Background Information: Promoting the Advancement of Women and Girls’ Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan

Despite significant progress over the last decade, Afghanistan is still recovering from more than 30 years of conflict. It now faces an unstable security environment and remains among the least developed countries worldwide, ranking 175th of 187 in the 2013 UN Human Development Report. Planning, implementing and monitoring an aid program in Afghanistan comes with the challenge of operating in a hostile security environment. The Afghan people face poverty, food insecurity exacerbated by undiscovered landmines and unexploded ordnances, and frequent natural and man-made disasters. Of an estimated population of 33.4 million, 36 percent live below the poverty line. One in five children dies before the age of five, and the maternal mortality ratio is 400 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In 2013, the United Nations observed a significant spike in the killing and maiming of children in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is listed in the report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict as having committed other such grave violations against children. The average adult life expectancy is 61 years and over 60 percent of the population is under 25. With an estimated annual population growth rate of 2.9 percent, the Government of Afghanistan will continue to face challenges in delivering quality social services. Adding additional complexity, Afghanistan balances complex interstate relationships in the region. The importance of regionally owned solutions is being increasingly recognized and all neighbouring countries (China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have a stake in Afghanistan's well-being.

Status of Women and Girls in Afghanistan

Progress has been made over the past 13 years regarding the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. Today, more than three million girls are enrolled in either formal or community-based schools, maternal mortality rates have decreased by more than 70 percent, and child mortality has been reduced by half. However, these gains are fragile and the status of gender equality in Afghanistan remains among the worst in the world, ranking 147 out of 148 countries on the United Nation's 2013 Gender Inequality Index. Decades of conflict and fragility have deepened and legitimized the practices that deny women and girls their human rights, mobility and opportunity, and ultimately their equal status with men and boys.

While Afghan women leaders continue to take on a stronger role in recognizing and claiming their human rights, they also express concern that recent gains in the advancement of the human rights of women and girls may be rolled back in the context of the transition towards Afghan-led security. For example, national security forces have been found responsible for verified incidents of sexual violence against girls and boys. Schools continue to be attacked by parties to conflict or indirectly damaged in clashes—girls' schools are specifically targeted. Additionally, political will, social and cultural practices that reinforce gender inequality and weak institutional capacity continue to hinder progress. Key issues which perpetuate the overall low status of women and gender inequality include: insecurity due to conflict and limited access to justice; low participation of women in politics and governance; pervasive violence against women; cultural practices that undermine women and girls' rights; lack of implementation of laws that protect women; poor access to health services; poverty and economic dependence on men; inadequate access to education and high female adult illiteracy. 

Afghan Government Commitments

The Government Afghanistan has made a number of advances toward installing a legal framework to protect women's rights. Afghanistan ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1983, the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, including the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2003. Afghanistan's 2004 Constitution enshrines a range of civil and political rights for its citizens and guarantees equality between men and women. In 2007, the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan was established, a ten-year plan which delineates Afghanistan's National Development Strategy commitments to women in concrete terms. In addition, the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW Law) was passed by Presidential decree in 2009 which criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women and girls. The Afghan government has recently approved a National Action Plan for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 related to women, peace and security (yet to be publicly released). The Afghan government has made progress on its Action Plan to End and Prevent the Recruitment and Use of Children: successes include establishing child protection units within national and local police recruitment centres.

At the 2012 Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, the Afghan government reaffirmed its commitment to implement gender equality and women's right through the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, a mechanism used to monitor the progress of the Afghan government and the international community against mutually established indicators.

Violence against Women and Girls

The United Nations General Assembly defines violence against women as “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

Despite constitutional provisions and national and international commitments to support the elimination of violence against women, the state of violence against women and girls remains a tragic reality in Afghanistan. A Global Rights survey estimated that 87 percent of women in Afghanistan experience at least one form of physical, psychological or sexual violence in their lifetime, and an estimated 62 percent experience multiple forms of violence. Child, early, and forced marriage is of particular concern, with approximately 53 percent of girls married by the age of 18. With respect to protecting children, and girls in particular, from violence, 2014 UNICEF figures indicate that violent discipline and wife beating are among the highest in the world. Overall, 90 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 believe that wife-beating in certain circumstances is justified, and 74 percent of children aged 2–14 years have experienced violent discipline (psychological aggression and/or physical punishment) in the span of just one month. 

There is a general lack of awareness of legal rights across much of the country and implementation of laws to protect women and girls is weak. In cases where women and girls are aware of their rights and legal recourse, they often fear asserting their rights due to personal security concerns, strong or deep-rooted traditional customs, and the psychological obstacle of shame. Further, systems to support survivors of violence are severely under-developed. Service provider responses to survivors require strengthening, including access to legal aid and shelters. Weak economic empowerment of women contributes to the perpetration of violence and limits the realization of many rights. 

The Law on Elimination of Violence against Women

The landmark Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW Law) passed by Presidential decree in 2009 is the most important legal step taken to date to criminalize violence against women and bring perpetrators to justice. The EVAW Law criminalizes, for the first time, forced marriage, selling and buying women for the purpose, or under the pretext, of marriage, baad (giving away a woman or girl to settle a dispute), forced self-immolation and 17 other acts of violence against women including rape and beating. It also specifies punishment for perpetrators and obliges the Afghan government to take protective and supportive measures in favour of victims. 

The EVAW Law outlines specific obligations for government ministries and establishes a national High and provincial Commissions for the Prevention of Violence against Women responsible for planning and measuring implementation of the law. The Ministry of Women's Affairs (MoWA) has the overall responsibility to monitor, promote awareness, coordinate data collection and develop an annual report on the implementation of the law. MoWA also ensures linkages between governmental and non-governmental agencies to implement programs for survivors of violence.

The First Report on the Implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women Law, published in 2014, reported on 4,505 cases of violence against women registered from March 2012 to March 2013 in Afghanistan. The most prevalent form of violence reported was beating, battery and laceration. The report revealed high rates of murder, forced marriage, sexual assault and rape. Of all the cases recorded, only 11.5 percent followed formal legal processes, while the majority of cases were “resolved” through unregulated mediation. This demonstrates that despite formal legal guarantees, the courts and society largely act within an informal and unregulated framework of conservative social norms and discriminatory cultural attitudes towards the rights of women and girls. In many cases, Afghans continue to rely on the informal justice system—with cases “resolved” by community elders using customary laws and tribal codes that afford little, if any, respect for the rights of women and girls.

Shadow reporting on the implementation of the EVAW Law highlights trends that continue to undermine women's access to justice, such as the continued wrongful prosecution of women and girls for committing “moral crimes” like running away from home to escape forced marriage or abusive situations. The number of honour killings also appears to be on the rise. A higher number of cases are being reported to authorities, which demonstrates a positive shift toward women coming forward and enhanced public awareness of women's issues. However, the majority of incidences continue to go unreported. Poor knowledge of police, prosecutors and courts on the law itself and their roles and responsibilities hinder implementation of the law. As well, women and girls are still largely unaware of their rights, and support services for survivors of violence are seriously lacking. Economic empowerment opportunities to support survivors are also few and far between.

Civil Society Organizations

The development of civil society organizations (CSOs) has progressed significantly over the last decade. An assessment of Afghan civil society supported by USAID in 2011 reveals that there has been a substantial increase in the number of CSOs focusing on women's issues. About half of CSOs interviewed focus primarily on women's issues and name women as the main beneficiaries of their activities (up from one fifth in 2005). They also indicate that they spend 40 percent or more of their budgets on women's programs. Many CSOs are also increasingly engaging with the media and concentrating on women's rights and mainstreaming gender equality. Women are also playing an increasing role in CSOs as both paid staff and volunteers. Success in outreach and advocacy is also noticeable at the community level due to women's increasing capacity and reach. Ongoing efforts by civil society in promoting women's access to justice, identifying gender-based violence interventions at national and regional levels, and demanding basic service delivery across the country are evident.

Civil society has also been an important stakeholder in enhancing government programs, policies and accountability mechanisms to support national commitments on women's rights. For example, CSOs were proactive in bringing forward key concerns to the Afghan government's attention at the recent Oslo Symposium on Advancing Women's Rights and Empowerment in Afghanistan, such as meaningful involvement of women in peace processes and support for policies and programs on women's economic empowerment. CSOs have also demonstrated a coordinated approach to critiquing Afghan government deliverables in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework with the goal of promoting transparency, accountability and equality.

Overall, however, CSOs still have a long way to go to operate in a truly cohesive manner and to promote and protect women and girls' rights fully. Lessons from previous DFATD funding to civil society to support the advancement of women in Afghanistan show that CSOs still have considerable work ahead in establishing and strengthening networks which would allow for increased knowledge sharing and coordinating advocacy and programming efforts. The development of CSOs outside of large cities has also been slow, affecting overall collaboration and reach. In addition, CSOs and women's organizations often apply a delivery approach where women are seen only as beneficiaries or recipients of aid rather than an empowerment approach which emphasizes gender equality, rights and empowerment in programming and activities. There is still a limited understanding of women's rights by both men and women across Afghanistan and a greater need to engage a broad range of stakeholders on this issue from relevant government ministries to religious leaders. Civil society and women's organizations have a continued and important role to play to help increase economic empowerment, access to justice, and democratization. Building the capacity of CSOs, women's organizations, their networks and relevant government partners to enhance programming, policies and accountability mechanisms to support national commitments to women's rights is equally critical. 

Lessons Learned and Best Practices for the Advancement of Women and Girls' Rights and Empowerment

  • Women and girls should be engaged in project design and monitoring, and in defining policy priorities that affect them.
  • Afghan women and girls should be central in decision-making about eliminating violence, as they know best their own needs and priorities.
  • Providing leadership training for young women helps enable them to play a greater role in national and local decision-making.
  • Men and boys have to be engaged to develop and support a strong enabling environment for gender equality and women's empowerment in Afghanistan. Male champions of women's rights in the community, leadership positions, religious circles, and government ministries increases the effectiveness of interventions. They can be influential allies in advancing women's rights and promoting more balanced partnerships between men and women.
  • The media can be a very effective tool for supporting appropriate and targeted messaging on women and girls' rights and empowerment, particularly to support communications and awareness in rural areas.
  • Progress for gender equality and women's rights is not linear. In Afghanistan, periods of progress have sometimes been followed by regression and backlash. A high degree of innovation and creativity and strong risk management are required in a fragile country such as Afghanistan.
  • It is important to focus not only on the national level but also to work at the provincial and local levels where the lives of most Afghans, especially women and girls, are most affected. Women and girls in rural communities are often more marginalized and have limited or no access to development programming. 
  • Violence against women should be addressed through holistic and multi-sectoral interventions such as access to justice, service delivery, governance and capacity building. Holistic and multi-sectoral program approaches to promote prevention and early intervention are more likely to have impact.
  • Social change addressing behaviour and practices at all levels, including in families and communities, increases protective factors and minimizes risks.
  • Economic empowerment is critical to addressing issues of violence against women as it generally increases social mobility and independence for women. Economic gains and greater decision-making by women leads to increased respect in their households and communities and typically reduces violence.
  • Developing and strengthening CSOs, networks, and linkages nationally and across regions is essential to support coordinated advocacy, programming and momentum on women and girls' rights and empowerment.