Afghan women just won a huge victory.
After protests led by women’s groups in the country, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) amended a controversial provision of the draft Afghan Criminal Procedure Code—Article 26—that would have barred relatives from testifying against each other in criminal proceedings, including in cases of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. President Hamid Karzai had earlier respond to concerns from Afghan women’s organizations about this provision by refusing to sign the Code into law unless MOJ made changes to Article 26.
The Afghan Women’s Network, composed of more than one hundred women-led organizations, came out strongly against the provision, holding a press conference to broadcast their opposition to the bill, and then leading a public protest through the streets of downtown Kabul. Members of the Network highlighted how the law would effectively prevent the government from prosecuting cases of violence against women, embolden perpetrators of that violence and validate discrimination against women.
The new law will undoubtedly help Afghan women who have been fighting for better enforcement of laws that make violence against women a crime—including rape, domestic assault, honor killings, child marriage and baad, the practice of resolving disputes by giving away one’s daughters. But the real lesson here is about the promise and strength of local Afghan-women-led civil society organizations. This is not the first time that Afghan women’s groups have lobbied against potentially restrictive measures and won. When the Afghan government threatened to take over battered women’s shelters, for example, Afghan women’s groups organized and kept the shelters open and independent.
Only 12 years ago, women in Afghanistan had to organize and operate in the shadows of the Taliban. Not allowed to attend school, participate in government or even to go outside without the escort of male guardians, women in Afghanistan were totally silenced in public. Now, these same women are protesting freely in the streets of the capital. They are holding their public officials accountable and are demanding justice and equal rights—and doing so openly, with results.
This April, Afghanistan will elect a new president. Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, is term-limited. This is an important time of transition for the Afghan people and their supporters. It is imperative that the U.S. and the international community ensure that Afghan civil society organizations, including women-led groups, remain strong.
In particular, we must continue to support women’s advancement and equality in Afghanistan. Women are an essential part of the peace process and are key to the continued redevelopment of Afghan society. We see the impact that Afghan women’s groups can have, and we know that they are already a strong voice for women’s rights, development, democracy and justice. We must continue to help amplify that voice and support their central role.
Take a pledge with the Feminist Majority Foundation to support Afghan women and Afghan women’s organizations. Let them know that we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the fight for women’s and girls’ equality. We will do all we can to ensure that the U.S. continue to support Afghan women’s organizations and empowerment. In this crucial transition period, Afghan women can count on us.
Eleanor Smeal is president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms.