Dear High Representative,

We are writing to urge you to use the January 20 meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council to publicly speak out against the generalized attack on women’s rights in Afghanistan and to ensure that women’s rights are a top priority in the new political strategy due to define the European Union’s future engagement with Afghanistan as announced in the June 2013 EU Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions. The EU and its member states should also express profound concern about the alarming rise in killings and other acts of violence against women government officials and public figures and call on the Afghan authorities to take concrete action to protect them. 

The debate taking place in the Council on the EU's role in Afghanistan post 2014, as well as the ongoing negotiations for an EU-Afghanistan Cooperation Agreement for Partnership and Development (CAPD), make it a crucial time for the EU and its member states to stress that the promotion and protection of women’s rights are non-negotiable, central aspects of EU relations with Afghanistan. The EU and its member states should convey to the Afghan government that any deterioration in women’s rights is incompatible with close relations between the EU and Afghanistan and that, if the situation continues to deteriorate, it will considerably affect EU’s future commitment in Afghanistan.

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 recognize the support that the EU and its member states have demonstrated to women’s rights in Afghanistan over the past years, including through Foreign Affairs Council conclusions and public statements. We particularly recall your June 2012 speech in the European Parliament in which you affirmed: “I believe that in many respects the Afghan women hold the key to the future of their country – and we need to do our utmost to support them as the transition unfolds.”

As the EU is developing its political post-2014 strategy for Afghanistan, we believe there has never been more crucial time for the EU and member states to demonstrate their continued commitment to the rights of Afghan women and girls by:

  • Speaking out against the series of rollbacks of women’s rights, including article 26 of the new Criminal Procedure Code currently pending in the upper house of parliament;
  • Unequivocally condemning the alarming rise in killings and other physical assaults against high-profile women and calling on the Afghan government to ensure effective investigations into these crimes and adequate protection for women who are publicly or politically active;
  • Ensuring that women’s rights concerns are fully integrated into the EU’s post-2014 political strategy and at the center of the EU’s future engagement in Afghanistan.To be most useful, the strategy should be adopted in advance of the Afghan elections;
  • Ensuring that the EU, as a major donor to Afghanistan, makes assistance for women a priority in its bilateral development cooperation with Afghanistan for the period 2014-2020, including the Multiannual Indicative Programme currently under consideration.

These actions would be fully in line with the EU guidelines on violence against women and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them, 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.”

We call on the Council to live up to this pledge and to adopt strong and principled conclusions on women’s rights in Afghanistan at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting on January 20. Your political pressure and support is urgently needed 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.

We would be grateful for the chance to meet with you or your staff to discuss these issues further.

Sincerely,

Lotte Leicht                                                                                                      

Advocacy Director                                                                                         

European Union