Fiona Hodgson: We must help the women of Afghanistan attain the equality promised for them in their constitution
Afghanistan is never out of the news and today is no exception after yesterday's conference in London. The situation there causes us all much concern. There is no doubt that our troops are doing a wonderful job in very difficult circumstances and it is painful to have lost so many of our servicemen – over 100 killed last year alone and many more critically injured.
However, thoughts of Afghanistan also lead me to think about the women there and what a terribly harsh existence it is for so many of them. “Afghanistan is one of the most harrowing places in the world to be a woman,” writes Barbara Stocking, the Chief Executive of Oxfam, in The Female Face of Afghanistan.
This publication was launched on International Human Rights Day on
10th December at an event organised by Tony Baldry MP and the
Conservative Human Rights Commission and you can read more about it (and download it) on their website.
It is a collection of writings and the authors range from Afghan
politicians to schoolgirls writing in secret and they also include
distinguished authors, former diplomats, NGOs and others. In putting
this report together, the aim was not only to highlight the parlous
position of women in Afghanistan but also to offer some recommendations
of ways forward that might help them.
Some of the statistics are truly terrible. Of course it is hard to get accurate numbers – I don’t think anyone is even sure of the figure of the total population there now. However, it is estimated that 87% women suffer from domestic violence and over 60% of marriages are forced. It has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world, with a woman dying every 27 minutes from a pregnancy-related cause and one in four children not reaching their fifth birthday. In Kabul alone there are around 70,000 widows, many unable to support themselves and nearly all of the 37,000 street children there are fatherless. Many millions of pounds, dollars and euros are being sent there in aid – but there is concern that the aid rarely reaches the most needy people at the grassroots, for whom it was sent.
Conflict seems to cause rights for women to slip backwards. Fatima Gailani, the very impressive President of the Red Crescent Society, describes that when she was growing up in Afghanistan there were many educated women. In fact, Kabul, pre the Soviet invasion, was considered to have very liberated women for that part of the world.
One of the reasons given by the US and the UK for going into Afghanistan was to unshackle women from the oppression that they were suffering under the Taliban. Women are, after all, about half of the population and, although in some places there have been improvements, generally, in the fight for stability, this motive seems to have been forgotten.
Clearly they have a very different culture to ours and it is no good trying to foist our Western ideas and ways of doing things on to them. Individual women there who speak out find themselves in great danger and many have been threatened and killed. Therefore we need to try to help them to find their voice safely and to encourage the men in Afghanistan that it will be to their benefit to listen.
However, in spite of all, one of the most heartening things to come through is that Afghan women are still hopeful about their future. It is my aspiration that the recommendations that have been produced in this publication will provide some ideas for a way forward on these issues and thus we can, in the end, help the women of Afghanistan to attain some of the equality that is promised for them in their constitution.