04/28/2009 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Call to Action: Defend Women's Progress, Human Rights in Afghanistan

Throughout Afghanistan's history, negotiations over women's status and
rights in Afghan society have occurred largely in the context of political
struggles to take power or to hold on to power. We can see from President
Karzai's recent authorization of the Shiite Personal Status Law--a move
pleasing to a conservative minority with whom he was unpopular--that for
women, very little has changed about this tradition in Afghanistan. The
law is currently under review by the state's Ministry of Justice, but
remains a worrying precedent and a palpable threat to the advancement of
gender equality and justice in Afghanistan. If upheld, the measure will
subject women of the Shia minority to restricted movement, mandatory
marital sex, limited ability to seek work, pursue an education or visit the
doctor without their husbands' permission and special regulation on matters
like inheritance.

Women's rights in Afghanistan must be preserved and protected. No action
should be taken that further exaggerates the problem Women for Women
International Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori calls the "two
Afghanistans": one in Kabul where women's rights are preserved as women
gain more access to social, economic and political opportunities, and
another where socially excluded and rural women are subject to a different
set of rights and laws that restrict their socioeconomic development and
often endanger their lives and violate their human rights. Issues like
forced marriage, self-immolation and honor crimes are still very real
issues in this Afghanistan, and they threaten not only individual women
but the ability of the nation as a whole to achieve stability, security
and development, all of which are intimately interlinked.

Over 16 years working with women survivors of war has taught me that
women's wellbeing is the bellwether of society. Restrictions on women's
mobility and personal autonomy are detrimental not just at the household
and community levels, but to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as well. The
quality of life of a nation's women correlates directly with how the
society fares overall--where women suffer, it is only a matter of time
before entire communities are at risk. When women thrive across all sectors
of society--including education and the economy--all of society benefits.

Any blueprint for sustainable peace risks failure without united, local-
and national- level efforts to enact gender-equitable policies that
dismantle--not construct--obstacles preventing women's full participation
in society. In a recent survey of 1500 Afghan women, Women for Women
International found that the central government is believed to be more
engaged on women's issues than local leadership. If the national government
as a model rolls back women's rights, this hard-fought trust in central
government will be squandered. This would represent a real misstep in the
nation's progress toward development of a healthy democracy.

The women of Afghanistan need access to economic opportunities, access to
education in all levels and access to physical and psychosocial health
services, without having to seek permission first. They need to exercise
their rights without threat of retaliation. They need to be able to
articulate their needs, both as individuals and as equal partners in
decisions about the future of their society. There can not be a
prosperous, strong, economically healthy and democratic Afghanistan without
having strong women in the nation who are fully part of shaping the

By their own accounts, if Afghan women can participate shoulder to shoulder
with men in rebuilding their country, all of society will benefit. But for
this to happen, all Afghan women must be able to exercise their human
rights, regardless of religious or political affiliation.