Background article


THE SITUATION OF WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN

"Your country is now embarking on a process to create credible and accountable institutions in which all Afghans are represented. These are decisions for Afghan men and women to make. The role of the United Nations is to assist and encourage this process. But, I would like to take this opportunity to say to all Afghans: there cannot be true peace and recovery in Afghanistan without a restoration of the rights of women." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his statement to the Afghan Women's Summit for Democracy (Brussels, 4 to 5 December 2001)

Afghanistan is a country of approximately 23 million which, after three years of severe drought, 23 years of war and devastation and five years under the Taliban authorities, has been left as one of the poorest countries in the world. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Even before the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan had high maternal and child mortality rates and a very low literacy rate for women. But women participated economically, socially and politically in the life of their societies. Women helped to draft the 1964 Constitution. In the 1970s, there were at least three women legislators in the Parliament. Up to the early 1990s, women were teachers, government workers and medical doctors. They worked as professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and poets.

After the Taliban's rise to power, women and girls were systematically discriminated against and marginalized, and their human rights were violated. This resulted in the deteriorating economic and social conditions of women and girls in all areas of the country, in particular in areas under Taliban control. Women and girls continued to be severely restricted in their access to education, health care facilities and employment. During the Taliban's rule, only about 3 per cent of girls received some form of primary education. The ban on women's employment also affected boys' education, as the majority of teachers had been women. Poor health conditions and malnutrition made pregnancy and childbirth exceptionally dangerous for Afghan women.

The Taliban's policies also severely limited women's freedom of movement. Women could travel only when accompanied by a male relative, which put a particular strain on female-headed households and widows. In May 2001, a decree was issued by the Taliban, banning women from driving cars, which further limited their activities. The resulting seclusion of women to the home constituted a form of solitary confinement and also created obstacles to women meeting with each other. Women were harassed and beaten by the Taliban if their public appearance was perceived to be in contradiction with Taliban edicts. Women's removal from the public space also meant that women could not play any role in the political process and were excluded from all forms of formal or informal governance. Afghan women suffered domestic and other types of violence for the past 25 years, not just under the Taliban regime.

Prior to September 2001, the United Nations Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, with the UN agencies on the ground and UN senior staff within the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) continued to address issues related to the discrimination against women and girls. They made numerous efforts to negotiate the withdrawal of various discriminatory decrees, including those banning women's employment, which nevertheless remained in effect. The Afghanistan 2001 consolidated inter-agency appeal emphasized that the assistance community would collectively aim to expand access for Afghan women to education, health services and employment and income-generating activities.

Despite many years of concern about the situation of Afghan women, it is only now, under conditions of extreme tragedy, political violence and destruction, that the situation has propelled Afghanistan and the plight of its women and girls firmly back into the global spotlight. For the first time outside of the setting of the United Nations and of the international community, there is a groundswell of concern, from Parliaments to First Ladies, from entertainers and media stars to non-governmental organizations, all calling for the full recognition of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.


Actions by the international community

The United Nations Charter proclaims the equal rights of men and women. Two years ago, the groundbreaking United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) called for an end to impunity for war crimes committed against women and girls, but also recognized the need to increase women's role in peace negotiations and in peace-building. The United Nations has urged the Afghan parties to bring women into every stage of the political process; and the UN is recruiting Afghan women as quickly as it can to help to provide humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations and its family of organizations have had a long interest in Afghanistan. UNICEF set up its first office there 52 years ago. The situation of Afghanistan, in general, and the situation of women and girls in particular, have remained under intense scrutiny by several United Nations bodies, including the Security Council, the General Assembly, and several of the Economic and Social Council's functional commissions and expert bodies, in particular the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the Commission on the Status of Women.

In November 1997, Angela E.V. King, the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, led an inter-agency gender mission in Afghanistan, to specifically address issues related to discrimination against women and girls under the Taliban. The mission made a set of recommendations aiming to improve the gender situation within Afghanistan and in the United Nations system, so as to better serve the needs of Afghan women. One such recommendation was the appointment of a senior UN adviser on gender in Afghanistan.

After September 2001, the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women continued to address the situation of women's rights in Afghanistan in meetings with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and other senior officials within the United Nations system, in inter-agency consultations and in meetings with representatives of non-governmental organizations. She also facilitated contacts between Afghan women and women's organizations and the UN system and supported the organization of the Afghan Women's Summit in Brussels, and follow-up meetings with the Secretary-General and members of the Security Council in an Arria Formula meeting. She also called on Afghan women to return to their country and former jobs, including in the civil service and elsewhere.

The first Integrated Mission Task Force, which was established at UN Headquarters to advise the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, included a gender specialist from the Division for the Advancement of Women. Three Executive Committees, reporting to the Secretary-General, on Peace and Security, Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Development Group (UNDG), have been meeting regularly and have drawn up strategic recovery plans on the political process, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction of Afghanistan, including gender perspectives. In addition, the UNDG and Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs formed a Sub-Group on Gender in Afghanistan, to monitor developments on the ground in order to devise strategies to ensure that a gender perspective was mainstreamed in the peace negotiations and the reconstruction process.

On 14 November 2001, in its resolution 1378, the Security Council expressed its strong support for the efforts of the Afghan people to establish a new and transitional administration leading to the formation of a government, which would be broad-based, multi-ethnic and fully representative of all the Afghan people, and should respect human rights regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.

Most recently, on 30 January 2002, the 26th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women issued a statement of solidarity and support for Afghan women, which stated, among other things, that "The participation of Afghan women as full and equal partners with men is essential for the reconstruction and development of their country." The Committee also called upon all parties concerned to respect internationally recognized principles, norms and standards of human rights, particularly the human rights of women, in all their actions and activities, which the Committee considered essential to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Today, as the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan continues, a number of United Nations entities continue to be actively involved in improving the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. Some examples of this work includes:


Afghanistan at a Glance*



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