LONDON — Georgette Gagnon’s job in Afghanistan as the country representative for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights may sound like an impossible mission, given the country’s notorious instability and flagrant abuse of women’s rights. Yet it is not so much the pending Western troop withdrawal in 2014 that unnerves Afghan women, in particular, but the drop in international attention and financing that is likely to follow the withdrawal that makes them uneasy. Tragic perversions of justice for women remain in the country, says Gagnon, a former Canadian diplomat, citing a legal loophole that allows police, for example, to charge girls running away from home with “intention to commit adultery,” a crime with a prison term.
Yet, Gagnon, who is also a lawyer and the director of the human rights unit at the UN mission in Afghanistan (Unama, or the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) is not easily intimidated. After all, she has spent much of her career living in conflict zones. She spoke to PassBlue in October by phone about the outlook for Afghan women in the near future:
Q. What are Afghan women’s major concerns as international troops prepare to withdraw in early 2014?
A. I’ve had numerous discussions with women over several months. In fact, it’s not really the withdrawal of the troops that they’re concerned about. It’s the transition — the security responsibility, the political transition, the economic transition — which is happening through to 2014. Now, Afghan security forces are responsible for security across the country, and there will be [presidential and provincial] elections in the spring. With transition, there will also be a draw-down of international funding and attention to Afghanistan. So, all of those factors coming together have forced women’s rights activists to be very concerned that the gains they’ve achieved since 2001 will be either rolled back or compromised: less funding, less attention to issues. Most NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and civil society groups in Afghanistan are funded through international donors and organizations . . . and NGOs are often the main employer in developing countries. If funds dry up, will Afghan women lose their source of income?
Q. Are there female Afghan leaders speaking up on behalf of women now?
A. There’s a very vibrant network of Afghan women, and they’re very vocal. This network includes parliamentarians, human rights activists and women operating women’s shelters and women’s skills development organizations. There are also some journalists and media groups who’re very vocal about women’s rights. So there’s quite a good network.
Q. Are security precautions being put in place for women leaders and women in general to cope with the troops withdrawal?
A. International troops never really provided one-on-one security for women, though obviously they were involved in fighting the insurgency. But it has always been the Afghan police and army that were directly involved in providing security for communities. Of course, with transition, some communities are not getting enough protection from the Afghan forces, so in some locations there’s overall concern about security.
Q. Are you concerned that some of the women you work with will be endangered once the international troops leave?
A. The concerns are not tied to the troops. Women’s rights activists and other human rights defenders have been subject to many threats from different groups and elements in society, and there’s a concern that those threats will increase with less focus on these issues by authorities in power.
Q. Do you feel targeted or receive threats? And how do you think that will change next year?
A. I’ve not received threats and don’t feel intimidated working on behalf of human rights. But some of my colleagues on my team here, both Afghans and international colleagues, have been threatened and harassed. My Afghan colleagues receive letters warning them to stop working with international organizations, and that happens to many Afghans working for international organizations. The insurgents — the Taliban — consider such people to be pro-government, and that’s one reason why they target them.
Q. Forced marriage among Afghan girls has received a lot of media attention worldwide. Has the situation improved in the last decade or so?
A. There’s been a lot of awareness about the issue of forced and child marriage. A law was adopted in 2009, called the Violence Against Women Law. That law came about as a result of very active work by women’s rights groups. It criminalizes harmful practices, such as forced marriage, and many Sharia scholars have also argued that forced marriage is not consistent with Sharia. So there’s that law, there are some statements by political leaders about this issue, and there’s a lot of awareness about it. But it’s still very common in rural areas that girls are subjected to forced marriage and child marriage. So, the practice continues, and there’s very little prosecution of such offenses.
Q. How can Afghan activists and the international community help these girls?
A. There are many women’s groups that do provide shelters for girls who’re fleeing domestic violence or a situation where they’re being forced into a marriage. But longer-term solutions will take a lot of time. The issue is, will the local women’s groups have the ability to carry on their work past 2014 at the same level? Many women’s rights groups have been urging the Afghan government to make sure there’s enough money to maintain the gains that have been made.
Q. Girls’ education has been somewhat of a success story since 2001. What are post-2014 prospects looking like in that regard?
A. We’ve documented, as has the Ministry of Education, that there are a lot more girls going to primary school. There’s a concern about girls going on to secondary school and university. In many rural areas, that doesn’t happen. Girls stop school when they reach puberty. That’s a huge issue. But many, many communities now demand that their girls get educated and that there be girls’ schools in their areas. So, there’s much more acceptance and awareness about girls’ equality. In the cities, girls do go on to university, but even so, there are a lot of statistics that show that girls’ participation in education is much lower than boys’.
Q. Women-only prisons financed by Western governments provide safe housing and let inmates spend time with their children. Is this a success?
A. The real issue with women’s prisons here is that most of the women are serving sentences for something called “moral crimes,” or for running away, which is not even a crime. So girls and women are imprisoned for something that’s not even a real crime. They flee from their homes because of domestic violence and are often picked up by the police, and then brought to prison and charged with something called “intention to commit adultery,” which is not a crime. That’s a big issue. As you know, adultery is a crime here, and both men and women are imprisoned for it. But often women run away from home by themselves without a male relative somewhere, and that’s how they get picked up for this so-called crime and sent to prison.
Q. So being picked up for running away from bad situations is extremely dangerous for Afghan women and girls?
A. Sometimes they can get lawyers, and sometimes they’re allowed to defend themselves from these alleged so-called crimes but often not. It’s a very serious problem. A number of NGOs have tried for several years to get the law clarified and to get directives from the courts saying that just running away is not a crime.
Q. Do you have a sense of how much women’s rights are being discussed in negotiations with the Taliban?
A. It depends on which level you’re talking about. On the broader level, the government has said that they’d go for peace talks, but that there are red lights for people entering the talks: they have to respect the Afghan constitution, and they have to renounce violence. In the constitution, men and women are equal, and there are a number of guarantees and protections for women. That’s seen as one way of supporting women’s rights. But NGOs and women’s rights activists here will tell you that the talks don’t adequately involve women and that women are not participating enough on any levels of the peace negotiations.
Q. So women’s rights are a marginal issue in the peace talks?
A. I’d certainly say they’re not a priority. Some women’s groups here will say that women’s rights are not adequately configured by any measure in the peace talks.
Q. There are top women ministers in Parliament, women police chiefs and even a woman military general. Do these advances reflect big leaps forward for Afghan women or are they anomalies?
A. Such appointments are welcome. For example, there are 157,000 police officers, and only 1,500 of them are women. So it’s a profession that has very few women, and so is the army. There’s quite a big corps of female politicians, including female parliamentarians, which is quite welcome. But there are not many female political leaders. Now there are elections coming in the spring, and I know there’s a push by many groups to get more women to run for office. So there’s a long way to go.
Q. Your job sounds both challenging and depressing. What keeps you going?
A. There’s a very committed professional corps of Afghan human rights activists and women’s rights activists, and they’re very committed. That’s extremely encouraging. It’s a group that many of us admire and try to support. There’s also a group within government that’s committed and trying to push women’s issues inside government. And, of course, young people here who want to see progress, stability and all those good things in their country.
Q. So, there is almost a critical mass of people trying to do the right thing for Afghan women?
A. There obviously needs to be more people, but it’s coming to that.