Afghan women activists are urging the global community to ensure hard-won progress in Afghanistan in the past decade is not lost amid fears that as US and NATO-led troops leave they will be forgotten.
“We do not want to go back on our gains. Whatever we have gained in the past 10-11 years, we do not want to give an inch of it,” said Mahbouba Seraj, founder and director of the Organization for Research in Peace and Solidarity.
“There is no going back, we don’t want to do that, so that’s why we want the support of the world,” she told AFP during a whirlwind trip to Washington.
Together with Hasina Safi, director of the Afghanistan Women’s Education Center, the two women pressed their message with top policy-makers in the US administration during their six-day trip which ended late Saturday.
As the international community enters a transition phase handing over control to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014, women activists are urging that they should have a place at the table in talks about the country’s future.
Since the Islamic Taliban leadership were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001, women have slowly begun to emerge from under strict oppressive laws which forbade girls from going to school and banned women from working.
There have been “many gains, women are in the cabinet, women are in the parliament, women are in the civil society, women are in the different government and non-government organizations, now girls are going to school,” said Safi.
“They know the value of being educated and of being an active member in the development of their country. They have a vision, they are thinking.”
And the mindset of many men is also changing, the two women insisted, pointing to marches against violence which have been joined by outraged menfolk.
But Seraj warned: “The position of the Afghan women right now is very fragile, it is because of this fragility that it is so important… to make sure it doesn’t fall apart.”
Just in July Afghan authorities blamed the Taliban for killing a 22-year-old woman for adultery, shot dead as dozens of men cheered in a village about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital Kabul.
And last month a 16-year-old Afghan girl was flogged for allegedly having an affair in a rural district under government control.
“They do these things so we do not move ahead, these are the challenges which are part of our daily lives,” Safi said.
The fear is that once international troops have left and there is less global oversight, women’s rights could all too quickly be ignored again.
During their talks at the US State Department, Department of Defense and the White House last week, the two encouraged US administration officials to work to ensure all international treaties are protected and in particular UN resolutions guaranteeing women’s rights under the constitution.
“What we want to do through the policy makers and those who are the partners invested in Afghanistan for women’s empowerment, we want to alert them that in the upcoming transition phase please think about stability programs for women,” Safi said.
Both Safi and Seraj — whose trip was sponsored by Amnesty International and the Wilson Center — acknowledged they were taking a risk in their prominent and continued advocacy for women.
They are both board members of the Afghan Women’s Network which works with over 100 non-governmental organizations to set up programs including literacy and community building which have helped empower hundreds of thousands of women across the country.
“Whatever I’m doing is for daughters… I’m just doing whatever I can so that those problems I have faced, my daughters won’t face,” said Safi, who is a mother of three, including young girls, aged 10 and 14.
“I’ve invested my life in this, and it’s not for any other reason but to make it easier for them. And I’m sure I will see the rewards some time.”