Afghan Women Confront Human Rights Crisis
Posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 2009
To help shore up domestic support for its war in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration spoke often of the need to free Afghan women from the Taliban. Indeed, that regime robbed women of even a minimal degree of self-determination, violating basic rights to education, employment, healthcare, freedom of movement and freedom from violence.
After the Taliban was deposed by the US, women’s circumstances improved somewhat, mainly in the cities. Yet for the vast majority of Afghan women, US promises of freedom never materialized.
Many Afghan women are adamant that only they themselves can secure their rights and that human rights cannot be enforced by an occupying army. As activists, they face tremendous challenges, including an ongoing war and entrenched gender-based abuse that makes Afghanistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman.
Here are some of the conditions that Afghan women confront everyday:
- Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth. Afghanistan suffers the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with every pregnant woman running a one in eight risk of dying from complications.
- The average woman’s life expectancy is 44 years. Among women of childbearing age, preventable complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death.
- Women’s right to access health care is violated by attitudes forbidding a woman to see a male doctor. The risk is compounded by the lack of trained female health workers. One man in southeastern Afghanistan explained how tradition took precedence over a woman’s life, saying, “I will not take my wife to a male doctor even if she dies.”
- Drought, high food prices and ongoing violence have caused food shortages and malnutrition, particularly for pregnant women. Nearly one quarter of breastfeeding women are malnourished.
- Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have been denied the right to education and cannot read.
- Thirty percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan. In rural areas, this number is as low at 1%.
- Girls who attend school face the threat of attackers who throw acid at female students.
- Due to attacks by the Taliban, many schools are finding it increasingly difficult to operate. UNICEF has estimated that in four southern provinces, more than half of the 748 schools no longer provide any education at all.
Violence Against Women
- Some 95% of Afghan women face violence in the home. The judiciary system provides scant recourse for survivors of violence against women.
- Women who face domestic violence can be pushed to tragic extremes, and increasingly, women are turning to suicide through self-immolation. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate is higher among women than men.
- Seventy to eighty percent of Afghan women face forced marriages, and half of all girls are married before age 16. Widespread poverty perpetuates this abuse. For many poor families, marrying off a daughter may bring in urgently-needed money.
- Just this year, the Afghan parliament passed a new law, legalizing marital rape and imposing severe limits on women’s human rights. The law, which applies to the Shiite population, forbids women to refuse their husbands sex and requires a husband’s permission to leave the house, seek a job, attend school, or see the doctor. In April, Afghan women’s rights activists risked their lives to publicly protest this law. President Karzai later confessed that he had not read the full text of the law before signing it.
- Women’s freedom of movement, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the population lives, is still constrained by the threat of male violence. As one rural woman explained, “We couldn’t go out during the Taliban [rule]. Now we are free and we can go out, but we don't.”
- After the fall of Taliban, many women were able to return to work and take on political offices. In 2005, a quota system allowed women to occupy 27% of seats in the lower house of the new parliament. These women have faced harassment and death threats and even assassination. Women who became police officers, politicians, television hosts, and more have been killed by ultra-conservatives for exercising their most basic rights.