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Letter to the EU Commissioner for Development Piebalgs on women's rights in Afghanistan

EU support to women’s rights in Afghanistan

Dear Commissioner Piebalgs,

We are writing to urge you to ensure that women’s rights are a top priority in the new programming of EU development cooperation to Afghanistan for the period 2014-2020. This is a crucial time for the European Union to show its political and financial support to Afghan women and girls. In addition to the failure by the Afghan government to adequately enforce the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), we are now facing a generalized attack on women’s rights by opponents who have seen – and seized – an opportunity presented by the waning international interest in Afghanistan ahead of the end-2014 deadline for the withdrawal of international combat forces. This trend is likely to escalate in coming years if there is no clear and concerted action from the international community to stop it.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, the public disclosure of a draft law prepared by government officials that would have reinstated the Taliban-era punishment of execution by stoning for the "crime" of adultery is the latest example in a recent string of serious setbacks or attempts to roll back women's rights. Although the Afghan government has since disavowed the draft law and pledged not to take this step, the proposal shows how fragile the situation of women is at this moment in Afghanistan.

Examples of recent women’s rights setbacks in Afghanistan

  • Draft legal provisions that would have reinstated the penalty of public execution by stoning for the “crime” of adultery were drafted and in late November proposed for inclusion in a new Penal Code by a subcommittee that included representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court;
  • A debate over the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law) in the lower house of parliament on May 18 was halted after 15 minutes when parliamentarians (MPs) called for revisions that would have eliminated the minimum marriage age for girls, abolished shelters, and ended criminal penalties for rape and domestic violence;
  • President Hamid Karzai told women’s rights activists that he is unable to support further efforts to protect the EVAW Law;
  • Comments by Abdul Rahman Hotak, a new member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), calling for repeal of the EVAW Law;
  • A decision by parliament to reduce the set-aside for women on provincial councils;
  • The revision to article 26 of the new Criminal Procedure Code by the Ministry of Justice to add a new provision banning family member testimony in criminal cases, making it extremely difficult to prosecute domestic violence, child/forced marriage and baad (marriage as compensation) cases – and the subsequent passage of this law by the lower house of parliament (it is currently pending in the upper house); and
  • The reversal of the verdict in the Sahar Gul case, where the in-laws of a 13-year-old bride they had starved and tortured for months were sentenced to 10 years in prison but then released after one year on the order of the court.

As these examples make clear, attempts to reverse important gains on women’s rights in Afghanistan come from every direction within the government – from the parliament, from the executive branch of government, from the judiciary, even from the AIHRC.

During this same period, there have been a string of physical assaults, including killings, of female government officials and other high-profile women in Afghanistan, which highlight the continued danger to women in public life. The Taliban and other armed groups have been implicated in some of these attacks. These include:

  • July 3, 2013 – Lieutenant Islam Bibi, the highest ranking female police officer in Helmand, is shot and killed on her way to work.
  • July 5, 2013 – Former MP Noor Zia Atmar divulges that she is now living in a shelter for battered women as a result of attacks from her husband. She later confirms that she is seeking asylum abroad.
  • Early August 2013 – Rooh Gul, an MP in the upper house, is attacked in a shooting. She and her husband survive, but her 8-year old daughter and her driver are killed.
  • August 13, 2013 – Farida Ahmadi Kakar, an MP in the lower house is kidnapped while driving from her constituency to Kabul. She is released after three weeks, reportedly in exchange for Taliban prisoners.
  • Early September 2013 – Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian woman who had married an Afghan man and was working as a health worker and documenting the lives of local women, is murdered in Paktika province. She is dragged from her home, shot repeatedly, and her body is left outside a religious school.
  • September 16, 2013 -- Lieutenant Nigar, the senior female police officer who had replaced the slain Lieutenant Islam Bibi, dies after being shot twice in the neck the previous day as she waited on the side of the road for the government bus to pick her up for work.

These attacks illustrate not only the dangers faced by high-profile women in Afghanistan, but the government’s failure to take concrete action to protect women under threat. 

Agencies and high-level officials from the United Nations have condemned these escalating setbacks to women’s rights. Following the killing of Lieutenant Nigar on September 16, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, condemned the intimidation and targeted killings of female Afghan officials and called on the Afghan government to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. During her visit to Afghanistan in September, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, echoed the concerns of civil society “that the momentum on advancing women’s rights has halted, and indeed may even be regressing” and called on the Afghan government “to ensure that the tumultuous changes that will take place before the end of 2014 do not trigger a serious deterioration in the human rights of any segments of the population, especially women.”

A long-term commitment to women’s rights from the EU

Addressing these problems demands a deep and profound commitment to women’s rights over many years. Genuine, irreversible progress will only be possible for Afghan women if there is sustained and intense monitoring and pressure from concerned governments on this and ensuing Afghan administrations to respect and advance women’s rights over the coming years. In that respect, the July 2012 Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework remains an important tool to link accountability to aid in a way that maximizes leverage on the Afghan government to the benefit of women’s rights, without taking any action that would harm users of services.

We are aware that the EU together with its member states is one of the largest donors in Afghanistan, including by supporting initiatives on women’s rights both under EU’s geographical and thematic instruments. We particularly welcome your June 2013 statement at the ENNA conference on “Peace for all Afghans?” in which you stated that “the recent discussion in the Afghan Parliament on the rights and wrongs of the law on Eliminating Violence Against Women showed how far we still have to go before women are able to enjoy their full rights” and made a commitment that “the EU will continue to argue that the rights of women can never be the price paid for a peace agreement.”

As the EU is developing its new programming of EU development cooperation to Afghanistan for the next 7 years, we urge you to ensure that it adequately reflects the importance you have placed on protecting women’s rights by increasing support to programs that will enhance women’s rights, including:

  • Essential basic services for women and girls including schools, clinics, hospitals, shelters for women fleeing violence, and legal services for women;
  • Initiatives aimed at increasing recruitment and retention of female police officers, development of specialized violence against women prosecution units, and other aspects of the enforcement of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women;
  • Support for Afghan NGOs doing advocacy on women’s rights; and
  • Assistance to prominent women, including women’s rights defenders, facing threats and attacks.

These actions would be fully in line with the EU plan of action for gender equality and women's empowerment in development and the EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy adopted in June 2012. With the adoption of this framework, the EU and EU foreign ministers pledged to “promote human rights in all areas of external action without exception” and “to campaign for the rights and empowerment of women in all contexts through fighting discriminatory legislation, gender-based violence and marginalization.”

The EU’s continuing support is key to ensure that the significant but fragile progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan that has been achieved over the past 12 years is not undermined and lost amid the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan.


Lotte Leicht                                                                                                      

Advocacy Director                                                                                         

European Union             

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