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(Kabul) – The Afghan government should adopt strong measures to protect women’s rights in advance of the deadline at the end of 2014 for withdrawal of international combat forces, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 10, 2013, Afghanistan will for the first time appear before the United Nations committee that will review its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

In recent weeks, several incidents have increased concerns about the government’s commitment to women’s rights. In May, President Hamid Karzai told women’s rights activists that he is unable to support further efforts to protect Afghanistan’s law against violence against women. Also in May, an effort to gain parliamentary approval for a key law on violence against women ended in shambles, and the lower house of parliament voted to abolish a set-aside for women on provincial councils.

“President Karzai needs to understand just how high the stakes are for Afghanistan in the debate over women’s rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Donors should be clear that if Afghanistan doesn’t defend women’s rights, the money will no longer flow for the army or the police.”

Several women’s rights activists told Human Rights Watch that Karzai told them at a May meeting that he “had done all he could for them and could not do any more” to protect the 2009 Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (the EVAW Law). They said he advised them specifically to stop advocating for stronger enforcement of the EVAW Law.

Several members of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, have expressed  increasing hostility toward women’s rights and appear to be making a concerted effort to roll rights protections back. A Wolesi Jirga debate over Afghanistan’s groundbreaking EVAW Law in May was halted after only 15 minutes when several parliamentarians called for changes to the law, including abolishing the minimum age for marriage for girls. In ensuing days, several protests were held in major cities calling for repeal of the EVAW Law.

In mid-May, the Wolesi Jirga passed a revision of Afghanistan’s Electoral Law. While the prior version of the Electoral Law guaranteed that at least 25 percent of seats in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial councils would be reserved for female candidates, the amended law removed this provision and provides no set-aside provincial council seats for women. The law was sent to the upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, for review, and it reinserted the language providing a set-aside for women on provincial councils. As required by the Afghan constitution, in circumstances in which the two houses of parliament produce different versions of the law, a joint commission of the two houses will now be formed to try to reconcile the differences and reach agreement on a final version of the law for adoption by both houses.

“The parliamentarians attacking laws affecting women’s rights are the same ones who, a month ago, said that 9-year-old girls are old enough to marry,” Adams said. “President Karzai and both houses of parliament should not allow those extremely hostile to women’s rights to destroy 12 years of progress for women and their future hopes.”

The EVAW Law, which was passed by presidential decree in 2009, remains valid law. The United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubiš, has called on the Afghan government to focus greater effort on enforcing the law, in the wake of the troubled parliamentary debate.

Afghanistan’s provincial councils play a key role in overseeing and guiding provincial government. Membership in a provincial council is also the main route to appointment to the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house, as at present two-thirds of Meshrano Jirga members are selected from provincial councils. Afghanistan’s constitution provides set-aside seats for women in both the upper and lower houses of the Afghan parliament. The constitution does not mandate a set-aside for women in the provincial councils.

The last major development conference on Afghanistan, held in Tokyo in July 2012, resulted in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, which sets out commitments by both the Afghan government and its international partners for the years ahead. The framework states that, “Strengthened governance and institutions with a particular focus on the rights of women are prerequisites for strong and sustainable economic growth, employment generation, and prosperity for the Afghan people.” It also states that, “Progress from the past decade in areas that underpin sustained economic growth and development, especially for women and girls, such as education, health, and other basic services, as well as strengthened respect for human rights, must continue.” 

“Weakening Afghanistan’s tenuous respect for women’s rights is incompatible with the clear language and the intentions of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework,” Adams said. “This is a crucial time for donors to make it clear to the Afghan government that they will not continue to write checks to a country that is failing to defend women’s rights.”

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