An Interview with Adeena Niazi
Shareen Gokal, Canada
October 31, 2003
Shareen Gokal: Do you think that life for women under the present coalition government is better that it was under the Taliban?
Adeena Niazi: Life has changed for a number of women, not because of the Northern Alliance or Coalition government but because of the pressure brought about by the international community. For example, a number of women enjoy more freedom—they can work, they can travel overseas, they have some presence in the cabinet and in the Loya Jirga—but this does not reflect the reality across the country. This is a small group of privileged women, especially those from the upper class living in the capital in Kabul. The rights of women in the country generally are no better. Outside Kabul, it is the same as before, if not worse. Even though the law now permits rights like education, forced marriages are common, women are scared of going out without being covered and the security and safety problem is worse than it was during the Taliban. The Taliban did violate all the rights of women but there was safety and security in spite of the violations. Now schools are being burnt and the poverty is extreme. In Kabul, the poor people have
become even poorer because of the presence of international NGOs which have caused hyperinflation in the city. The cost of living has gone up
tremendously. The situation is especially bad for women who lost their
husbands and other male relatives during the war and now have no source of income or support. According to official statistics, only 12% of women have access to even basic health care. So overall, women’s lives are not
improved after the Taliban.
SG: What are the major challenges faced by local women’s rights NGOs in Afghanistan as they try to advocate for change?
AN: The warlords are very strong in many places and it is therefore very difficult for the local NGOs to work independently. Attacks on NGOs have increased even in the areas that were considered some of the safest places in Afghanistan. Those who work for international NGOs are especially targeted. The government is against the presence of NGOs because they want the all the money coming in as assistance to be channeled through them and feel that NGOs are largely corrupt. Furthermore, local NGOs do not have the capacity and skills needed to make changes. During the war, women were the ones that organized to offer social services such as education and health to fill the gaps created by the Taliban, but now as NGOs they are not being supported and are under resourced. Another challenge is that the NGO salaries are higher than government ones and this leads to further resentment.
SG: Do local women’s groups in Afghanistan receive adequate support from international organizations and the international community in their efforts to advocate for women’s rights?
AN: There is some funding and support for local initiatives, but most of the local NGOs still lack funding and support. The big international organizations working in Afghanistan are not working at the grassroots level, or closely with local NGOs. They have their own structure and use mainly international staff with little local involvement. This is not a sustainable way to operate. In the case of a crisis they will just pick up and go and the work that they are doing will not sustain itself.
SG: Is Hamid Karzai’s government doing enough to protect the rights of women in Afghanistan? If not, what else needs to be done, in your opinion?
AN: The power of the government is limited, and it does not really have any power outside Kabul, mainly because of the presence of warlords and the "mini-states" that have been created. The US is still funding and supporting the local warlords and is responsible for sustaining their power. The central government itself is a coalition which Hamid Karzai himself admits is not really working for Afghanistan. There are elements of the government that have been and continue to be responsible for crimes against women and against humanity. They are not really capable of providing the safety needed. The Bill of Rights for Women was a good thing to be passed, but the main problem is its implementation. Even the traditional Islamic rights of women have not implemented—e.g. the right of marriage.
SG: What lessons that can be learnt from Afghanistan’s experience for women’s rights advocates in Iraq as they face similar challenges in post-war reconstruction?
AN: First of all, to bring to account the groups that are guilty of human rights violations and not let them form part of the government. Second, the terms and conditions of the Bonn agreement were not met. For example, according to the Bonn agreement there should have been a national army in place before the Loya Jirga took power, but that did not happen which led to an undemocratic process in the Loya Jirga. Four people were killed and there was incredible pressure, threats and intimidation by the warlords, even warlords that did not have elected seats in the Loya Jirga. The lessons therefore are to put appropriate structures of accountability and governance in place first.
SG: What in your opinion would lead to a change in the future for women in Afghanistan?
AN: What will bring a change is if the international community really looks at the situation of Afghanistan with all its complexity. First of all, disarmament and disempowerment of the warlords is key; they need to be divested of their men, money and arms. Furthermore, institutional
strengthening needs to occur. A civil police force and a national army need to be set up. The government needs to elect its members based on merit and exclude those responsible for crimes in the past. There needs to be a process to bring to justice all those who are guilty of crimes. There needs to be a true implementation of the rights of women as expressed in the Bill of Rights. Infrastructural development needs to take place and there needs to be a way to deal with the drug trade which is now giving more money and power to the warlords.
The presence of women in public offices now is only tokenism; more resources and support need to be given to the women's ministry and the government as a whole needs to be accountable when there are abuses committed against women. Certainly, the expansion of the international peacekeepers outside Kabul and the extension of their presence will be very positive until there is a national civil police force and army that is run independently of the warlords. These are the challenges to women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Adeena Niazi is Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Organization, Canada.
Shareen Gokal is Forum Manager,
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From the AWID Resource Net, Friday File, issue 150, October 31, 2003.