Insecurity Threatens Newly-Won Women's Rights

By Peter Deselaers
Published January 14th 2004 in IPS News

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 14 (IPS) - The international community has one more reason to ensure the security of Afghanistan -- to help bring about the women's rights promised in the country's just completed constitution, according to experts.

''The constitution is the first big step,'' said Noeleen Heyzer, head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

But the current security situation in Afghanistan is the main obstacle to implementing the new constitution, which the traditional national assembly (Loya Jirga) approved last week, she added in an interview.

The new constitution states clearly that ”citizens of Afghanistan” are both men and women, who have full and equal rights and duties before the law.

Heyzer said that recognition is essential, because it would be extremely difficult to protect women's rights if they were not given full rights of citizenship.

The constitution ”is not perfect'', she added, but with it completed, ''we feel that the issue is now to implement it''.

This means preparing women for the planned June elections, as both voters and candidates, and ''ensuring the security of the environment, so that women feel they could participate fully and securely''.

The country also needs an education campaign, ''so everyone understands what it means to have this new constitution'', according to Heyzer. Because of security concerns, it would have to be carried out mainly by radio, she added.

The security situation in Afghanistan is ''terrible'', according to John Sifton from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

''We have documented widespread abuses of the military and police forces at the local level, including extortion, ransom kidnapping, opium trade, punishment of political opponents by threat, intimidation, arrest and sometimes torture,'' he told IPS.

Under the country's new political structure, a strong presidential system, the legislative branch will consist of two houses: the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), and the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), the more powerful lower house.

Sifton said the constitutional process ''turned out to be a political conflict between factions and not a true, representative, democratic process in which representatives of the Afghan people debated honestly the future of their government”.

”Instead it was this horse trading, backroom, power-politick exercise.''

''However, good things happen -- the Karzai factions and his allies allowed the women's representation to be doubled.''

Women's participation in government is assured by quotas.

In the House of the People, 250 delegates will be elected directly through a system of proportional representation. And two delegates from each province must be women. This means that at least 64 delegates -- just over one-quarter of the total -- will be female.

''This is more than most western democracies have, de facto. For instance, the United States has, by far, less than this,'' said Sifton.

The members of the House of the Elders are appointed in equal numbers by provincial councils, district councils and the president. The latter is obliged to name women to one-half of his appointments.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghan human rights commission, criticised the constitution for not making education mandatory for all Afghans.

According to UNIFEM, nearly 80 per cent of the country's women cannot read or write.

''Of course, we would all have gone further,'' said Heyzer, who argued that the constitution provides a framework for future gains for women.

''I personally would have liked to see the word 'women without caretakers' removed ... I would have preferred if they had mentioned them as 'female-headed households'.''

Other issues that women's groups failed to have included in the constitution are: the right to financial independence and inheritance; full inclusion of women in the judiciary system; a minimum age of 18 years for marriage, and the right to participate fully in the highest levels of commercial life.

Another issue that is not spelled out in the law is the prevention and criminalisation of violence against women, including the 'bad blood price' in which girls are given from one family to another as compensation for a crime.

For Sifton, the constitution's largest fault is its vagueness, especially on the relationship between Islamic law and human rights. ''It is not discussed enough ... the supremacy of one over the other is not clear''.

Certain interpretations of Islamic law conflict with human rights, he added, ''just as there are certain interpretations of Christian or Jewish morality that conflict with human rights''.

The constitution states that no Afghan law ''can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions'' of Islam. Traditional Islamic law, however, does not treat men and women equally in all cases.

But according to Heyzer, ''its interpretation and usage is so heterogeneous and diverse ... therefore the point is to look at how it is practised -- not only in Afghanistan, but also elsewhere. Within the framework, there is enough space for us to move and stretch.''

''If we can implement (the constitution), this is a great achievement'', she added, ''but how can we achieve this without security?''

According to Sifton, power -- especially outside of the capital Kabul -- is in the hands of warlords, most of them former Mujahedin who fought against the former Soviet Union and the Taliban, and who were armed and financed by the United States.

''These guys do not just have armies -- they control the local government, from the agricultural subsidy bureau to the trash collection department to the police.''

As this makes the rule of law impossible, Sifton argues for more troops from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations on the ground to extend security beyond Kabul.

''The European Union and the United States have to strengthen efforts to build legitimate representation by supporting political party capacity-building and by protecting vulnerable political opponents.”

''The local Afghans who want to stand up and start creating more legitimate representation are afraid, but when they see one guy do it and not get killed or intimidated -- because the local peacekeeping forces prevent it -- then they will do it too,'' he said.

''And it will catch like a fire. Courage is contagious ''

Insecurity also remains the main obstacle to preparing the elections. To date more than 250,000 men but only 70,000 women have registered for the elections. U.N. officials estimate that 10 million voters have to be registered.

A U.N. spokesperson in Kabul said at a press conference last week that ''it is close to impossible to meet the (planned) June date with the current security conditions that do not permit registration teams to go throughout the country''.