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AFGHANISTAN – Women stay vulnerable, their rights neglected

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afghanistan_women__rights.jpgAfghan women No matter how the US president Barack Obama has shown his
eagerness to dialogue with Taliban, women's rights in Afghanistan
continue to be ignored, abused. The AsiaNews commented on 9 March 2009
that the possibility of return of Taliban is feared to mean "going

Discrimination for women in Afghanistan is more relevant in rural areas and small communities. Women in urban areas take small steps toward education, health care, and employment. But the situation has not changed much: their educational opportunities are denied during this continuing insurgency, and their employment possibilities are limited. They are always surrounded by the threat of violence.

Education is among basic requirements for a person's development, but 85 percent of women and girls remain illiterate in Afghanistan. The number of girls attending schools is less than half the number of boys. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the country ratified, reinforces the prohibition of any kind of discrimination against girls. The convention also recognises that girls are particularly vulnerable to certain human rights violations, and therefore require additional protections.

As required by law, there were 68 women in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or the House of the People of Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai appointed 17 women to serve in the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga, the House of Elders, and an additional six female members were elected to that house, bringing the total to 23 women in the house. However, these women active in public face threats and violence. Many of these members of the houses reported death threats, and are targeted by the Taliban.

On another hand, the Ministry of Women's Affairs reported that women make up less than 25 percent of government employees. The ministry itself suffers the lack of capacity and resources, even if it is founded to address the needs of women.

Non-governmental organisations and human rights activists also note societal violence, especially against women. In many cases security forces do not prevent or respond to the violence. There were reports that officials arrested and sentenced individuals, often women, for crimes other family members committed. Authorities imprisoned an unknown number of women for reporting crimes perpetrated against them. Some women are placed in protective custody to prevent violent retaliation by family members. The Ministry of Women's Affairs and non-governmental organisations reported cases of female detainees and prisoners being raped and sexually abused by the police.

Judicial system also discriminates women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters. In some parts of the country, where courts are not functional or knowledge of the law was minimal, many rely on shari'a, the body of the Islamic law, and tribal customs. Both often are discriminatory toward women. While most women report limited access to justice in tribal shura, where all presiding elders were men, others are not allowed for dispute resolution.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AHIRC) estimated approximately 40 percent of marriage were forced, distinguishing the category from 20 percent of marriages being "arranged", which allows women to decline marriage but not to choose their spouses. In 2008, the commission recorded 30 cases of women given to another family to settle disputes, although the practice is outlawed by presidential decree. The unreported number is believed to be much higher.

According to the United States State Department's 2008, military used women and children as human shields, either by forcing them into the line of fire or by basing operations in civilian settings. Human Rights Watch reported on 8 September 2008 that insurgent forces have contributed to the civilian toll from air strikes by deploying their forces in populated villages, at times with the specific intent to shield their forces from counterattack.

Afghanistan signed (1980) and ratified (2003) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but never sent a report to CEDAW committee. Implementation of the convention has been very little; and has not ratified the optional protocol to CEDAW either. The optional protocol would allow women to bring their voices to the UN directly, through individual complaints.

Peace does not mean only end of bomb explosions and firing. It also means a chance where all, regardless of their sex, faith and creed, can enjoy their life without fear. In Afghanistan, the situation is particularly bleak, and human rights protection for women is an urgent need. All the stakeholders must look at the most vulnerable sections of the population.

(Photo courtesy of AsiaNews)