By Tamana Saket



TWO AFGHANISTANS: Women Rights from Theory to Practice


On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 2008, the United Nation’s (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “states must honor their commitments to prevent violence, bring perpetrators to justice and provide redress to victims.”[1] The 2004 resolution of the Economic and Social council of the UN had urged the Afghanistan Transitional Administration and future Government “to enable the full, equal and effective participation of women and girls in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life throughout the country at all levels.”[2] The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the strongest treaty to advocate for women’s human rights and to which Afghanistan is a signatory, emphasized that restoration of women’s rights is crucial in ensuring the foundation for long term peace in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan government has clearly accepted CEDAW and women’s rights but the tools for its support and improvement have not appeared in the Afghanistan’s polity context.

Afghanistan signed CEDAW on August 14, 1980 and received its accession on March 5, 2003.[3] CEDAW, addressed as the Treaty for the Rights of Women, was adopted by the UN in 1979. It is the most comprehensive international treaty on the basic human rights of women. The agreement frequently is called a "Bill of Rights" for women, and provides international standards for protecting and promoting women's human rights. It is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life. As of August 2009, 185 countries had ratified CEDAW.

Nonetheless, Afghani women have been unable to apply their political rights and freedom in the country. They experienced the most violations of their basic rights in the name of the Islam religion during the reign of Taliban. For instance, women were deprived of freedom of speech and public participation. Women’s employment was banned. They had to stay home and not walk out without a male escort. If they broke these rules, they were flogged in public. They were physically and mentally in an unhealthy situation for seven years during the Taliban regime. Even so, women were still well aware that none of the rules of Taliban had been part of Shari’a as their religion laws. The very serious backwardness in Afghanistan women’s situation became visible when the Gender Disparity Index of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) based on measurement of female life expectancy, educational attainment and income, ranked Afghanistan in the lowest position of any country in the world in 1995.[4]

Two decades later, Afghani women are still experiencing the worst moments of their lives. Women’s fundamental rights have been abolished in this era of democracy in Afghanistan: “In spite of recent improvements, women in Afghanistan continue to face serious violations of their rights in many parts of the country, in particular in rural areas,”[5] according to the Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSEC) UN resolution. Since late 2001 with the UN presence in Afghanistan, women have been able to exercise their rights within the insecure territory of Afghanistan, but certain types of violence like rape and throwing acid at female schools’ students, kidnappings, trafficking and illegal imprisonments have increased. For instance, 26 women trafficking cases were reported only from the single province of Helmand in 2009.[6] Victims can rarely refer to justice due to legal unawareness, cultural restrictions and discriminatory justice. 

The chronic political instability in the country has actually contributed in worsening women’s development situation. According to Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) the main causes of women’s problems are: “A weak presence of the rule of law, a persistent culture of impunity and the abuse of power by government officials, along with a weak judicial system which result in a slow proceedings of legal cases.”[7] The security dilemma in the country and the traditionally prevailing violence against women have prevented women’s stronger participation in policy making. Such conditions have even led to legalizing some of the traditionally accepted violence against women.

Continued weak involvement of women in decision making agendas has resulted in a distinctive backwardness and sluggish development for the rest of Afghan women. As with the president’s endorsement of the Shi’a Civil Law in Afghanistan, the state is further legalizing violence against women. Articles 122nd of this law fully authorizes a man (the husband) over the women (his wife) after the marriage to decide for his wife’s residence at his house, the wife’s housework responsibility and any other activity agreed upon before the wedding. Article 124th of this law requires the wife’s full sexual submission to their husband unless the wife’s will is already reserved by the wife before the wedding and accepted by her husband at that time. Women disapproved of the law calling it the “rape law”, but it was passed by the Afghanistan parliament. It was published and effectively implemented on July 27th 2009. Only five days later, another law called the Women Anti Violation Law was published on August 1, 2009. This Law emphasizes equality and ensuring women’s rights and protection from violence. This recent Anti Violation Law does not imply legal support if contradicts the former law, the Shiite Civil Status law, but it shows the hypocrisy of the state and the insincerity of the state policies regarding Afghan women.

Afghanistan’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranks it 174 out of 178 countries. The gender development index (GDI) ranks Afghanistan the second from last in the world. In the political field, Afghan women held 121 seats out of 420 in Afghanistan parliament but still only one cabinet member, the minister of Women Affairs, is female. Women are supposed to have 124 seats in the parliament but due to a lack of female candidates the three remaining seats were given to men. From 17 ambassadors of Afghanistan only two of them are female. In 17 of 36 ministries, only 10% of employees are female and they usually have lower positions then men. The majority of Afghans still believe that women need male authorization to vote and around 80% of men stated that they would not allow their wives to vote. [8]

The UN is strongly emphasizing that “a safe environment, free from violence, discrimination and abuse, for all Afghans, is essential for a viable and sustainable recovery and reconstruction process.”[9] Women suffer from the economic problems the most. In Afghanistan’s economic field, women are often hard working laborers, working in any field. For instance, 30% of agricultural workers and experts of the Afghanistan’s carpet industry are women. Fifty thousand widows, who support an average of six dependents, exist just in Kabul; two % of them head households.[10]  Women work indoors and outside, but they either earn less or nothing. Only 38% of women in Afghanistan are economically active and they receive the lowest wages. Taking into consideration the government’s strong international commitment for women’s improvement, very little has been done for women in Afghanistan.[11] Women still receive up to three times less salary than men. Based on the United Nation’s Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) factsheet, the Gross Domestic Product per capita was $402 for women compared to $1,182 for men in 2004.[12]

Even worse, women’s participation in the justice sector is only 4.2% judges, 6.4% prosecutors, 6.1% attorneys and 0% female Supreme Court members. In military services only 0.6% are female. Although certain improvements have happened in the health sector, Afghanistan has the second highest mortality rate in the world; one woman dies every 29 minutes in child birth, and the average life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is only 44 years.[13]

Afghanistan’s three and half decades of war have meant years of violence against human rights, but the most affected people have been women. Undoubtedly women rights violations happen in most of the war torn and post-war countries; but Afghanistan is dealing with both an in-conflict and post-conflict dilemma of insecurity. Due to consistent insecurity and conflict in the country, most of the Human Rights’ violation victims have been women. There is a direct relationship between human security defined as safety from chronic threats (as hunger, disease and repression) and safety from sudden and hurtful disruption in the patterns of daily life (whether in homes, in jobs or in communities) and women’s situation.[14]. Many women were kidnapped and/or raped by militias during the war.[15] The majority of physical and sexual violence happened in insecure areas. Out of 1,327 incidents of violence against women in 2008, 30.7% were related to physical violence; 30.1% to psychological violence; 25.2% to sexual violence; and 14% a combination of the three.[16] One out of every three Afghan women experiences violence.[17]

Widows who became the income providers for their extended families have been threatened. Journalists, police officers, parliament members, non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) employees, and the social workers have been killed for having a voice for freedom and protecting other women in the country. The problem remains because the judicial system is unwilling to follow up. “It is complete impunity," says Rachel Wareham, director of the charity Medica Mondiale which cares for women who suffer from domestic violence.[18] Incompetency of judicial institutions could be another reason of their weak performance, but the lack of a strong motivation to punish the abusers of women rights is visible in Afghanistan State’s related institutions. As per AIHRC’s 2008 report “In some cases, the authorities took initial measures to prevent/remedy women’s rights violation. However, thousands of woman rights violators have yet to face justice.”

Some unfair social traditions cause more internal and external violence against women. For instance, marrying a woman without her consent is common as a social custom in Afghanistan. Physically beating and punishing housewives, sisters and daughters are the types of internal violence against women in most places of Afghanistan. According to AIHRC, “The majority of women both in rural and urban areas are faced with family violence.”[19] The number of women who have experienced domestic violence is more then 50%. The consequence for such domestic violation is not limited to its immediate physical and mental affects. It also leads to the other types of violence such as suicide, self-immolation, running away from home or drug addiction which paves the way for prostitution.

Another type of social violence is the Bad dadan, the giving into marriage of girls to settle blood debt and other disputes.[20] It is a very unreasonable type of customary conflict resolution for many serious crimes that happen in the southern parts of Afghanistan. If a person is guilty of murder or owes a heavy debt to the other side, he gives his sister or daughter to them in order to compensate. The woman subject to Bad dadan, as an item rather than human, has to marry with one of the men of the family that she is given to, her life and destiny. She has to live and work like a slave with that family until the end of her life. Because she is given as an exchange to the life of the previously murdered person of the family, she is seen as guilty. Many women have been murdered in such cases, slaughtered to pay for another man’s crime. If such women are alive, even the worst, they are subject to a life of revenge with their family. They never receive mercy or love and die in grave sadness.

Afghanistan’s constitution, article 22nd, counts men and women equal before the law and Afghanistan Civil Code, articles 60 and 64 clearly demonstrates that marriage must be done with full consent of the couple, aged 16 for girls and 18 for boys.[21] But still 57% of girls are married before the legal marriage age. About 70% to 80% of women face forced marriages and the number of widows with an average age of 35 years is one million.[22] While equality is guaranteed by the constitution, the local courts do little in implementing it. Therefore, governmental institutions have created a forgiveness attitude for women rights’ abusers.

In addition to the strong and honest support of state for women, Afghan women can improve if they learn about their basic rights and gain education. "We have to change the law but education is also very, very important. It's fundamental,[23] said Dr. Habiba Sarabi, former Women Affairs Minister. An educated woman can better defend her rights rather than an unaware and uneducated one. Unfortunately, the estimated literacy rate for women stands at 15.8% in comparison to 31% for men. Legal awareness, knowledge, education and capacity building make it possible for women to improve and build up their careers and enjoy their rights. Afghanistan’s state has an international commitment to support women’s education and build up their knowledge, but remains motionless six years after CEDAW ratification, only 19% of schools are designated as girls’ schools. [24] It is the responsibility of Afghanistan Ministry of Education to ensure equal educational sources for Afghani female students. Afghanistan as a member of CEDAW has agreed that “…the cause of peace requires the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields”.[25]

A systematic series of cultural, economical, legal awareness and long term educational programs can contribute in improving Afghani women’s situation. “The prevention and eventual elimination of violence against women requires changing attitudes and stereotypes that perpetuate inequality between men and women, as well as those that condone such violence”[26] said the UN’s General Assembly on July 17, 2009.  Educating Afghanistan’s people to prevent violence against women will help to overcome the main challenge for women’s growth. “This is a male dominated country and men should change their mind towards the women” said Dr. Habiba Sarabi, the minister for Women Affairs in 2004.[27] Education does not only mean the public awareness of the society on women’s rights, but will also include its practical use by everyone with the legal protection. Filling the educational gap by different educational programs could be a crucial step for ensuring women’s rights. Furthermore, capacity building will ensure women’s career development.

Also, Afghan women need fair justice and access to legal protections. The Afghanistan state’s hesitancy in punishing women rights’ abusers has created an impunity culture where perpetrators benefit. The UN needs to remind the state members to uphold CEDAW's mandate and their obligations under it to end discrimination against women. With the Afghanistan state’s ratification of CEDAW, it has guaranteed nondiscriminatory justice to women. It is a strong instrument in support of women's struggles to achieve full protection and realize their rights and it paves the way for women’s progress. That's why less attention to CEDAW, ignoring its’ implementation and even no practicing of this important treaty have stemmed women from development.

Afghanistan’s government must adopt a more sincere and realistic will for the improvement and support of women. I would highly recommend the Afghanistan parliament to consider the international treaties and obligations of the government while voting for ratification of any law regarding women. They must remember that Afghanistan state has signed and ratified the CEDAW. The treaties are not only the tool for claiming a modern Afghanistan but also for reaching modernization. The real obligation of the government is to put the treaties into effect. The Karzai Administration must support and implement the CEDAW Treaty and use it to promote women's human rights countrywide. By only signing or ratifying but not practicing the CEDAW, the Afghanistan Government remains a dishonest political entity. It will be ranked a corrupt government that just uses international treaties and laws to legalize its illegal activities. The pathetic performance of Afghanistan in respect to women’s rights and the discrepancies in law resemble a government leaning against its international obligations and a country where women's rights are in a deplorable state. The existence of a political will in high-ranked state authorities is a must for women’s advancement.




Baylis John, Smith Steve, Owens Patricia. “The Globalization of World Politics.” Chapter 28 by Amitav

                             Acharya, Human Security, Oxford, New York 2008. 493.


United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Fifty-fifth session, Summary            Record of the Second Part (Public) of the 17th Meeting, the Palais des Nations, Geneva, 1999                    

Annual Report 2008 Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission,

Annual Report 2008 Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, p – 64. ohchr’s official site for cedaw                             recommendations and suggestions    ,contentMDK:22333046~menuPK:6456983~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:6223978,00.html UN Gender treaty in US bridges

Afghanistan women failed by progress, 28 October 2004.   

A Woman Among Warlords

North Andrew. “Silence over Afghan Women’s rights”, October 2004            -

Women and right of education  () -

Plight for Afghan women,  



[2] The Economic and Social Council, 2004/10, Situation of women and girls in Afghanistan,  21 July 2004


[4] Commission On Human Rights, Fifty-sixth session, Item 12 (a) of the provisional agenda, Economic and Social Council (UNDP, Human Development Report 1995).

[5] The Economic and Social Council, 2004/10

Situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, 21 July 2004,


[7] Annual Report 2008 Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, P64

[8] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[9] The Economic and Social Council, 2004/10, Situation of women and girls in Afghanistan 21 July 2004

[10] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[11] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[12] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[13] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[14] John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics. Chapter 28 by Amitav Acharya, Human Security, Oxford, New York 2008. P493.


[16] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[17] Plight for Afghan women,


[19] Evaluation report on General Situation of Women in Afghanistan, AIHRC,



[22] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,

[23] Andrew North, Silence over Afghan women's rights,

[24] The recent available data belongs to year 2005.

[25] UNIFEM Afghanistan factsheet 2008,