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Don't abandon the women of Afghanistan

The Afghan government’s move to consider reintroducing stoning for adultery may be a sign of things to come. Britain must act now to protect the women of Afghanistan.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai (right) shakes hands with Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif during their meeting in Kabul on 30 November 2013. Photo: S. Sabawoon/AFP/Getty Images.

Next year UK troops will leave Afghanistan after a long campaign. While many people have mixed feelings about our presence there, most I think would welcome the advancements we have seen in women’s rights. The women and girls of Afghanistan are now protected by law from rape within marriage, they can seek justice and support if they are sexually abused, and millions of girls now have access to education. But these transformative changes are at risk.

The Afghan Justice Ministry delivered a fundamental blow to years of human rights achievements by suggesting a few days ago that public stoning for adultery could be reintroduced. The sentence for married adulterers, along with flogging for unmarried offenders, appeared in a draft revision of the country's penal code being managed by the ministry of justice. The regular stoning of women in Kabul’s football stadium during Taliban rule was a defining symbol of the oppressive and cruel practices of that regime. We cannot let it return.

Though President Karzai has now sought to reassure us that this proposal is going nowhere, the very fact it was even being considered is a deeply worrying sign, and part of a wider trend. The environment for women and girls in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly hostile. Last year, the President endorsed a code of conduct that makes it legal for husbands to beat their wives. And only a few months ago, an effort to secure parliamentary ratification of the country’s Elimination of Violence Against Women Law backfired when conservative Afghan MPs took the opportunity to try to amend it, allowing for rape within marriage to take place legally. The amendment failed only when the Speaker of Parliament shut down the debate.

12 years since the Taliban’s repressive grip on Afghan society ended, we are confronted with the reality of the country’s fragile future. Following some very positive initial steps taken by the Karzai Government, it beggars belief that we have come full circle, discussing the very practices which existed under the Taliban’s brutality.

It may be a sign of things to come. President Karzai is going to come under ever more pressure to abandon the women of Afghanistan. As Western forces leave, he will need the support of conservative hardliners to strengthen his increasingly vulnerable Government. And he will be tempted to offer the abandonment of women’s rights as a concession to the Taliban as part of a deal to end the war. Going back to a society in which people accused of adultery are routinely stoned to death, in which women are banned from leaving the house on their own, and in which girls are not allowed to fulfil their potential and access education, suddenly seems a chilling possibility. The Afghan Government appears unwilling or unable to make the protection of women a priority concern, and incidents against women remain alarmingly high.

Hundreds of British troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Many more bear the physical and mental scars of their experiences of war. Their sacrifices must not be in vain. We must resolutely protect the gains that have been made since 2001. By doing so, we are not imposing our values on the women and girls of Afghanistan. They want to be able to leave their homes without escort, to work, to learn, and contribute to their country’s future. A few weeks ago I heard an Afghan women’s rights activist speak in Parliament. Explaining why British people should support the rights of women in Afghanistan, she said “it gives us strength to know we are not alone…it sends a message to our Government that people all over the world are watching and they support Afghan women.”

Securing women’s rights was cited as one of the original reasons for the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, as one of the main providers of development aid and technical support to Afghanistan, the British Government has major influence. In total, Afghanistan stands to benefit from a total of US$16 billion in development aid. We have leverage, and we should be prepared to use it. Our Government must say loud and clear – we will not support you if you are no better than the Taliban, and we will not accept the rights of women and girls being sold away in any deal with the insurgency. We all want peace in Afghanistan, but a peace built on the oppression of half the country’s population is no peace at all.

Sandra Osborne is Labour MP for Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Co-chair of the AllParty Parliamentary Group on Afghanistan.