What next for the women of Afghanistan?

Ten years on from the invasion of Afghanistan, MP and presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi discusses wo

On 7 October 2001 the US began its invasion of Afghanistan, on the premise that the Taliban government was harbouring al-Qaeda fighters. Suddenly, the international spotlight was on the plight of Afghan women, and the restoration of their rights held up as yet anothe reason for intervention.

Ten years on, women in Afghanistan have the right to vote, study and leave the house without male company, and yet the livelihoods of many women remain constrained. There are even 69 female MPs, and one female minister, Amina Afzali, who is responsible for labour, social affairs, the martyred and disabled.

Fawzia Koofi, one of these female MPs, is visiting Britain to meet with UK politicians and discuss Afghanistan's future. In 2005, when Koofi first went into politics, her male colleagues viewed the women in parliament as mere beneficiaries of a quota system and international pressure. Today, Koofi, who is the deputy-speaker of parliament and is considering a presidential run for 2014, says that the men recognise them as politicians. "There are women working in social affairs, like health and education, and civil society is becoming active. There have been some amendments of the laws and there have been some new laws, providing more opportunities for women."

However, women have entered Afghan politics and public life at a great risk to their own lives. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that nine in ten Afghan women still fear the implications for women's rights if Taliban regained power, with a fifth citing their daughter's education as their main concern.

"During the Taliban [era] and the civil war, everything was taken from women," says Koofi. It would be terrible if Afghanistan saw a repeat of this, she argues, but despite the hardships that women face, she believes that her society want to move on. "The women of Afghanistan today are not the women of Afghanistan in 1996. We are strong, we can raise awareness and we also have the international community to help us." She adds that if the Taliban respected their newly gained values and rights, they would be welcome to join the political system.

According to ActionAid, 39 per cent of children currently in school are girls, and one quarter of all government jobs are filled by women. The ability of women to fully exercise their rights is, however, still marred by social constraints. Forced marriages, child marriages and domestic abuse are still very common and security concerns remain a constant fear for both men and women. According to a UN report from 2009, the lack of female electoral staff made families reluctant to allow women to go to the voting booths.

"I know it's a traditional society, that things will not just change over night," says Koofi. If the country wants to progress, politically and economically, she argues, the new Afghan government cannot continue to ignore 50 per cent of the population.

In December, an international conference in Bonn plans to road-map the future of Afghanistan and the role the international community should play. Women's rights advocates fear that Afghanistan will present itself as an all-male delegation.

According to Koofi, concerns of the Afghan society, both male and female, can only be addressed if both women and civil society groups are present. In her eyes, Afghanistan's future lies in building up the security and justice systems, and making use of Afghanistan's natural and cultural resources.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.