As the United States prepared to invade Taliban-ruled Afghanistan 15 years ago, then-First Lady Laura Bush took over her husband’s weekly radio address to tell the American people that part of the reason for going to war after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was to liberate Afghan women from the brutality that had been forced on them by the extremists’ regime.
As the war against the Taliban grinds on, Afghan women are still largely treated as property and barely a week goes by without news emerging of a woman or girl being stoned to death, burned with gasoline, beaten or tortured by her in-laws, traded to repay a debt, jailed for running away from a violent husband, or sold into marriage as a child.
Abuse of women in Afghanistan remains entrenched and endemic, despite constitutional guarantees of equality, protection from violence and age-old practices such as trading young women to pay debts.
Earlier this month, news emerged from remote central Ghor province of Zarah, a pregnant 14-year-old who was allegedly tortured and set on fire by her in-laws as they took revenge on her father over a failed deal to marry one of their relatives.
Mohammad Azam, 45, traveled to the capital, Kabul, to call for justice for the killing of his daughter. Yet he too had taken a young bride as payment for construction work.
The British government said in a report in early July that “documented cases of violence against women have risen” in the first half of 2016, with 5,132 cases reported to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, “including 241 murders.”
Attending a small rally in western Kabul to support Azam’s call for justice, women’s rights activist Veeda Saghari said violence against women is largely ignored by Afghanistan’s judicial sector.
“That is why all kinds of violence against women such as acid throwing, beating, stoning, informal community tribunal verdicts, burning, forced divorces, forced marriages, forced pregnancies, forced abortions have reached a peak,” she said.
In fairness, much has improved for Afghan women since the Taliban were ejected from power. During five years of Taliban rule, women were not permitted to attend school or work, were largely confined to their homes, and subject to public beatings for violations of strict rules on what they could wear in public. When it came to their health, very few had access to doctors, and benchmarks such as maternal mortality were among the worst in the world.
Now millions of girls go to school, compared to practically none in 2001, and access to health care is widespread. The constitution protects women from the worst excesses they suffered before 2001. Figures published by the World Bank show a drop in maternal mortality, for instance, from 1,340 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 396 in 2015.
Many women work for the government and security services, run their own business, and are elected to parliament. Figures from President Ashraf Ghani’s office show 33 percent of all teachers are women, and there are 240 women judges. He has nominated four women as Cabinet ministers, appointed seven as deputy ministers and four as ambassadors.
Yet for most Afghan women, the struggles of today are little different to those under the Taliban. Many working women are targeted and often killed by extremists. High-profile lawmaker Shukria Barakzai, who ran a secret school for girls during the Taliban era, survived a suicide bomb attack in 2014, and was appointed ambassador to Norway last year.
But in impoverished and rural areas, girls can often be of less value to their families than their animals. A burns unit in the western city of Herat has a ward dedicated to treating young women who set themselves on fire, as much a cry for help as a suicide attempt. Women’s prisons in major cities, including Kabul, hold hundreds of women accused of adultery for having sex outside marriage, as well as young women who have run away from home to escape arranged marriages or abusive, often much older, husbands.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, has found that government officials, judges, clerics and educators are often receptive to the concepts of women’s rights, as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. But, she said, “When we are dealing with extremism there is pushback, every step of the way there is pushback.”
Following the fall of the Taliban, the Western push for women’s rights led some Afghans to feel that Western values were being forced on them, she said, and that had led to problems of acceptance of women’s rights as homegrown.
The situation is complicated by almost 40 years of conflict.
“We have a generation that has only known war, and at the same time you also have a generation that has been educated, that knows about the lives that are lived by people in other parts of the world. There has to be some confusion as people try to deal with all these issues,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said, adding: “So the glass is half full.”
That doesn’t mean Afghanistan should be given special treatment, she said. “Rape is rape, physical violence is physical violence. So in our quest not to be overbearing and not to overshadow local efforts, I don’t think that we should also move away and not talk about the universality of rights,” she said.
As a member of the United Nations and signatory to the “same charters as all the other member states, we have to hold them to the same standards because the nation has actually signed on to the same value system as the other nations,” she said.
“What is good for a child in Europe in terms of protection, in terms of making sure that they have a right to education, not to be married early, that is good for a child in Europe and it is good for a child in Afghanistan.”