With the deadline for the departure of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan just a year away, civilian casualties in the country remain alarmingly high, says a new report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama). Although the report said the number of casualties had decreased for the first time in six years, by 12 percent, the number of casualties among women and girls increased a whopping 20 percent during the same 2012 yearlong period.
“It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities,” said Georgette Gagnon in a UN News Center article. Georgette Gagnon is the director of the human rights section of the UN Afghan mission. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombers and international aerial attacks were all major sources of casualties among Afghan civilians.
Of the 7,559 civilian casualties reported in 2012 (2,754 deaths and 4,805 injuries), women accounted for 864 (301 deaths and 563 injuries), or 11 percent. Unama relied on firsthand accounts and government reports to compile its statistics for the study, “Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2012.” When the group was unsatisfied with the information concerning a death or an injury, the incident was not reported. Because of this and other challenges associated with working in the conflict-ridden country, “Unama is likely under-reporting civilian casualties,” the report said.
“Vulnerability to violence is widely accepted across the board in many communities in the name of culture, tradition and misinterpretations of religion,” said James Rodehaver in an e-mail to PassBlue. Rodehaver is the deputy director of the human rights unit at the UN mission, based in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
Rodehaver said that violence against women also occurred because of their lack of economic and social empowerment in Afghanistan.
“The situation of women is a bit different than it appears on the media,” said Sweeta Noori, the country director of Women for Women International in Afghanistan. Based in Washington, D.C., Women for Women International is a nonprofit group that helps women war survivors in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Noori said the UN report did not take into account the high number of child marriages and other types of forced matrimony in rural areas, or the increasing severity of self-immolation among women.
“I am the eyewitness of a woman in jail giving birth because of rape,” Noori said. “When they go out of the jail there’s no place for them to go because their family knows the community is not accepting them. They decide to finish their lives by pouring petrol on themselves and burning themselves.”
Although the security situation has improved since the Taliban’s power has diminished somewhat in the last few years, Afghan women are concerned that violence will rise after foreign troops withdraw in 2014, Noori said, even though the Afghan police force is being trained to take the security reins more fully.
“As long as we leave women behind, there won’t be a stable and developed Afghanistan in the future,” she said. “If the international community focuses more on women’s rights and finds ways to decrease violence against women, I would say economic empowerment will follow.”
Graeme Smith is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. He said that women were caught in the struggle between northern factions in the country, who favor a more liberal approach to women’s rights, and southern factions, who prefer a stricter approach.
“This difference of opinion has become a rallying cry for both sides of the conflict: Taliban fighters say they are battling immorality, while pro-government figures talk about pushing back medieval forces,” Smith said in an e-mail to PassBlue. “The women themselves get caught in the middle.”
Smith suggested that if NATO were to depoliticize gender issues, Afghan society might be more open to changes that come within rather than from outsiders.
“Any encouragement from military forces in the country can create a backlash against ‘foreign invaders’ and associate a legitimate social change with a military presence widely viewed as nonlegitimate,” Smith said.
The desire for a change in Afghan women’s status was echoed among several UN press releases for International Women’s Day, on March 8, and during an open debate on Afghanistan, held in the Security Council on March 19. At the debate, the council renewed Unama’s mandate for a year, based on recommendations from a recent report by the office of the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Although the report extensively addressed the political dynamics in Afghanistan and its April 2014 presidential election, it gave far less attention to the horrific plight of women in the country. The rise in casualties of women was noted, followed by a sentence that said, with no elaboration, “There has also been some progress in implementing the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, although deep challenges remain.”
As Ingibjorg Gisladottir, the representative for the UN Women agency in Afghanistan, said in a statement: “Providing appropriate support services for survivors of violence is important, but it is not enough. The most important thing is to put an end to the culture of impunity that prevails in Afghanistan and make the perpetrators of violence against women responsible for their crimes.”
Rodehaver of Unama emphasized the need for more civilian protection, saying, “The international military and the Government of Afghanistan have already taken a number of measures to mitigate civilian casualties, but clearly practical measures must continue to be taken to safeguard civilians, especially women and children, including taking greater steps to ensure IEDs are detected and disposed of.” Another way of protecting women is to make sure they have economic opportunities, he added.
Jan Kubis, the UN special envoy in Afghanistan, said separately in a statement that he hoped women would play an active role in the rebuilding of the country. “Women have the vision and the power to bring change and reshape the future of Afghanistan, a peaceful future for their children that will ensure development for their country,” Kubis said. “We must allow them to act on this vision.”
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Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a magazine concentration. She has reported on immigration issues, public housing and the waterfront environment, and her articles have been published in The Brooklyn Paper, City Limits and Narratively.
Boissoneault is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned a B.A. in international studies and English/creative writing. She speaks French and conversational Mandarin and has studied Arabic and Italian.