Will London Conference deliver for Afghan women’s rights? | ActionAid UK

Rachel Noble

Women's Rights Policy Adviser

Next week, Afghanistan’s newly elected President will be in London, meeting ministers from across the world to decide immediate priorities for Afghanistan’s future. Although the UK government has promised to make women’s rights a priority at the conference, our women's rights expert, Rachel Noble, explains why the rights of women in Afghanistan are hanging in the balance.

An inmate at a women's prison in Herat, Afghanistan
An inmate at a women's prison in Herat, Afghanistan.

Imagine facing the daily threat of assassination every time you travelled to your job as a member of parliament. Imagine fleeing your home to escape beatings and rape, only to find yourself prosecuted by police while your tormentors walk free. Imagine going to school under threat of attack by armed insurgents. Despite the gains made in advancing women’s rights over the last 13 years, this is still the reality facing many Afghan women and girls today.

On 4 December, Afghanistan’s newly elected President, Ashraf Ghani, will be in London for the London Conference on Afghanistan 2014 to meet with senior ministers from around the world to decide the immediate priorities for Afghanistan’s future. As the NATO combat mission ends this year, there is a real risk that international attention and support to Afghan women’s rights could wane, and that the fragile but significant gains made since the US-led invasion could stall or go into reverse.

Indeed, figures released today by ActionAid in a new briefing, Hanging in the balance, show that five years on from the historical introduction of Afghanistan’s Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, almost two thirds of Afghan women have no confidence in the judicial system, while over half say they have no confidence in local police, with levels of trust down 13 per cent since 2008.

Culture of impunity persists

This is perhaps not surprising given the persistent culture of impunity for violence against women and girls — whether at home, at school or in public life — with justice for most far beyond reach

For instance, 87 per cent of women in Afghanistan suffer domestic violence. Yet shockingly, women are apparently more likely to be prosecuted for attempting to flee or report violence than those who perpetrate it. 

While there were 478 convictions under the EVAW law in 2012/13, 600 women were in prison for ‘moral crimes’ in May 2013. ‘Moral crimes’ include ‘running away’ and extramarital sexual relations (known as zina) — accusations frequently levelled at women and girls attempting to escape domestic violence, forced marriage, or who have been raped. In 2012 Human Rights Watch found almost half women in prison and virtually all girls in juvenile detention centres were there under such circumstances. 

Violence against women is also widespread outside the home.  Attacks on schools by armed insurgents are increasing, with girls’ schools particularly targeted. And women in public life – activists, teachers, politicians, policewomen – literally put their lives on the line in their efforts to promote the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. 

Just this month, a suicide bomber blew up the car carrying MP and women’s rights advocate, Shukria Barakzai. Barakzai survived, but three bystanders lost their lives.

Promises to Afghan women must be upheld

As well as being a gross violation of human rights, violence against women is a poignant indicator of wider development and security progress in Afghanistan.  Clearly there is much more that urgently needs to be done.

The UK government has said it is making women’s rights a priority at the London Conference. This is welcome, but Afghan women must be in the room when all issues are being discussed, so they can play an equal role in determining a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable future for their country. It is their right to do so, as recognised under seven UN Security Council Resolutions.

The UK and international community must use the London Conference to redouble their commitment to women in Afghanistan, both in terms of supporting the effective implementation of the EVAW law, as well as by directing funding to grassroots women’s organisations working in the front line struggle for women’s rights.


Download our new briefing on women’s rights in Afghanistan


Follow @ActionAid UK, Rachel and Rowan on Twitter and #Afghanfuture to get latest updates from the London Conference on Afghanistan on 4 December.