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Gender-Based Violence In Afghanistan: Time To Act

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Written by Abigail Brown

“Life in Zabul is difficult...Zabul is one of those provinces where, unfortunately, not much progress has been made for women, neither by the government nor by NGOs; due to family and social etiquette, it is difficult for every woman in Zabul to live here, not just me. For example, customs and traditions that are neither in the Qur'an nor in the law are problematic and are not acceptable. These customs and traditions make life difficult...We are struggling.” AN AFGHAN WOMAN INTERVIEWED BY WILPF AFGHANISTAN.

“We are struggling.”

Words that millions of Afghan women can use to describe their current reality. They are words that also put lightly the violence, violation, harrassment, discrimination, exclusion and range of demeaning and life-threatening experiences they live through each day. So brutal and devastating are these experiences that if women don’t die by another’s hands they often take their own lives to escape it all and as statistics confirm: women in Afghanistan represent 80% of deaths by suicide.

Around the world, many of us may shake our heads in sympathy and judgement, pointing fingers in blame at the Taliban takeover following the withdrawal of United States forces and their allies. Except the blame is not with the Taliban and its allies alone.

The violence against, and destruction of, women in Afghanistan was happening long before the Taliban returned in 2021. It pre-dates the US-led “war on terror,” continues today, and the international community bears a huge responsibility for creating an environment in which militarized violence has been normalized with the inevitable creation of violent masculinity.

War and conflict have reinforced violence against Afghan women

Four decades of war and conflict in Afghanistan have created and perpetuated militarised masculinities which – at their core – place heavy emphasis on warriorship, dominance and control, abuse, and violence – particularly violence against women and girls.

There can be no doubt that the Taliban, Afghanistan’s long-standing and institutionalised patriarchal values and structures, and its strong adherence to Pashtun honour codes have impacted the lives of Afghan girls and women – in horrific ways.

However, we must acknowledge that war and conflict directly facilitate conditions for gender-based violence, including through militarised masculinities present within Afghanistan society and also within occupying forces and among non-Afghan men.

Daily life in Afghanistan is militarised – and Afghanistan did not become militarised on its own. According to the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, sixteen states, including NATO member states, supplied weapons and equipment to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020. During this period, the United States supplied 74 percent of Afghanistan’s weapons, followed by Russia, the second largest supplier, responsible for 14 percent of imports. The distribution of these weapons to men has increased the lethality of men’s violence and strengthened the association between men, masculinities, and the ownership of guns.

US foreign policies targeted at Afghanistan have also been steeped in violence, destruction, imperialism, and military intervention. An abundance of weapons, socio-economic upheaval, land dispossession, social expectations of manhood in the face of occupying forces and many other factors have all contributed to conditions of violence, dominance, and discrimination of women.

Some progress for women and girls, but what now?

Of course, there has been some marked progress for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Against a backdrop of nations championing their “feminist foreign policies,” a steady flow of aid dollars, humanitarian and NGO interventions, and growing women’s rights advocacy and activism within the country itself, many Afghan women and girls gained their rightful access to education, employment, and inclusion and participation in regular society. Across rural and urban centres, girls and women could be *seen and heard – * in schools, in other public spaces, on national television and even in political or leadership spaces. This, despite continued efforts by the Taliban and its allies to stop that progress – the persistent bombing of girls’ schools being just one of their tactics.

It’s not like gender-based violence, discrimination, and oppression of Afghan women and ended altogether during this 20-year period – far from it – but positive change was happening, progress was being made, and more Afghan girls and women were directing their life choices, stepping into their own power, potential, and opportunity.

With the Taliban’s return to power, the lives of Afghan girls and women are changing again – and, again, in horrific ways. Girls and women forced to flee to other parts of the country or to seek refuge abroad (even while many borders remain closed to them) face inhumane conditions and violations. Within Afghanistan, the Taliban has removed girls and women from all the places and spaces they dared to be – schools, workplaces and businesses, and from political offices and leadership positions. Women’s rights activists, journalists, and other advocates and allies who stood with Afghan women during the invasion are being targeted and murdered. As an added measure of cruelty, the Taliban is also limiting the movements and life-saving work of female aid workers during what is now the worst humanitarian crisis the country has ever seen. Incidents of domestic abuse (or at least those reported) are on the rise. While women who lost the ‘breadwinners’ of their families to war and conflict may not face domestic violence, without employment and income they face the terrifying reality of deep poverty and little or no means to feed, clothe, and guard the health of their children. Of course, marrying off well underage girls to much older men for money and to put food on the table for the rest of the family remains an option and is currently on the rise in Afghanistan.

“Violence can destroy human dignity. When a man commits violence against a woman, it means that they do not respect human dignity. One Muslim should respect another Muslim. Violence against women is rampant in our society. They are not allowed to study, they don’t have the right to marry, and it’s their Islam right, this is violence. Not giving women the right of inheritance is also violence. Deprivation of women from their rights to work is violence. There is violence in our society, we must fight against it.” AN AFGHAN WOMAN INTERVIEWED BY WILPF AFGHANISTAN.

“We must fight against it.”

And Afghan girls and women are fighting, resisting, and persisting. An inspiring story of young girls and women who are learning code and pursuing other studies in secret and online is just one example of the defiant, creative, innovative, and determined spirit of Afghan girls and women who refuse to be undone by the violence and oppression that rages around them.

But the question now remains – who in the world will join Afghan girls and women as they fight for their very lives?

Ironically, and as the world heads into the 42nd annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the international community remains largely silent, unwilling, or remarkably incapable of taking serious action to address violence against women in Afghanistan. Violence that several international actors – UN member states – have played a role in creating for decades. Furthermore, Afghan women continue to be excluded from international discussions, peace negotiations, planning concerning funding and the current humanitarian crisis, and planning for the future of Afghanistan itself.

Action must be taken to end gender-based violence and to uphold the human rights of Afghan girls and women. This applies to Afghan girls and women who are displaced and seeking refuge outside of Afghanistan as well.

Funding must be invested in Afghan women’s rights organisations – now. Mechanisms for financial support to Afghan women must be put in place – now. Peace talks and all meetings and discussions about the current humanitarian crisis and the future of Afghanistan must include Afghan women leaders. The continued exclusion of women from these international tables and discussions is violence against women and a change in course is due now.

There is no meaning, no teeth, and no power in a global day to eliminate violence against women without the collective responsibility and will to *act *on the original aspirations and goals that brought this day into existence in the first place. The international community must acknowledge the role it has played in perpetuating gender-based violence and must act now, and in solidarity with Afghan women and girls, to demonstrate a true commitment to the “elimination of violence against women.”

About the author

Abigail Brown is a writer and communications strategist with close to 20 years of expertise and experience in non-profit, humanitarian, and human rights organizations. She has a passion for social justice issues and telling stories that inform, engage, and inspire people to take action and produce change.