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Rights of Afghan Women

 Honourable senators, this Saturday, March 8, we will celebrate International Women’s Day. The theme this year is “Equality for Women is Progress for All,” which emphasizes the vital role of women as agents of development. Equality for women is progress for all.

Honourable senators, when I reflect on this theme, I cannot help but think of the women in the context of Afghanistan. As Canada ceased combat operations in Afghanistan in 2011 and refocused its military involvement on a training role ending in 2014, we wonder at the outcome for the Afghan women.

In 2010, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights examined the role that Canada could play in supporting the protection and promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The committee recommended that the Government of Canada make the advancement of women’s rights a fundamental element of its approach to Afghanistan post-2011. The three years between 2011 and 2014 were seen as a window of opportunity to strengthen Afghanistan’s people and institutions.

Now that we are in 2014, has there been any progress for Afghan women? I am sad to report that women’s rights are often the first to be traded in order to appease segments of the population that see empowerment of women as a threat.

In 2012, for example, President Hamid Karzai endorsed a code of conduct issued by an influential council of clerics that was seen as a step backwards for women’s rights. The code mandated for women to fully comply with the hijab, respect polygamy, refrain from travelling alone and avoid mingling with men in public.

This January, a bill that would prevent judicial authorities from questioning relatives in cases of violence against women was passed by both houses of the Afghanistan parliament.

As violence against women occurs mostly within families, this bill would halt prosecution in many cases and would also go against the Afghan parliament’s 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women, a law that was considered a victory for women.

Fortunately, after much domestic and international pressure, President Karzai ordered the law to be redrafted into one that would strengthen measures to protect women and girls from violence.

Honourable senators, as you can see, change is happening, but it is incremental, and it requires international support. As Canada withdraws from Afghanistan this year, we must maintain pressure on the nation to uphold women’s rights.

On this International Women’s Day, let us commit to supporting the voices of the Afghan women, because the minute we turn our backs, women’s rights will be the first to go.