Australia must help fight for rights of Afghan women
By Nouria Salehi
As a proud Australian, with strong connections to Afghanistan as the place of my birth, I read Hugh White’s recent opinion piece on Afghanistan (“Afghanistan mission a total failure”, February 5) with great interest.
Every year since 2002, I have seen firsthand the struggle of ordinary Afghan women and men to rebuild their lives with great resolve. I share Professor White’s concerns about the future of Afghanistan after Australian troops and allied/NATO forces leave at the end of this year. I am deeply saddened too by the loss of Australian lives, with countless more Australians injured. These Australians are fighting alongside Afghans eager for a democratic and peaceful Afghanistan.
I take issue, however, with Professor White’s assertion that there is no credible government in Afghanistan and his simplistic portrayal of a country falling into an abyss after the departure of allied forces in 2014. There is a vigorous civil society in Afghanistan, with many community members eager to realise their country’s dreams of peace, democracy and, most importantly, women’s rights.
As Professor White notes, external troops will come and go, while ordinary Afghans struggle to enjoy the most basic of human rights. Our focus must be on assisting local initiatives and bringing attention to the rights of women who form the backbone of Afghan society.
Representatives of Afghanistan’s civil society will be in Australia next week to attend the Afghan Women’s Roundtable to discuss the role of women in the peace, reconciliation and transition process. These five men and five women, including six MPs, are representatives not only of their homeland, but of the deep and ongoing partnership Afghanistan shares with Australia. Crucially, they understand that the absence of women’s voices at all levels of Afghan society is a problem that, left unaddressed, will only exacerbate the nation’s challenges in future.
This Roundtable will allow these prominent Afghans to discuss with key Australian politicians, officials and NGOs how we can make the voices of Afghan women be heard – both here and in Afghanistan.
As a country with a female prime minister and governor-general, equal opportunity laws and women’s participation in many diverse spheres of society, Australia has accepted equality for women as a central, and beneficial, aspect of a developed society.
As such, we can help guide Afghans on how to ensure that women are properly represented at all levels as Afghanistan transitions to self-rule. Importantly, we have a government that is well positioned to encourage the Afghan government to do just that. The Afghan Australian Development Organisation helps women realise their human rights in areas such as teacher training. With the primary school completion rate for girls at just 13 per cent (compared to 32 per cent for boys), and a literacy rate for young women aged 15-24 of 18 per cent (compared to 50 per cent for boys), many women require the most basic of literacy support.
This is a support that Australia is ideally placed to provide, but it cannot continue without women’s input in Afghanistan, and Australian support in ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard.
Afghanistan remains a particularly difficult place to be a woman. More than 87 per cent of Afghan women having experienced some kind of physical, sexual, or psychological violence, or forced marriage. Every day, 50 women die from pregnancy-related causes – the world’s highest rate. A woman’s life expectancy is a mere 44 years.
Even so, encouraging gains have been made. A visit to Australia by Afghan MPs speaking primarily about gender issues would have been unthinkable some years ago. That some of those MPs are women is further evidence of an increased awareness by the current government of the need to take concrete steps to include women in the transition process.
Australia’s temporary seat on the UN Security Council could also be used to further promote the principles of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, of which women’s participation is a core tenet.
Now is not the time for women to lose the rights that they have won back since the fall of the Taliban a decade ago. It is not the time to turn our backs on Afghanistan. Australia has a responsibility to continue strengthening forces with local efforts and to work even harder for the rights of Afghan citizens, especially women.
As a woman who has benefited from the freedoms that Australia offers, I hope that in the future these freedoms will be equally enjoyed by the women of Afghanistan. So, as Australia discusses the withdrawal of troops, we must not overlook the importance of fighting for women’s equality, and the role women play in that fight.
Dr Nouria Salehi, OAM, is the executive director of the Afghan Australian Development Organisation, which is hosting the upcoming Afghan MP and civil society leader’s visit.