservative areas.

Afghanistan has a constitution that protects women from violence and discrimination, and explicitly states that women and men are equal before the law. And it now has female lawyers and police officers who can make it easier for women to approach the justice system and get fair treatment from it. Some of those officers can be seen today on the blast walls of Kabul, where UNDP is partnering with the Art Lords to produce ten murals celebrating the strength and role of women in the Afghan National Police.

But – and there is always a “but”, especially when it comes to the position of women in Afghanistan – things are by no means great.

More women work. This is true. But they are usually stuck in low paid, insecure employment or work for nothing at home.

More girls are in school. This is also true. But for every 100 girls there are 135 boys. Female literacy remains at a dismal 12 percent.

There is a fair constitution. But it doesn’t yet reflect the reality on the ground. Sometimes police and prosecutors do not follow legal procedure and refer cases of violence against women to traditional assemblies for resolution and on occasion these let women down, or even reinforce the abuses against them. In fact, the need to reconcile national laws and traditional systems of justice is one of the key points in a UNDP-supported report being presented later this month to a meeting of G7+ leaders in Kabul.

Over the past months we have seen a series of high profile cases in which women have been burned alive, stoned to death or mutilated. Off camera, in towns and villages across the country, almost 90 percent of women say they have experienced violence or forced marriage. Just last week, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported on compulsory virginity tests for women, a process that has no scientific validity and is an obscene and absurd invasion of a woman’s privacy and an assault on her person.

Even when they are not specifically targeted, women are at risk of violence. UNAMA’s latest civilian casualty figures show a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of women killed or injured by the ongoing conflict. We remain fully committed to the government’s efforts to bring peace, and we fully support the President’s insistence that the outcome of any peace agreement protects the rights of women and the hard won gains of the last 15 years.

So we do indeed celebrate this International Women’s Day, the remarkable progress that has been made and the clear commitment to women’s rights shown by the National Unity Government. But we also commiserate with those women for whom change has come too late or for whom it has not yet come at all.

Douglas Keh
Country Director, UNDP Afghanistan

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