A leading human rights group released a report today showing continued repression of women and girls in western Afghanistan. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, entitled “We Want to Live as Humans: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan,” found that in the Herat province, women’s rights to work, to free speech, and to free association continue to be curtailed. The group focuses on Herat but says that the situation is similar in other provinces in Afghanistan. Herat is currently under the control of a local warlord named Ismail Khan, who has stifled political dissent and independent media in the province in addition to imposing Taliban-like restrictions on women and girls, according to the report.
“Many people outside the country believe that Afghan women and girls have had their rights restored. It’s just not true. Women and girls are still being abused, harassed, and threatened all over Afghanistan, often by government troops or officials,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, co-author of the report. According to the report, women’s participation in the reconstruction process is minimal, “leaving little hope for their broader political participation in the future.” Women are discouraged from working with the UN or international nongovernmental organizations, and almost no women have been invited to work in the Herat government, HRW reports. In addition, the report states that jobs for women are few, that women must still wear the burqa in public, that women are sometimes forced to undergo medical examinations to determine whether they’ve had recent sexual intercourse, and that women are prohibited from driving or riding a bicycle.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the United Nations and the United States work to strengthen the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghan Human Rights Commission in order to support women’s rights to free speech and political participation. The group further urges the US to discontinue any support of Khan or other local warlords, instead arguing that security needs to be ensured through the expansion of international peacekeeping troops. The US has been very supportive of the warlords of the Northern Alliance, allies in the war against the Taliban. Coursen-Neff also argued in the Washington Post that the UN must make human rights protection a higher priority, noting that even as Afghan President Hamid Karzai released 20 women from prison who were jailed for “moral crimes” such as adultery , Kabul’s police chief said he would continue to arrest women for these “crimes.”
President Bush recently signed the Afghan Freedom Support Act of 2002, which authorizes $2.3 billion in aid to Afghanistan over four years and $1 billion to expand international peacekeeping troops. The Act also includes language by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that makes Afghan women a funding priority, earmarking $15 million each year for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and $5 million each year for the Independent Human Rights Commission. However, the Bush Administration’s 2003 budget forwarded to Congress does not include any funding for Afghan reconstruction or expansion of ISAF. This authorization is a major step in securing the funding necessary for Afghan reconstruction and security. The funds must still be appropriated by Congress when it convenes next year, and the Bush Administration must take action to support the expansion of international peace troops within and beyond Kabul.