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July 01, 2002

Afghan Women's Human Rights and the Role of the U.S.

by Karima Bennoune

On November 17, 2001, Laura Bush delivered the first weekly presidential radio address ever given entirely by a U.S. first lady. "The plight of women and children in Afghanistan," she said, "is a matter of deliberate human cruelty carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control." Although it was positive to hear the first lady being so outspoken about women’s issues, I remember thinking how much more powerful her argument would be internationally if the United States had demonstrated its universal commitment to women’s human rights by joining the 169 (now 170) nations that had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Furthermore, though the fall of the Taliban was clearly a positive development, U.S. bombs were not gender-sensitive and were giving rise to civilian casualties—female as well as male, as the first lady addressed the nation. For example, Koko Gol, a thirty-year-old Afghan woman, was reportedly killed by U.S. bombs along with her two children on October 28, 2001, while at home sewing clothes for her brother-in-law’s wedding, according to the Guardian newspaper.

As I listened to the first lady, I also knew that with the overthrow of the despicable Taliban, Afghan women had but gone from the fire into the frying pan. For, as my 1996 visit to the country had shown me, the newly victorious Northern Alliance also included misogynist war criminals.

In July 1996, as an Amnesty International delegate, I traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, prior to its fall to the Taliban. During my visit, I interviewed many women who had been victims of a whole range of Mujahideen groups (groups that had previously fought the Soviet Union but turned on each other after its withdrawal, devastating what remained of the country). Many of these groups, though not sharing the Taliban’s agenda of complete gender apartheid, were also fundamentalists and had been brutalizing Afghan women long before the Taliban emerged. The stories I heard firsthand from women victims were haunting.

A woman named Habiba—who was thirty-eight but looked sixty—was the mother of five children. In 1992, during terrible fighting amongst Mujahideen groups for control of Kabul on the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, her husband was killed by rocket fire while walking home from the mosque after prayers. Hers was the ultimate Afghan tragedy; she did not even know which armed group was responsible for his death. But she stressed to me that her husband had been killed in an area where there were no government buildings, only private homes. Whichever group was responsible was attacking civilian areas, an all too common phenomenon in the ravaged country. Habiba and her daughters fled into exile.

Another young woman, Shokara, thirty-five, escaped from Kabul to Peshawar in 1993 after an unspeakable tragedy. According to her, on September 28, 1993, fighters under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a former U.S.-supported warlord who recently was alleged to have tried to overthrow the Interim Administration) and Abdul Rashid Dostum (the Interim Administration’s Deputy Defense Minister) were fighting each other for control of the city. Shokara’s husband was praying in the early evening when rockets began to fall near their house. She and her baby daughter were slightly injured and taken to the hospital. When Shokara returned home the next day, she discovered that her husband had been killed by rocket fire and that her other daughters, ages seven, six, and five, had spent the night alone in the rubble with their father’s body.

One woman, whom I will call Mena, told me a story, the implications of which I did not fully understand at first. A teacher, she was twenty-six and had also been forced to leave Kabul. "With the kidnappings and rapes, a woman’s life is not safe," she explained. She stopped and looked up at me, "I saw a lot of things," she said. She had watched her neighbor’s young daughters taken from the street by men in a jeep. They had never been seen again. When a different armed group captured her area, they found a big office building in which more than 100 women and girls were held, some as young as fourteen. Hesitatingly, she told me that, "Many men . . . came and raped girls and some were then killed and their bodies were thrown into a well." The group that later "liberated" this office building, and has now become part of the Northern Alliance, had initially wanted to kill the women and girls whose honor was seen as stained, according to Mena. It occurred to me that she knew a great deal of detail about what had happened. My Afghan interpreter turned to me and quietly indicated that Mena was telling her own story—in the third person. As this sank in, Mena asked me rhetorically, "Who takes responsibility? This commander, that commander? I do not know. No one takes responsibility."

I was only able to hear these stories because of the work of the Afghan Women’s Council, which brought the women together in their clinic and helped gather their testimony. In Peshawar, Pakistan, the Council publishes a newsletter and runs both a clinic and a school for Afghan refugees, despite the abduction of one of its nurses and frequent threats. There are a number of other Afghan women’s groups and initiatives, including the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA;, which has several thousand members and advocates for Afghan women’s rights, and the Afghan Women’s Network, which publicizes the plight of Afghan women internationally. When I visited Afghanistan, I already was aware of the country’s legendary suffering. But I did not know of the long-standing efforts of Afghan women to improve the situation, for women and men, in their own country. Despite the devastated Kabul neighborhoods I toured where every single dwelling and store had been leveled by bombing, the most lasting image I have of Afghanistan is of these intrepid women, ignored by the international community, threatened at home, but determined to make a difference.

I remember visiting the Afghan Women’s Council clinic in the punishing Pakistani summer heat. It was the only healthcare facility available to many refugee women. Upon hearing our voices—foreign voices—a pregnant woman being examined in one room bolted off the table and came out in the hall, crying and angry, demanding to know what the international community would do to change life for Afghans. She, like Mena, wanted to know who would take responsibility.

This is part of what was missing for me in Mrs. Bush’s radio address and in many discussions in this country of the plight of Afghan women before and since—some acceptance of responsibility, some small reminder of our own complicity in making Afghanistan a haven for theocratic lunacy and repression of women. With our support—along with that of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other allies—of any group (no matter how extreme its ideology) that opposed the illegal Soviet invasion and occupation, fundamentalist armed groups mushroomed. The United States’s support reportedly included weapons, training, and copious funding (according to the BBC, 3.3 billion dollars). As Amnesty International noted in a 1995 report, "Since 1979, the human rights crisis in Afghanistan has been exacerbated by outside powers. The Soviet Union, the United States, and governments in countries neighboring Afghanistan have consistently put their political interests above the human rights of Afghans." Though fundamentalist movements are clearly produced by both internal and external forces in any context, we must remember that the Taliban may never have risen to power had we and the former Soviet Union not played a cold war game with the life of another country.

Furthermore, now that the United States has removed the Taliban from power and, in part, bolstered its claim for the right to do so on that force’s brutal repression of women, we have an even greater obligation to do all we can to ensure that Afghan women are effectively able to realize their rights. Writing in The Nation magazine, journalist Jan Goodwin suggested that the two key elements necessary to achieve this are funding and security.

With regard to funding, the World Bank predicted that the reconstruction of Afghanistan might cost about ten billion dollars over the next ten years, however, so far the international community has only pledged some 4.5 billion dollars, and even that reportedly has not been forthcoming. The United States pledged 296 million dollars at the Tokyo Conference in January 2002, which, as Goodwin points out, is paltry compared to the one billion dollars per month that the U.S. government says it spends on the war on terrorism. Two hundred and ninety-six million dollars is but a drop in the bucket of the "Marshall Plan" Amnesty International recently called for to reconstruct Afghanistan, but should be immediately forthcoming as a first step. Additionally, Congress and the Bush administration must fully fund the "Afghan Women and Children Relief Act," enacted in December 2001 to provide education and healthcare for Afghan women and children.

On the security front, Human Rights Watch has called on the international community to support the expansion of the mandate and duration of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and more than sixty aid groups have also called directly on the United Nations Security Council to do so. A viable international peacekeeping force that could be deployed not only in Kabul but throughout the entire country could help ensure security for Afghan women, particularly if it included a gender-sensitive human rights monitoring component. It is vital that the U.S. government support such a plan. In addition, U.S. forces should immediately desist in providing direct support to individual warlords in Afghanistan, as has recently been reported by human rights groups.

Improving Afghan women’s human rights is not merely a question of substituting one fundamentalist armed group for another, but of disbanding and disarming such groups and replacing them with viable, gender-sensitive national institutions. So far, the celebrated Ministry of Women’s Affairs is reportedly so starved for funding that it can barely pay its staff. Former Women’s Affairs Minister Sima Samar, recognized by President Bush during his State of the Union Address, has so far not been given a post in the new Afghan government, nor has her position been filled. Instead, she has been threatened with charges of blasphemy. In this climate, the Bush administration’s vocal support for the inclusion and empowerment of Afghan women is vital. Direct financial assistance to the women’s ministry and insistence on security for its staff are essential.

With regard to providing funding and security to support Afghan women, time is of the essence. I was horrified to read in an aptly titled Human Rights Watch document "Return of the Warlords: June 2002" that, "in many ways, Afghanistan today resembles Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when regional commanders were consolidating their power before the onset of the savage civil war that followed the fall of the Soviet-sponsored Communist government." The early 1990s was the period in which most of the Afghan women whose harrowing stories I heard on my trip were victimized. How many more Shokaras, Menas, and Habibas will there be in the months to come? Many, if the United States and the international community continue to bemoan the plight of Afghan women without fully embracing the responsibility to help them reshape, rebuild, and reclaim their country.

Bearing this in mind, I want to challenge the government of the United States and the new government of Afghanistan, as a first step, to ratify CEDAW together. Both nations have signed, but not ratified, the convention that requires states to take comprehensive measures to combat a range of violations of women’s human rights, including gender-based violence. Afghanistan signed on in August 1980 while under Soviet occupation; the United States did so in July of the same year under the Carter administration. Both the Soviet invasion and subsequent Reagan administration’s support for virtually any group that would oppose the invasion contributed to the grave deterioration of Afghan women’s human rights that followed. By ratifying CEDAW together, the United States and Afghanistan can begin to break the link to that terrible past. Through subsequent actions to implement these treaty obligations, life can be concretely improved for Afghan women.

Though CNN’s cameras have left Kabul to cover other urgent stories, our commitment to the rights of Afghan women must not wane. As we have discovered, in the most tragic of ways, our fate and theirs are linked. Nothing could better symbolize the positive aspects of that connection and the renunciation of its dark side than the simultaneous ratification of CEDAW by the United States and Afghanistan. Ratification by each country requires successfully challenging religious fundamentalists and extremists, the very thing that many Afghan women see as crucial to winning their long-term human rights struggle. Ultimately, ratification would represent a visible international acceptance of legal responsibility for ensuring women’s human rights.

Karima Bennoune

Karima Bennoune, a former legal advisor for Amnesty International, is an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey.