Is U.S. committed to rights of Afghan women?

Posted: March 25, 2012

What will happen to Afghan women?

As the United States winds down its presence in Afghanistan and tries to talk to the Taliban, will Afghan women pay the price? Will the gains they've made over the last decade be rolled back?

Last week, I heard Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton make a passionate commitment to the contrary at a lunch marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Afghan Women's Council.

During "this period of transition," she said, "it's absolutely critical we protect these gains and expand on them."

To those who fear women's rights will be sacrificed in talks, Clinton repeated what she has said in Kabul and elsewhere: "The United States cannot and will not let that happen." She added: "Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last."

Amen. Clinton is correct, and I applaud her passion on this issue. But given the slippage that's already occurring in women's rights in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal, I wonder how she will be able to keep her pledge.

To understand how much Afghan women could lose, let me offer a few statistics. As Clinton noted, in 2001, life expectancy for women in Afghanistan was just 44 years. Now it is 62 years. In the Taliban era, almost no girls went to school, but today 3 million do, making up almost 40 percent of primary-school enrollments. In the past decade, nearly 120,000 Afghan girls have graduated from high school, and 15,000 are enrolled in universities.

There's no doubt that the life of women and girls in rural areas and even in cities is still seriously restricted in accordance with local custom. And many girls no longer attend school in areas where the Taliban have returned.

But, having visited Afghanistan in 1999, when it was under Taliban rule, I can assure you that women's progress since then has been substantial. On that trip, I spoke with little girls who were attending secret schools at great risk. I interviewed widows who could not get medical care because no women could venture outdoors without a male relative age 16 or older. I talked to educated women who were virtually imprisoned because they could not go outside or work.

Today, one-fourth of government posts and 28 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women. Afghan women and girls make up 24 percent of doctors and medical workers.

Yet, in talking with women in Kabul by phone or during visits, I have heard deep fear that they will be sold out by their government, and by the United States, in talks with the Taliban. Despite Clinton's assurances, they do fear the old days will return.

The nine women members of the 70-member Afghan High Peace Council, which is charged with seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, are left out of major discussions. (Indeed, the council itself has been sidelined since its head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated last year.)

U.S. diplomats have been holding secret talks with the Taliban to try to get negotiations going in the Gulf state of Qatar. But Afghan women have no input to those discussions; they can only wait and wonder whether U.S. negotiators would, or could, ensure their rights.

Another reason Afghan women are fearful is that their president, Hamid Karzai, has already endorsed a "code of conduct" issued by an influential council of clerics that restricts women's rights. The Ulema Council's document renounces the equality of men and women enshrined in the constitution, saying "men are fundamental and women are secondary." It endorses husbands' rights to beat their wives under certain circumstances.

The code also endorses many rules that are a throwback to Taliban days, saying women should not travel without a male guardian and should be segregated in schools, markets, and offices.

Karzai defends this code as being in line with Islamic sharia law. But he is clearly sacrificing constitutional principles, and women's rights, in order to court conservative clerics - and, perhaps, the Taliban.

This clerical code is not legally binding, but Afghan civic activists say it has emboldened conservatives to start harassing women, and to push for a formal rollback of their rights. Afghan human-rights groups view this as a foretaste of what will happen if the Taliban win a major role in the government via peace talks.

This brings me back to Clinton's public commitment to Afghan women. She has rightly emphasized that the Afghan constitution protects them. While we still have leverage in Kabul, U.S. officials should push Karzai to give women and civil society a formal voice in any Afghan peace negotiations.

As for U.S. negotiating efforts, if we take Clinton at her word, in any talks with the Taliban the United States must insist on guarantees that women's rights would not be repealed. Any U.S. aid to a future Afghan government, with or without a Taliban presence, should be contingent on that premise.

"We all need to be vigilant ... in our ... refusal to accept the erosion of women's rights and freedoms," Clinton said Wednesday. The trick will be translating that premise into facts on the ground.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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