Kathleen Kuehnast, USIP's Gender and Peacebuilding Center program director, talks about the recent public murder of a woman in Afghanistan and the importance of the international community’s efforts to protect and promote the rights of Afghan women.

Photo courtesy of NY Times

The role of women in society is often a site for political discussion, especially in the course of post-conflict transition. For Afghan women, a decade of debate has ensued about their role in Afghan society.

The recent public murder of a woman named Najiba in Afghanistan has sparked international outrage and calls to bring the killers to justice. While the actual date of the killing is unknown, video of the execution depicts a Taliban militant firing repeated shots at close range at a young woman in Qol village in Parwan province, just north of the capital Kabul. Cheered by male onlookers, this death sentence was administered just an hour after Taliban members deemed the woman guilty of adultery against her husband, a member of a hardline Taliban militant group. The execution video has renewed concerns that enough is not being done to protect women, particularly from so-called honor killings, which were common during the Taliban regime that ruled from 1996-2001.

This shocking incident underlines the continuing importance of the international community's efforts to protect and promote the rights of Afghan women. Images and reports of the Taliban's brutality were rife at the height of their power during their period of control over the country in 2001. But their removal from power has not ended their ongoing targeting of civilians, particularly women. The impending U.S. drawdown threatens to divert the international community's attention from these persistent acts of violence against women. Yet we know that sustainable peace and security for all Afghans cannot be achieved without enabling women to safely and freely be an integral part of society. Though Afghan women have made significant progress over the last decade, this recent video reminds us in graphic detail that these gains remain fragile and vulnerable to attack.

Reacting to the Taliban's deplorable behavior toward women, the international community -- with the unwavering support of then First Lady Laura Bush -- in 2003 made a worldwide outcry to focus on Afghan women's rights and access to healthcare and education. Despite the number of negative trends in Afghanistan, tremendous achievements have been gained in the health sector. Most notable is the programming on maternal health, which has contributed to a significant decline in infant and child mortality rates. 

But the fact is women are caught in shifting political tides. Therefore, it is critical to ask again what does this kind of gender based violence mean for women in transition in Afghanistan, and will they increasingly find themselves in the crossfire of a non-inclusive, politically negotiated settlement?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a firm plea this past Sunday for the rights of women in Afghanistan. Using the Tokyo Conference as her platform, she urged the international community to make sure that women are an integral part of the country's future growth. Her comments underscored the fear that recent gains for women are under threat as NATO troops leave, and Kabul seeks peace with the Taliban. Clinton asserted, "The United States believes strongly that no nation can achieve peace, stability and economic growth if half the population is not empowered,” and the way forward, "must include fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law (and providing) access to economic opportunity for all Afghans, especially for women." All citizens need to have the chance to benefit from and contribute to Afghanistan's progress. She added, “The United States will continue to stand strongly by the women of Afghanistan."

In a recent USIP dialogue with Afghan and Iraqi women on lessons learned and peacebuilding, the  eleven Afghan women described the current problem for women as serious, especially the return of a reign of gender-based violence and terror inflicted by the Taliban. However, the Afghan women added that they perceive the Taliban more as criminals than as extremist leaders, trying to recreate a past when the Taliban were all powerful. Now, the Afghan women noted, they are nothing more than thugs.

But in spite of this angst, the women leaders also pointed out how Afghan women's rights have made inroads over the decade. The Afghan women were joined by 11 Iraqi women leaders, most of whom had never met an Afghan woman before. The Iraqis were impressed by the ways in which Afghan women have been able to establish institutional mechanisms, in spite of the corruption, to help move their concerns forward, including having women in the high peace councils (jirgas), the creation of a Ministry of Women's Affairs, a parliamentarian quota system, a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and an active and expanding civil society. Looking forward, the 2014 elections are seen as pivotal opportunity for women to engage in a more peaceful Afghanistan: as one woman pointed out, “democracy is the friend of women.”

All of this reminds us that Afghan women leaders continue to work diligently toward more peaceful solutions in their country, even as we try to make sense of the brutal murder of an Afghan woman, where justice was lacking, and the echo from the recent past of a society terrorized by brutality is too loud to ignore.

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