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Afghan Women Fear Loss of Hard-won Rights

  • Reuters

FILE - Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai, injured in an attack Nov. 16, talks on her phone from her hospital bed in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 23, 2014.

FILE - Afghan lawmaker Shukria Barakzai, injured in an attack Nov. 16, talks on her phone from her hospital bed in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 23, 2014.

No one ever claimed responsibility after a suicide bomber rammed into the vehicle of celebrated female parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai. She walked away from the wreckage after the Nov. 16 blast that killed three civilians and wounded 20.

The Taliban often takes responsibility for suicide bombings, and Barakzai, 42, an outspoken women's rights activist, said Afghanistan's spy agency had warned her before about threats to her life from the insurgent group. But an investigation into the attack last month has led nowhere.

Barakzai has no shortage of potential enemies, including Afghanistan's regional chieftains. "Our Parliament is a collection of lords," she once famously said. "Warlords, drug lords, crime lords."

A strong supporter of new President Ashraf Ghani, Barakzai had been widely talked about as a candidate to join his government, perhaps as education minister or the next women's affairs minister. Ghani has promised he will appoint four women in his cabinet.

Barakzai, who rose to prominence when she ran underground schools for girls when the Taliban ruled the country, said both the previous Afghan government and its Western benefactors have failed to defend the hard-won rights of women.

"For me, what they do to support women's rights is just lip service," said Barakzai, interviewed in a hospital where she is recovering from burns to the left side of her face and her left hand from the attack.

Quota rolled back

The U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban and stayed on, in part, to build a Western-style democracy, including legal safeguards for women. A quota was mandated for women in public offices. Earlier this year, however, conservative lawmakers rolled back the quota reserved for women in provincial councils to 20 percent from 25 percent.

Last Sunday marked the formal end to the international combat mission in Afghanistan. And while huge progress has been made getting millions of girls in school and putting women in positions of authority, it has had "frustratingly little impact on these power dynamics," the U.N.-backed Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit said in a recent report.

"Today, women's rights are ... one of the feared losses shared by Afghans and the world as international troops prepare to withdraw completely,'' it said.

World Bank data show Afghanistan still lags far behind even its impoverished neighbors in South Asia. Only 16 percent of Afghan females above age 15 were active in the labor force compared with 57 percent in Bangladesh and 27 percent in India. The fertility rate in Afghanistan is 7.2 births per woman versus 3.1 for all of South Asia. Only 14 percent of births in Afghanistan are attended by a skilled health worker, compared with 36 percent in South Asia. The literacy rate for women aged 15 to 24 was 32 percent, compared with 63 percent in neighboring Pakistan.

Barakzai, a parliamentarian for the past decade, has campaigned against the practice of Afghan men marrying multiple wives; her husband, who runs an oil company, took a second wife without consulting her. She stresses the need for long-term investment in education to compete seriously for jobs instead of aid programs for "workshops or seminars."

"We need a university for girls,'' she said, explaining that many families won't send girls to mixed institutions.

Little value seen in programs

Barakzai was scornful about aid programs that teach women about rights or try to give them job skills. "If you see their projects, they are always the same — empowering women by a seminar or workshop. Or embroidery, tailoring," she laughed. "I am tired of these things."

Women's activists have been lukewarm about a new $216 million U.S. Agency for International Development program to support women's advancement. The five-year program aims to help thousands of women "gain business and management skills, supporting women's rights groups and increasing the number of women in decision-making positions," according to a U.S. Embassy statement.

Noor Safi Gululai, one of the few women in Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which is in charge of the so-far fruitless effort to persuade the Taliban to join peace talks, was critical of such capacity-building efforts.

"I am afraid this money will also go in the pockets of a few people," Gululai told Reuters. ''Rights will never be taught at conferences. I hope the president will talk to USAID and have them use the money to establish good schools and universities."

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment.