Women in Afghanistan: OK after Nato?

My new favourite radio show is More Or Less, a BBC Radio 4/Open University programme on ... statistics.

Yes, numbers and more numbers. It's far more interesting than you might think. For example, yesterday's MOL discussed the world's largest workforces. Astonishingly (well, I was astonished) the NHS is apparently the fifth biggest employer on the planet, with around 1.1 million staff (a full-time-staff equivalent figure). But the outright biggest is the Department of Defense in the USA. It's bigger even than the Chinese army.

The DoD is in the news today because of Afghanistan. The Nato summit, ongoing in Chicago, is about Afghanistan and in particular Nato’s planned withdrawal in 2014. The USA has 90,000 of the 130,000 personnel in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, far and away the largest number (the UK has 9,500). And in two and a half years’ time the vast majority of these forces are due to be out of Afghanistan as part of an “orderly withdrawal” (“there will be no rush for the exits” is the heavily-worked US/Nato media line).

Right. Leaving aside the current row about Pakistan and US supply routes, the big question is what will the withdrawal mean for Afghanistan? It doesn’t seem very clear.

There are still a host of unresolved matters concerning how Nato/ISAF continue to operate in the next two and half years (for example Amnesty has been pressing the coalition’s forces to tighten up its rules of engagement, its accountability over civilian casualties, its prisoner transfer procedures, and to ensure that it minimises the harm done to civilian populations who have often been forced out of their homes by heavy-handed anti-insurgency tactics). On top of that, after what will then be 13 years of military operations right across the country, Nato/ISAF states will also need to ensure that by 2014 they are playing a positive role in helping to safeguard and build women’s rights in the country (under various UN resolutions on women and conflict).

Currently we’re already over a decade in, so it’s totally unacceptable that there’s still a need to press the Nato/ISAF forces over key matters that should have been in place from day one (are they going to sort out things like accountability on the 31 December 2014?), but in some respects it’s even worse than this already sounds. Because on women’s rights, despite prior promises from the likes of Hillary Clinton not to “abandon” Afghanistan’s women in 2014, there are very few guarantees that this abandonment will not happen.

Why do I say that? Well, the past 2-3 years have seen secretive talks with the Taleban that appear to have a lot to do with securing a “peace deal” and very little (nothing?) to do with securing guarantees over women’s rights. Amnesty’s Kate Allen was in Afghanistan in March and she heard numerous MPs, human rights activists and other women voicing fears that their rights are going to be traded away by the Kabul government (and by Nato/ISAF) desperate for peace at almost any cost (see Kate Allen's Huffington Post article for more on this).

Undoubtedly there have been real gains for women since the Taleban were defeated (some of this was outlined in this useful Amnesty briefing from last year) and figures I’m now seeing also tell a story of modest improvements: eg less severe maternal mortality rates (but still an Afghan woman dies every two hours due to pregnancy-related causes), 2.7 million girls enrolled in school compared to just a few thousand in 2001 (though enrolment is by no means matched by attendance), and so on.

Last year’s ActionAid survey of 1,000 Afghan women indicated that the vast majority of Afghan women (86%) were worried about a return to the harshness of Taleban-style rule, while two-thirds (exactly 66%) said they felt safer now than they did a decade ago. Interesting stats, but in the end it comes down to this: are the women of Afghanistan going to be sold out as that orderly, non-rushed Nato-/ISAF move to the exits takes place in 2014? Will they be OK after Nato? Maybe Radio 4’s More Or less might try to put some numbers on that in about three years’ time.

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