Nine years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan continue to fight for basic human rights. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, knows exactly what the stakes are.
After spending more than a decade in exile, Samar returned to Afghanistan in 2002 and took a series of high-level posts with the interim government. But later the same year, she was forced to resign from her position as deputy president amid death threats and harassment. Samar’s offence: questioning conservative Islamic law.
Now, as the debate over the future of Canada’s role in Afghanistan plays out in Parliament and across the country, Samar says that there is still much the international community can do for Afghan women. She also claims that Canada is positioned to play a leading role in those efforts.
“We will not achieve peace and security in this world unless we really empower women and make women full participants of peace-building and peace processes,” she said in a telephone interview from Kabul, Afghanistan. “This cannot be achieved without the protection of human rights.”
Samar’s sense of urgency is shared by a number of groups working to improve the lives of Afghan women.
In advance of her Saturday (November 20) public lecture at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Samar told the Georgia Straight she believes that the Canadian military’s withdrawal scheduled for July 2011 is premature. Samar warned that if all NATO forces pull out of the country, a security vacuum will leave Afghan women’s rights in even greater jeopardy.
“One of the problems that we have is lack of political commitment to the promotion of human rights,” she said. “It is not really at the top of the agenda of the [Afghan] government, nor the international community.”
Samar, a former minister of women’s affairs, suggested that if there’s one thing the world can do for Afghanistan, it is to support education. “Education is really the most basic tool in order to fight for our rights,” she added.
Kieran Green recently coauthored a report for CARE Canada that calls on the Canadian government to make Afghan women’s rights a top priority. At the centre of that report is the recommendation that Canada help remove barriers that Afghan girls face when trying to access schooling, especially higher education.
“Afghanistan has actually come a very long way in education for girls,” Green told the Straight from Ottawa. He said that female enrollment in Afghan schools has grown exponentially since NATO forces drove out the Taliban in 2001.
“But that is primary education,” Green noted. “None of the donor community has put equal effort into building opportunities for girls after they finish primary school.”
As the projects director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Lauryn Oates has made education her organization’s focus.
Speaking from her home on Bowen Island, she told the Straight that in 2008, more than 1,500 Afghans graduated from CWWA’s teacher-training program. But despite the group’s obvious success, Oates said that support for that project may be drying up.
“We’ve run out of funding from CIDA [the Canadian International Development Agency],” she explained. “The government keeps saying there will be aid, but they haven’t been forthcoming on what, exactly, the plan is.”
Oates, who has visited Afghanistan 19 times since 2001, maintains that an emphasis on education contributes to the fight against the Taliban.
“This is a security strategy,” she said. “It is not just aid or development. This is also fundamentally about cutting off the Taliban’s pool of recruitment, because the Taliban recruit among the poor, illiterate, uneducated Afghans.”
From Kabul, Samar argued that although Afghanistan’s government is rife with corruption, support should still be given to those who deserve it.
“There are good people also,” she said. “There are people who really want democracy, who really want the rule of law in this country.”
With their track record of good governance, Samar continued, women can tackle corruption and improve the lives of all Afghans.
How could the withdrawal of foreign forces affect Afghan women?
Dr. Sima Samar
“I don’t think that we will benefit because for the moment, the security forces in Afghanistan are not in a position to protect the people or to protect the country in general. So I think it will be a premature withdrawal.”¦I think that if they stay, they will provide security. Because they at least fight the Taliban and push out the Taliban from those areas.”
“The situation of women, rather than their status, hasn’t been improved by the presence of the troops. And I don’t imagine women”¦will be changed much by their withdrawal. Except for the factor that they will be physically safer and so will their families. They won’t run the risk of the arbitrary deaths of their children, the arbitrary destruction of their homes, and the arbitrary capture and killing of their husbands and sons and relatives that they now risk.”
“I honestly don’t think it would change for the worse. I don’t think that what the West has been doing there has been substantial in any way in improving the situation of women in Afghanistan. And I think that it [a withdrawal] would provide opportunities for the whole country to work in more creative and collaborative ways to improve everybody’s lives, but particularly women’s.”
“Since the troops came to Afghanistan, it has helped Afghan women go back to school and to go back to their jobs.”¦Afghan women believe that if foreign troops stay in Afghanistan, they will have a better chance of achieving their goals of education, of jobs, of a better future. But if the foreign troops leave gradually, then Afghan women will not have those opportunities in hand that they had before.”
Dr. Hedy Fry
“We don’t understand what the forces that are remaining on a nonwar mission are going to actually do. We can’t get that information out of our particular prime minister, to tell us anything at all about what the mission is going to look like. And what my concern is, is that they have now suddenly withdrawn a lot of the money for the aid projects that we have had there.”¦I think that we could very well find that some of the women are going to be in trouble as a result of this.”
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