Will NATO leave Afghan women at risk?

By — September 20, 2012

“I have said that Afghanistan not only needs building construction, but also mental construction.”

–Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, member of the Afghan Parliament

After a decade in Afghanistan, NATO member states are preparing to remove their troops. The organization and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) it leads have shifted from combat to preparing local forces for transition. Yet for the country to thrive post-war, ISAF will have to place special emphasis on gender issues. In a nation where women’s rights are trampled daily, the international community must prepare Afghan forces to safeguard them.  

The war in Afghanistan won’t really be over until women’s rights are safe.

Under the Taliban, girls were banned from attending school, medical treatment was often refused to them, and women and girls were routinely subjected to ongoing violence and discrimination. According to a poll by TrustLaw, Afghanistan still ranks as one of the worse countries to be a woman, mostly due to ongoing violence and sexualized violence, poor or inexistent access to healthcare, and extreme poverty. Forced marriages, sexualized violence, domestic abuse, and lack of participation in economic, public, and social life still plague most Afghan women.  

However, the overall situation of women has, to some extent, improved. Since 2001, women have partially escaped a solely male-dominated society and are participating in the transition of their country: 69 women sit in parliament, women’s rights organizations operate on the ground, and numerous girls have regained access to education. ISAF’s activities have been somewhat limited in terms of gender-sensitive practices, but they have still been helpful. The forces’ upcoming departure constitutes one of the biggest threats to the security and rights of Afghan women. 

In just a few months, ISAF will hand security matters over to the Afghan National Police and the Afghanistan Local Police—a group that ultimately has a terrible track record.

Now that combat is no longer the object, ISAF has redefined its mission: Its duties include reducing the “capability and will” of the insurgency, supporting the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitating “improvements in governance and socioeconomic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.” ISAF also declares that it will strengthen the institutions needed to promote human rights.  

Yet in just a few months, ISAF will hand security matters over to the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghanistan Local Police (ALP)—a group that ultimately falls under the ANP and that has a terrible track record. CNN has reported on cases of rape allegedly committed by ALP officers. A report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documents instances of murder and corruption, among other abuses, committed by officers. Human Rights Watch has published a litany of problems with the ALP, including cases of men affiliated with the ALP sexually attacking citizens and an overall sense that the group is more an unwieldy militia than a reliable police force.  

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament and women’s rights advocate, told CNN that the police force is riddled with criminals and former Taliban. “In many cases they don’t respect the rule of law,” she said. “They end up violating women’s rights especially.”  

Given that ISAF will be handing power to a group that has been unreliable at best and violent to women at worst, how will it ensure that human rights are protected—or that the improvements in governance it aims to make are not just “observable” to men?  

First, in order to prevent further violations of women’s rights, ISAF’s withdrawal should be closely linked with a defined gender strategy. NATO and ISAF should initiate a gender mainstreaming policy: an effort ensuring that the goal of gender equality is considered in all policies, programs, or plans within the military, judiciary, and police fields. As any new law or program will affect men and women in different ways, security personnel should be trained so that their actions will benefit, and not harm, all groups.

Consider the problem of a male police force. Due to Afghan cultural norms, it is most common for Afghan women to be accompanied by a male relative. If a woman is taken away in a car, interrogated, or body-searched without a male relative present, her family may assume that she was raped or abused—and shun her. If interrogated by a female, she can avoid being shunned. Similarly, if border police subject a fully veiled woman to a body search, cultural norms are broken. But if there are female officers available at checkpoints, they can do their jobs without offending the local population. Incorporating women officers in the ANP is key to making the current transition period successful.

The Afghan government must also publicly state its commitment to pursuing and protecting women’s rights, including women’s political participation, protection from domestic violence and forced marriage, access to education, and rights to participate in the social and economic life of their country. The international community, for its part, should continue to hold the government accountable for its commitments to women’s rights even after foreign troops have left.

And, perhaps most important, ISAF must create a mechanism for follow-up measures to be conducted after its departure. A continuous monitoring of the number of women in security forces, for instance, should be put in place so that efforts are maintained. Striving toward gender equality doesn’t work without a way to protect advances made along the way.

Although these types of activities have not been at the core of their strategy over the past decade, NATO and ISAF have no choice but to take gender-specific steps. Without gender sensitization, training, and accountability in the next few months, we run the risk of witnessing a return to anarchy—or to Taliban rule.

In either case, one thing is clear: Women would be the first group attacked.