(Kabul) — Afghan women in public life have always struggled, but the involvement of the international community in Afghanistan over the past eight and a half years opened space for women that did not exist under Taliban rule. Current trends, though, are negative. Women’s participation in politics and public life generally is declining, and, alarmingly, violence against women who venture out of the private sphere is spiking across the country.
On April 14, an 18 year old woman stepped outside the Kandahar office of US-based development firm Development Alternatives International (DAI). A gunmen was waiting for her. With at least nine gunshot wounds, the woman died at the scene. Local authorities blamed the Taliban. The press did not print the victim’s name, presumably out of concern for her family’s safety.
The brazen slaying of the young aid worker in Kandahar came less than two weeks after Nida Khayani, a local lawmaker from the northern province of Baghlan, was severely wounded in an attempted assassination. In her case, too, blame was placed on the Taliban. Amnesty International Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi called Khayani, “yet another casualty of the systematic violent targeting of women in public life.” Earlier in the spring, a woman parliamentarian narrowly escaped a similar assassination attempt when her car came under fire while traveling between Kabul and the nearby city of Jalalabad.
The insurgency remains the single greatest threat to women in public life, but other threats also contribute to the chilling environment Afghan women now find themselves in.
Two nights ago, I received a midnight phone call from a distraught friend. A young, outspoken feminist we both know had received a series of death threats for criticizing a powerful pro-government cleric in her area. “She needs to leave Afghanistan,” my friend said, “Otherwise, one day, they will kill her.”
This particular young woman has allies in the human rights movement, and they are working to keep her safe. But she’s the exception. Most threatened women in Afghanistan are on their own, and more and more of them are winding up dead. After eight years of international engagement through the presence of the UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and billions in development aid, that just shouldn’t be so.
“The Afghan government and the international troops supporting it have failed to adequately protect women working in public office and as human rights defenders,” said Zarifi. “The ability of Afghan women to be active outside their homes should be a key benchmark for the effectiveness of the Afghan government and NATO troops, and in this regard, the record is quite poor.”