Never will women’s rights be sacrificed in talks with the Taliban and never will the Afghan government close women shelters. These are the promises President Karzai made to his people in the middle of a heated debate on women’s rights in Afghanistan. These are two major commitments. Judging by the overall political trends in the country, it might not be easy to stick to them. The Afghan population and international community should watch about the implementation and take the president by his word.
March 8 is an exceptional day in Afghanistan: men congratulate, women celebrate, and there are flowers and presents – all on the occasion of international women’s day. Nice as these festive elements are, they cannot distract the attention from the fact that the last decade’s achievements in women’s rights are still far from solid. Women’s visibility and participation have increased, but both in the older and the younger generation, there are many who do not seriously support women rights or who do not understand that a right is something granted – not given at a good-will basis and thus revocable at any time.
It is good, therefore, if the country’s highest authority speaks out on women’s rights and confirms the government’s commitment, as it happened in this year’s official women days celebration. President Hamid Karzai here addressed two concerns that recently have been at the focus of a debate on women’s rights in Afghanistan: “Women’s rights will never be sacrificed in the peace talks with the Taliban,” President Karzai said. In another part of his speech he referred to the issue of women shelters. Here, the president underlined that the government does not want to take control of them. The international community should, however, transfer the money designated for the shelters to the ministry of finance and it should be administered through the ministry of women affairs (MoWA), he added.
While this sounds like a minor change, looking at figures and numbers it might be quite an important issue who controls the funds. Only last week, governmental statistics were released, showing that so far only 25 percent of last year’s budget has been spent. That is less than in previous years where the ratio was between 33 percent and 43 percent. No specific figures for the Ministry of Finance were given, but with the most efficient ministry’s spending at 49 percent and the one with the lowest performance at only 1.5 percent, one gets an idea at least. Therefore it seems ambitious to demand at this point of time for of more funds to be channelled through governmental institutions since that would impose an even greater burden on their administration and thus casting a shadow of doubt on the question whether the shelters could rely on regular fund transfers as they could so far.
Apart from these financial issues, the public is still waiting for the publication of an official document on the settlement on the shelters’ issue. In a meeting between representatives of the government, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and women shelters’ representatives, a compromise has been agreed upon but the final version has not yet been confirmed.
This document is important, however, because during the debate various political actors raised their voice and not of all of them it was clear on whose behalf they spoke. It all started with a report of a TV channel. The program, notorious for its distorted display of reality and for trying to stir unrest without doing proper research on topics, had reported that women shelters were dens of corruption and prostitution. Regardless of the absence of supporting documents, the acting minister of women’s affairs, Hussan Banu Ghazanfar, addressed the subject in her own way: "We won't let anyone do whatever they want under the name of a safe-house," Ghazanfar said at a news conference. "We are able to defend the rights of our daughters and women." Instead of focusing on a policy-guided approach and dealing with the subject on a fact-based level, minister Ghazanfar conveyed the impression the ministry – by its very nature a policy making institution and not an implementer – wanted to take the shelters under its control.
Ms. Noor Marjan, deputy director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center that is engaged in running women shelters says: “We were surprised when the ministry of justice informed us about the ministry of women’s affairs’ initiative to control the shelters. For years we have been closely cooperating with that ministry. They are informed about our work, they have access to the shelters and representatives of the ministries come on a regular basis and visit our premises. We have no objections.” When she explains the provisions of MoWAs initiative, it becomes clear how little theory and reality would match: “It is being mentioned that the examination of the case and decision about admitting a woman to a shelter or not would take up to 72 hours. Who flees from home because and runs for her life needs flexible and immediate help which we can provide.”
So how comes that a ministry that should advocate women’s rights as granted by the Afghan constitution as well as stipulated in the international conventions the Afghan government has joined does not speak out for its constituency first? From the top political level to the grass-roots, customs and social norms still play a strong role in how people position themselves when talking publicly.
Here, unfortunately, with hardly any topic conservative feelings are mobilized more easily than with topics related to women affairs. It resonates well with the conservative circles of Afghanistan to curb women’s rights under the pretext of societal moral, and often it does not matter whether a factual basis to accusations can be established or not. Women do not have a strong lobby – as seen above not even among those who by office should protect their rights – which means that not many domestic actors will raise their voice in favour of them.
One reason for Minister Ghazanfar to position herself like this maybe personal tactics: The ministry of women’s affairs is among those in which since the re-election of President Karzai in late 2009 the inauguration of a new minister is pending. Several candidates were rejected by the parliament so far. Thus, the populist stance expressed by Ms Ghazanfar might serve the acting minister’s interest to cater to a conservative parliamentary majority to bolster her chances to be confirmed in office. And sadly on women’s day another official speaking in a celebration in Serena hotel said those who beat their wives should make sure not to harm their face since otherwise the neighbours would notice. That shows that still substantial progress in the understanding of women’s rights needs to be made.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and President Karzai’s respected advisor Minister Rangin Spanta have in the negotiations about the legal status of the women shelters and the governmental control over them played a very constructive role. They have shown that women rights are not a particular interest of the female half of the population but a topic relevant for the whole society. That President Karzai has publicly confirmed his commitment emphasizes the respect for women rights – a fact that definitively should be recalled when negotiations with the Taliban pick up.