from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Helping Afghan Women Help Themselves

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament, hands out leaflets during her August 2005 election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan. Barakzai later survived a suicide bombing attack in December 2014 (Courtesy Zohra Bensemra/Reuters).

May 1, 2015

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament, hands out leaflets during her August 2005 election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan. Barakzai later survived a suicide bombing attack in December 2014 (Courtesy Zohra Bensemra/Reuters).
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Progress toward women’s rights and empowerment cannot be made without actors on the ground willing to fight for it. This is particularly true in Afghanistan as the United States begins to transition out of its on-the-ground presence and the Afghan government takes on more responsibility for security and stability. Local women’s rights movements will be more important than ever in ensuring Afghan women and girls maintain the strides they have made since the fall of the Taliban.

Yet if those willing to stand up for the rights of women are not protected by the government, security forces, and justice system, progress cannot be made.

In December 2013, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to this effect. The document calls on states to protect women’s human rights defenders, acknowledging that “women of all ages who engage in the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and all people who engage in the defense of the rights of women and gender equality, individually and in association with others, play an important role, at the local, national, regional, and international levels, in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

According to a recent Amnesty International report, these protections for Afghan women’s human rights defenders are not strong enough to deter attacks. Consider the story of Rohgul Khairkhwah, a female senator for the Nimroz province in southern Afghanistan: On August 4, 2013, the Taliban attacked Senator Khairkhwah’s vehicle, killing her seven-year-old daughter and brother. The senator was shot nine times, sustaining wounds to her liver, lung, and leg, and necessitating a two-month hospital stay. Though she has kept the National Directorate of Security (NDS) informed of the threats against her, little has been done. “When the threats began, the NDS told her that they were merely ‘designed to create a climate of fear’... Two years later, Senator Khairkhwah still has no answer as to who is responsible for the murder of her daughter and brother.”

To improve the status of Afghan women and ensure their ability to participate in public life, such attacks cannot go under-investigated and unpunished. As I’ve continually noted, the best support the United States and other international allies can provide to Afghan women—and ultimately to Afghanistan—is to support these local defenders of women’s human rights. Through projects such as USAID’s Promote, the United States can help to strengthen women’s rights organizations so that Afghan women can continue to advocate for themselves.

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