The Future Of Women's Rights In Afghanistan

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 23, 2013 6:20 pm

As U.S. and NATO troops look to wind down operations in Afghanistan, some of the gains made in women’s rights there appear to be under increasing threat.

Two female parliamentarians and a female senator were attacked this month alone. And in July, a female police officer was shot dead in the southern province of Helmand.

“Generally, the security — unfortunately — is getting worse,” Afghan women’s rights activist Suraya Pakzad told Here & Now. “And when the troops leave, some areas are going to be in the hands of Afghan local police, which they cannot protect the security of those areas and protect the people, so unfortunately, violence against women will increase.”

In December, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania introduced legislation to promote the security of Afghan women over the course of the drawdown.

Hutchison and Casey’s “Afghan Women and Girls Security Promotion Act” passed in the House by a vote of 399 to 4. It was included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama early this year.

“They key part of this legislation was an attempt to, frankly, to build on the great work that Suraya and so many others had done,” Sen. Casey told Here & Now. “We not only want to make sure that we’re training the Afghan army and the Afghan police, but we’re also insisting that they have the kind of gender sensitivity and training that is necessary, and also that we’re taking substantial steps to do the recruiting, so that there are more Afghan women who are police officers and soldiers.”


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It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Robin Young.

As U.S. and NATO troops look to wind down operations in Afghanistan, will they be leaving behind increasingly threatened women? On August 13th, a female parliamentarian was kidnapped and held for ransom by alleged Taliban fighter. The second parliamentarian from her province to be attack this month. The week before, a female senator, her husband and their eight-year-old daughter were attacked. The child died. In July, a female police lieutenant was shot and killed in the southern province of Helmand.

Earlier this year, President Obama signed into law, a bill to increase security of Afghan women during the drawdown. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey were the co-authors. And Senator Casey joins us now. Welcome.

SENATOR ROBERT CASEY: Great to be with you. Thank you.

YOUNG: And with you, sitting right there with you is Suraya Pakzad, a woman Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people of 2009 and an activist in Afghanistan, but here in this country. Mrs. Pakzad, welcome to you as well.

SURAYA PAKZAD: Thank you so much. It's good to be here with you.

YOUNG: And just your thoughts on this violence. Is this an increase? We remember before 9/11, the emails that were flying around about the women who've been repressed by the Taliban, forced to wear burqas. It was thought that the U.S. invasion would help women in particular. So what is happening now?

PAKZAD: You know, generally, the security, unfortunately, getting worse. And when the troops leaves, some area is going to be handoff the Afghan local police, which they cannot protect the security of those area and protect the people. So, unfortunately, violence against women increase.

YOUNG: So you're saying that these attacks are increasingly happening against women. But am I hearing you saying, as well, that you don't think that the Afghan police taking over as the U.S. troops drawdown are able to protect the women? Or do they not want to protect the women?

PAKZAD: When they are in direct fight with the Taliban, protection of women, especially women activists, is always forgotten by the police of Afghanistan. And also when it goes to civil society, the women activists, they say that's not their responsibility. But, in fact, that is their responsibility, to protect all civilian, all citizens of Afghanistan. But they takes only care about the government officials.

YOUNG: Senator Casey, what would your legislation do to change this? What are the teeth in the legislation that might actually have an impact?

CASEY: Well, the key part of this legislation was an attempt to, frankly, to build upon the great work that's Suraya and so many others had done. We not only want to make sure that we're training the Afghan army and the Afghan police, but we're also insisting that they have the kind of gender sensitivity and training that is necessary. And also that we're taking substantial steps to do the recruiting so that there are more Afghan women who are police officers and soldiers.

The implementation of the legislation still has some gaps in it. I'm going to be introducing a new legislation to do a number of things. First of all, to increase the gender awareness and responsiveness among the Afghan army and police. Secondly, to increase the actual numbers of women who are members of both the police and the army, and to provide a measure of protection when women are voting in the upcoming election in April of next year.

YOUNG: So to have it clear, you're saying...


YOUNG: ... that the current legislation wants to better track and be aware of this issue.

CASEY: Right.

YOUNG: But you're looking for a legislation to increase more gender awareness, to increase the number of women in official positions and to have protection for them in the election that's coming up. But how will you enforce it? Will it be tied to some kind of aid? I mean, what kind of leverage is there?

CASEY: Well, we have leverage now, and we have to use every tool. Sometimes it might be with the leverage of aid. Sometimes it might be determined and focused in really an aggressive pressure and diplomacy. But we shouldn't kid ourselves - I guess is the best way to say it, that over time, it has to become a priority, and a responsibility and a commitment by the Afghan government, the president of Afghanistan, whoever that is 2014. This is going to be a challenge.

And we know the great strides that have already been made just in the last decade not only because of American - because of the United States' commitment, but because of the determined efforts and the real courage demonstrated by Ms. Suraya and people like her.

YOUNG: Well, back to you, Suraya. Mrs. Pakzad, you were trying to get more freedom for women back in 1998, when the Taliban was ruling, and you started to meet secretly. You formed the group. You now the lead the Voice of Women organization. 2008, you won the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department, and as we said, made Time magazine's 100 most influential people the next year.

So this is something that has been a long cause for you. Are you disappointed that women don't have more rights, given that the U.S. has fought this long war there? Many thought that the U.S. coming in and toppling the Taliban would solve some of the problems for women. And as we see, now, the violence is on the increase again. Are you disappointed?

PAKZAD: Actually, the progress made so far on women's rights issues, we are happy with that. We have quota for parliament. Twenty-seven seats are taken by women. Generally, we are happy. But the problem that currently we are facing to that is the number of laws are not enforced. So yesterday, my talk with Senator Casey that was as well that if we can push the government of Afghanistan to put the law enforced, so freedom is there, women's right is there, and we have - we can enjoy our freedom like women here in the United States.

YOUNG: But just one last question. You talk about how activists are not being protected. Are you afraid? You're one of the most high-profile.

PAKZAD: Yeah, that is unfortunately the fact. Whenever we are facing threats, we go to the government of Afghanistan and explain the issue. The reason that they are not able to protect all women activists, the way that they explain is that don't have enough soldier for their own duty. But it is a kind of, you know, political issue as well. But when you see a man, a head of organization, you know, and a number of bodyguards who are police officers and police - soldiers are following them, has a bodyguard, has security staff with them. But when it goes to women issue, they are thinking women are not that much, you know, important and that much at risk. And they said, don't take that, those threats serious.

YOUNG: Well, we wish you the best. That's Suraya Pakzad, an Afghan activist fighting for more women's rights in that country as the U.S. draws down its troops. We've also been speaking with Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who wants draft more legislation to protect Afghan women. Senator Casey, Mrs. Pakzad, thanks for speaking with us.

CASEY: Thank you very much.

PAKZAD: Thank you so much.


And an update now on another story we're following. Army Major Nidal Hasan has been found guilty of murder for the Fort Hood shootings in 2009. The attack killed 13 people, wounded more than 30. Hasan is now eligible for the death penalty. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.