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Afghan women worry: Who will protect our rights after the U.S. is gone?

President Obama brought the crowd to its feet at Tuesday’s State of the Union address with his announcement that 34,000 American troops--half of the number
Dozens of Afghan activists marked Valentine’s Day by marching in Kabul to denounce violence against women. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw, Afghan women fear their rights will disappear. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
Dozens of Afghan activists marked Valentine’s Day by marching in Kabul to denounce violence against women. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw, Afghan women...

President Obama brought the crowd to its feet at Tuesday’s State of the Union address with his announcement that 34,000 American troops--half of the number currently serving--will be returning from Afghanistan over the next year, bringing the war that began nearly twelve years ago one step closer to an end.

“By the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” said Obama to a roomful of applause.

The president spoke of training and equipping Afghan forces to take the lead as early as this spring, and spoke of bolstering counter-terrorism efforts to protect the country from remnants of al Qaeda and its affiliates. But notably absent from both Obama’s address, and the corresponding fact sheet released Tuesday, was any mention of Afghan women, whose fragile progress has been tethered to the last decade’s international presence in Afghanistan.

For those familiar with the challenges facing Afghan women, Obama’s omission of the issue was unsurprising. “It’s par for the course,” said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The New York Times best-seller The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Everyone talks about women on the way in, and nobody talks about women on the way out.”

Still, human rights advocates could not help feeling burned by yet another missed opportunity. “We were disappointed,” said Esther Hyneman, a board member and principal fundraiser for the human rights group, Women for Afghan Women (WAW.) “We’ve been disappointed. The president has not talked about the women in Afghanistan for years.”

WAW was founded in April of 2001 to advocate for the rights of Afghan women and protect women’s human rights across the Taliban-controlled region. Six months after its inception, the U.S. and allied forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom to take out the al Qaeda network based in Afghanistan and remove the fundamentalist Taliban regime, which had seized power in 1996.

Under Taliban control, Afghan women lived with hellish restrictions. They were forced to wear a burqa at all times, banned from working professionally outside the home, banned from leaving the home without a close male relative present, and banned from going school, among other restraints. Any transgression was punishable by whipping, beating, verbal abuse, and sometimes public stoning.

“Under Taliban control, women were more or less subject to house arrest,” said Lemmon. “They could be working or teaching very quietly indoors, but being out in public was very difficult for women, especially in the cities...  The rules were draconian.”

Throughout the Taliban regime, however, Afghan women still managed to quietly support their families, work for NGOs, practice medicine, and manage businesses--as described in Lemmon’s book--“even though most laws that shaped women’s lives were making them invisible,” said Lemmon.

But once the Taliban were driven out, life improved considerably for the women of Afghanistan. The Constitution of Afghanistan was ratified, putting in place (at least on paper) equal rights for men and women. Girls’ enrollment in school jumped from 5,000 to nearly 3 million. The number of midwives increased from less than 500 to nearly 3,000--an important boost in a country where giving birth is the leading cause of death among women. And after being disenfranchised by the Taliban, Afghan women regained the right the hold office in 2004. (Currently, women make up 27% of parliament, and one woman, Fawzia Koofi, intends to run for president in 2014.)

Bolstered by international aid and protected by western forces, organizations like WAW also grew stronger over the last decade, providing educational facilities, shelters for the abused, and training for lawyers who represent women in court.

And yet, despite the considerable gains Afghan women have achieved over the last twelve years, few people in government or anywhere else seem to have noticed. Such progress is “a miracle in a country like Afghanistan, and people don’t know about it,” said Hyneman. “It’s heartbreaking that all people talk about is a corrupt government.”

Lemmon agrees that the progress of Afghan women has largely been ignored. “The idea that women are just victims in Afghanistan is not based on the real lives of a lot of women there,” she said. “The victim narrative gets in the way.”

Without proper acknowledgment, advocates fear, the newfound rights of Afghan women are in danger of being forgotten as swiftly as they were reclaimed. Unless women’s rights are specifically included in policy discussions moving forward, Afghan women and members of organizations like WAW will be particularly vulnerable once U.S. forces withdraw.

“People don’t understand that with the troops leaving, women may end up suffering more than they have in the past.,” said Hyneman. “Ten years sounds like a long time, but it’s a very short time to turn around a country that was at war for 30 years and practically demolished,” she continued. “The alternative is not forever; it’s until the government can stand on its feet. We can be surer than we are now.”

Afghan women are also afraid that the achievements made over the last decade will collapse without the protection of the international community. In a 2011 survey, the humanitarian organization ActionAid found that 86% of the 1,000 Afghan women polled were worried that a Taliban-style government could return.

“We’re very concerned about this,” said Hyneman. If a Taliban-style government returns, “women in shelters will not be able to go home; they will not be able to go out... They will be murdered.”

"Ask any woman in Afghanistan, and she is afraid... afraid that the past will return and hound her into oblivion," said PV Krishnan, country director for ActionAid in Afghanistan.

For over a year, the U.S. has tried to coordinate peace talks with the Taliban to avoid abandoning the region without a political initiative in place, as the U.S. administration had done at the end of the Soviet Union’s Afghan occupation in the early 1990s. But so far, these attempts have been unsuccessful in large part because “the insurgents are seen as divided between those who want to wait out the American departure and those who think it’s time to start on a political path,” writes The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung.

“I don’t necessarily think the Taliban rule will return,” said Lemmon, but “I think conservative forces do feel like time is on their side.”

Even without the Taliban’s return to power, however, Afghanistan still has a long way to go in protecting women’s basic rights. Though Afghanistan enacted the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act in 2009, a recent report by the United Nations found that “incidents of violence against women still remain largely under-reported.”

"Violence against women is not one of the issues in Afghanistan; it is the issue," said Krishnan.

In the U.S. government, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been the staunchest ally to women in Afghanistan, who have been anxious about her departure for years. As America’s top diplomat, Clinton was able to develop the first-ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security--a five-point initiative designed to advance women’s participation in making and keeping the peace around the world. On the day President Obama signed an executive order launching the National Action Plan, Clinton spoke at Georgetown about the connection between national security and women’s rights.

“Studies suggest that women’s physical security and higher levels of gender equality correlate with security and peacefulness of entire countries,” said Clinton in December 2011. “But political leaders too often overlook women’s knowledge and experience until it’s too late to stop violence from spiraling out of control.”

Though Clinton plans to stay on as co-chair of the US-Afghan Women’s Council based at Georgetown, “it’s not the same as setting policy,” said Lemmon.

“We’re very encouraged about Clinton’s plan,” said Hyneman. “We really believe that she’s committed. But I don’t know what she or anybody else can do if the country implodes, or if more insurgents take over. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Already, humanitarian aides based in Afghanistan are disappointed with the government's follow-through on Clinton's initiatives. Said Krishnan, "The National Action Plan for women in Afghanistan--that was courted and endorsed with grandeur by the government and donors--remains as a document in the dusty cupboard, devoid of commitment, action, or resources."

Recommendations for what the U.S. can do to protect Afghan women are complicated and range from the aggressive to the symbolic. While some demand a continued military presence, others believe a mere nod of support from President Obama will go a long way in safeguarding the last decade's progress.

Moving forward into the second term, “[the Obama administration] can do a couple of things,” said Lemmon. “[Obama] can actually talk about women,” for one. “And the administration can use the levers of aid to encourage the government to help women who are already there, speaking up for themselves,” she continued. “Women have been speaking up for themselves. Now the issue is, will anyone be listening?”

Krishnan agreed, advising that the U.S. "use its influence to make women's rights a non-negotiable, integral part of aid." Obama should make it clear that "aid is tied to women's rights and reduction of violence against women," he continued. Furthermore, Krishnan recommended that Obama make a public statement alongside President Hamid Karzai, assuring to Afghan women that troop withdrawal does not mean the U.S. is abandoning them. "Through a simple speech," he said, Obama can "make it loud and clear that America stands by the women of Afghanistan and will not allow any power to unsettle their lives and freedom." Obama must "walk the talk."

In a rare moment, the president did touch on the future of Afghan women during a joint news conference with President Karzai last month. In response to a reporter’s question, Obama spoke of the new Afghan constitution that pledges to respect women's rights, and said that it would be a mistake for that nation to ignore the talents of its women. But he offered no specifics about how the U.S. plans to safeguard women’s rights post-2014. "We've heard no details that women will be protected," said Hyneman. "We need help. We can’t do it alone."

On Thursday, some 200 people marked Valentine’s Day by marching in Kabul to denounce violence against women--part of a global domestic violence awareness campaign called One Billion Rising. Past protests for women’s rights have been attacked by hecklers and men throwing stones, so riot police stood guard with helmets and shields. But the march remained peaceful, and organizers hailed it as a success. Still, women continued their calls to the  international community for help.

“Women don’t have a bright future and the government isn’t doing enough to protect them,” Faryaa Hashimi, a 20-year-old student at the march, told the Associated Press. “We are calling on the international community and Afghan government to protect the women.”