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Now or Never? Securing Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

May 21, 2013 by Sara Van Wie

On Saturday, May 18, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to pass the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, which sought to criminalize violence against women, combat child marriage, and provide shelters for victims of domestic abuse.  Initial protections for women in Afghanistan were instated by decree by President Hamid Karzai in 2009, but required parliamentary support to be solidified in Afghan law.

Women have made significant gains in basic rights since the fall of the Taliban, but women’s rights advocates seem to be divided on how to best secure these gains for women in the coming months and years.  Some advocates, including MP Fawzia Koofi, consider it necessary to push the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW) through parliament before the draw-down of international, financial and military support and the 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan.  Because current protections come through presidential decree, an elected president in 2014 who does not support women’s rights could easily reverse existing protections for women.  In light of growing uncertainty of political and security outcomes in 2014, these activists argue that now is the time to secure long-term legal protections for women.

Others argue that the risks of presenting the legislation are too high in a parliament that has already has shown significant opposition to women’s legal rights.  Sorya Sobrang, a women’s rights activist, actually organized groups to prevent the presentation of EVAW bill to parliament.  In her interview with the New York Times, she argues that those who make up Afghanistan’s parliament include former militia commanders, mullahs and other conservatives who have already opposed protections for women, considering them “un-Islamic.”  In her view, premature presentation of EVAW might result in religious conservative demands to significantly alter the bill or dismantle it entirely -- a risk she and others are hesitant to take.

Last Saturday, Afghanistan MP Fawzia Koofi presented the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law for endorsement in parliament.  Debate was so intense that  speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi postponed the consideration of the law, but did not set a date for its further review.  Clashes lasted for more than two hours between MPs supporting the law and more conservative religious members of the parliament.  Many legislators cited violations of Islamic or Sharia law. 

According to Reuters, Obaidullah Barekzai, member from the Uruzgan province, argued against the law’s minimum marriage age for girls, which requires a girl to be at least 16 before she is married.  He cited historical figure Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who married off his daughter at 7 years of age.  Other members, including some female MPs, argued that provisions for women’s shelters are “morally corrupt” because, according to one government minister, they are “houses of prostitution and immorality.”  In all, religious members objected to eight articles in the legislation.

Fawzia Koofi, a female MP from Badakhshan province and head of parliament’s women’s commission, told Reuters, “’Today, the parliamentarians who oppose womens’ development, women’s rights and the success of women . . . made their voice loud and clear.’” 

For now, there is no date set for another review of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, but women’s rights advocates both within and outside of Afghanistan’s parliament continue their struggle to secure gains for women into the future.  They believe that Afghanistan’s darkest days are behind them and refuse to take steps backwards.  The Bush Center applauds the bravery of women’s advocates throughout Afghanistan, and encourages them to continue their work despite vocal opposition.

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