Last February, on the eve of her departure from the Obama administration, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood before a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., and made a pledge: “The well-being of women and girls in Afghanistan continues to be an enduring concern of the United States,” she said, promising to keep the issue “front and center.”
Promises, as they say, don’t butter the bread.
Even before Clinton left office, and well in advance of the NATO military withdrawal from the country, women’s rights in Afghanistan were in a perilous state. In 2012, more than 200 female Afghan journalists left their jobs over fear of the coming backlash against women.
“Everyone in the country knew my voice, and it got to a point where I wasn’t prepared to risk my life anymore,” journalist Aminah Bobak recently told Foreign Policy magazine.
Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, tells TakePart that women like Bobak are right to be afraid. Despite Clinton’s assurances, preserving the gains of the post-invasion women’s rights work in Afghanistan is anything but certain.
“Women’s rights remains a priority, but it’s a priority within a rapidly shrinking pool of assistance. U.S. officials here admit that their budgets and programs are being cut across the board, and quickly.”
The issue isn’t just about military support. It’s largely about money.
“The U.S. and other donors have said that they will continue supporting women’s rights after 2014, but their budgets tell a different story,” says Barr. “Women’s rights remains a priority, but it’s a priority within a rapidly shrinking pool of assistance. U.S. officials on the ground here admit that their budgets and programs are being cut across the board, and quickly.”
According to Barr, if money doesn’t start flowing soon, all of the gains made by women since the U.S. invasion could be lost.
“Achievements for women since 2001 will not be sustainable without continuing international support,” she says. “Even just to maintain the status quo—let alone continue to achieve further, desperately needed, progress—there will need to be constant pressure on the Afghan government not to backslide on women’s rights, and sustained international funding for crucial services for women including schools, clinics, hospitals, shelters and legal services.”
Barr is not optimistic about the prospects for treatment of Afghan women going forward.
“There is little hope that forms of support will be sufficiently forthcoming to prevent backsliding,” she concludes.
Barr certainly has cause to be pessimistic. Human rights activists are barely staying afloat in Afghanistan, even with a full U.S. military presence on the ground—and the resources that come with them.
A current Human Rights Watch alert estimates the number of Afghan women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes” has risen 50 percent in the past 18 months, presumably as conservatives gain confidence prior to the scheduled departure of NATO forces. These “moral crimes” include attempting to flee forced marriage or domestic violence, and reporting instances of rape to the police, which is interpreted as an admission of adultery.
A recent documentary by the multimedia company Vice went behind-the-scenes at an Afghan police academy. U.S. Marines were attempting to train Afghan recruits in proper protection of rural villages from Taliban attack and insurgency. Training locals to root out the Taliban appeared to be futile bordering on disastrous, and the video seems to show the Marines’ trainees kidnapping local boys and keeping them in the police barracks as sex slaves.
Vice reported that one young boy was shot in the face for attempting to escape his captors.
“Sexual abuse of boys by armed forces is a serious problem which absolutely shows no signs of going away,” confirms Human Rights Watch’s Barr.
If Marines on the ground can’t stop their Afghan recruits from raping boys, imagine what human rights workers will face when the U.S. exits the country in 2014—with the Taliban poised to step in to fill the power vacuum.
Hillary Clinton and other powerful figures in the U.S. government are correct to express concern for the human rights of Afghan civilians in the wake of the military withdrawal of America and NATO. But those sentiments will be vacant without sustained action on the human rights front. As things stand now, words appear to be the only aid poised to stay directed at the Afghan people.