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10 December 2012

Afghanistan Conference - Does violence against woman endanger the peace process?

"Violence against women is a threat to peace and security – in Afghanistan and in the world as whole." With this remark, Dr Monika Hauser, founder of the women's rights organisation medica mondiale, opened the international conference "Hope for peace and fear for women's rights in Afghanistan". This conference took place in Bad Godesberg from November 30 to December 1 and was organised jointly by medica mondiale and the Evangelische Akademie im Rheinland (Protestant Academy). Around 80 guests attended to discuss the opportunities for a just peace in Afghanistan with Afghan women's rights advocates and German Afghanistan experts. Most Afghan women and girls still live in a climate of violence and their voices are not being heard at a political level.

In her opening speech, Ms Hauser emphasised that lasting peace in Afghanistan is not possible unless women's rights are respected and violence against women is ended. She underscored how important it is for the German government to work towards these goals now and not to wait until the planned withdrawal of its troops in 2014. It has been part of the international deployment in Afghanistan for eleven years and during this time has been guilty of criminal neglect concerning the rights of Afghan women.

Structural, sexualised and domestic violence is a breach of both women's and general humanrights. For this reason, the main demand is as follows: In order to bring peace to this country, shaken by decades of war, we have to overcome the militarism prevailing on both Afghan and international sides. Dr Monika Hauser, who has been awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize and the NRW State Prize, denounced this one-sided focus on military intervention which characterises international policies on Afghanistan. The establishment of the rule of law – a constitutional stateworthy of the name – and strengthening civil society have never been accorded priority comparable to that of military goals. Ms Hauser criticised the way in which the German government has been more eager to involve armed groups in negotiations on the country'spolitical future than representatives of civil society. This is the case despite the success of women's organisations in campaigning for legal reform and teaching basic women's and human rights to police personnel.

Women's rights are the key to pacifying a country, stated Monika Hauser. Since it began its workin 2002, the Afghan non-governmental organisation Medica Afghanistan (established by medica mondiale) has been leading efforts to draw up many changes to laws concerning the rights of Afghan women. The organisation's Afghan employees have a very good idea of the needs of Afghan women because they have been providing legal and psychosocial support and advice towomen affected by violence for many years.

The psychologist Zarghona Ahmadzai is one of the active counsellors at Medica Afghanistan providing individual and group counselling for women. She explained how their work can reachout to women in Kabul and other large cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, but it is very important to expand the services into rural areas and all of Afghanistan's provinces because women are suffering especially badly there. Reasons for this include patriarchal structures insociety, poverty, a lack of measures providing protection for women, insufficient rule of law,extreme corruption and the extremely tense security situation. So, for example, girls are still forced into marriage in order to resolve conflicts between families. Hundreds of women arecurrently sitting in Afghan jails. Half of them are there because of so-called "moral crimes": thisactually often means that they were raped or that they ran away from their family or in-laws toescape forced marriage or harassment. In order to bring about sustainable improvements in the situation of women and girls, Medica Afghanistan is working closely with the appropriate stateauthorities, explained Ms Ahmadzai.

The lawyer and gender expert Sajia Behgam is also very familiar with the plight of Afghan women. She worked for many years as a women's rights adviser at Medica Afghanistan and in this timeshe counselled numerous women who had been unjustly imprisoned. During the conference, MsBehgam pointed out that Afghanistan does now have numerous laws which could provide tangiblehelp for women – but they need to be implemented. Some of these law reforms were based oninternationally recognised women's and human rights. Other laws passed provide politicalguidelines for gender equality and action programmes for targeted improvements in the situationof women. Sajia Behgam expressed her hopes that these successes would not be lost aftertroops are withdrawn in 2014.

Dr Ute Scheub, an expert on peace policy by women, explained the historical background toviolent conflicts in Afghanistan and illustrated the significance of reform in the country. Sheprovided numerous examples to prove the importance of gender inequality and social justice asbasic requirements for peace and development processes.

Thomas Ruttig, director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is extremely familiar with the country. His talk at the conference described the links between women's problems and the challenges which civil society organisations in the country have to deal with. He provided details of the overarching political structures impeding the establishment of peace and improvements in the country situation, such as rampant corruption and rivalling rulers at various levels.

The German government was represented at the conference by Erik Kurzweil, the deputy head ofthe German Foreign Office’s Afghanistan/Pakistan task force. He presented the FederalGovernment’s activities to promote women's rights, including the success of German politicians inbringing women's rights onto the agenda at a variety of negotiations and conferences. The chairmanship of the international contact group for Afghanistan was also used to promote this issue. Another example is the support for training of female police officers as part of the policereforms. Special workshops were provided for their husbands in order to facilitate recognition oftheir choice of career.

The developments in the security sector received a much more critical assessment from Dr Janet Kursawe of the Protestant Institute for Interdisciplinary Research, Heidelberg. She criticised the focus on military security adopted by ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). As time went by the concept of human security became less of a priority and the deployment of more ISAF troops led to further escalations. The Afghanistan expert also named errors which had been made during over-hasty efforts to develop public administration. One example was the use of international financial support to arm Tajik warlords prepared to fight the Taliban – a move which serves to provoke future ethnic conflict. Measures such as these strongly damaged the local population's trust in the international community.

The importance of making more representatives of civil society heard was also emphasised by another speaker: Vida Faizi, director of the Psychosocial and Health Program at Medica Afghanistan. She also explained how women's rights have to be considered in a multidimensional way in order to bring an end to violence against women. There can be no real peace unless women and girls are guaranteed access to health care and education, in addition to thecessation of armed conflicts. Ms Faizi reinforced the message that the overwhelming majority of people in Afghanistan are longing for this peace.

All of the speeches and the most important results of the discussions during the conference will be available on our website in January 2013 as written conference proceedings.