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15 February 2012

Afghanistan: “The Modest Wonder of a Normal Life“

„From Transition to Transformation“ was the highly promising title of the Afghan Conference, which took place on Monday in Bonn. Much was spoken about, written and discussed before the gathering of about 1000 delegates, which took place exactly ten years after the first Petersberg Conference on Afghanistan. Would representatives from the Taliban be present? Would Pakistan, whose role is seen as so essential for the establishment of peace in the entire region, take part? Would the Afghan civil society be allowed to have a say this time?

The first two questions could be quickly answered with a „no“ for known reasons. Whoever had hoped for a breakthrough in the peace process, or at least for an advance in the peace negotiations, would have been disappointed. In contrast, the third question must clearly be answered positively, although cautiously: First of all, the Afghan civil society played a greater role in the run-up to the conference and at the conference itself than was the case in any of the Afghan Conferences of the last few years. At a civil society forum, which also took place in Bonn two days before the actual Conference of Foreign Ministers, a delegation of 34 Afghan men and women were offered the space to present their concerns and wishes to the Afghan government and the international community and to discuss them with the attending audience. At the Conference of Foreign Ministers, two of the 34 delegates, a man and a woman according to gender parity, then had the possibility to deliver a statement for the Afghan civil society.

Anyone who followed the statements of the German and international politicians at both conferences on the topic of women’s rights might have been taken aback: Again and again, representatives of the community of states stressed how important it is to also protect the rights of Afghan women in the future and to involve women more closely in the peace process in Afghanistan in the future. Even the Afghan Foreign Minister, Zalmay Rassoul, said in a conversation with Foreign Minister Westerwelle and both representatives of the Afghan civil society, that the equal participation of Afghan women in all political and societal processes would not represent a gift to all women, but would be much more an obligation of the Afghan government.

Still not reason enough to look into Afghanistan’s future euphorically and to view the recognition of women’s rights in Afghanistan as a given fact. Of course it can be counted as a success that everyone is talking about the topic of women’s rights, ten years after the Petersberg Conference. A success, which is thanks to the commitment and the long-term efforts of the courageous activists for Afghan women’s rights. The liberation of the „suppressed“ Afghan women counted alongside the fight against terrorism as the moral legitimation for the international deployment to Afghanistan. After 2001, after the levelling-off of the first great euphoria, the German and international politicians find it difficult to clearly place themselves on the side of Afghan women and to defend their rights to the Afghan government. Even worse is the ignorance of the Afghan government itself regarding the protection and recognition of people’s, in particular, women’s rights: Time and again President Karzai and his party colleagues have tried to actively undermine women’s rights. Thus, women in public were increasingly exposed to a threat in recent years. It helps little when politicians in this country continually pull numbers out of their hats, that demonstrate in the meantime how many girls are allowed to go to school in Afghanistan and compare these numbers with such numbers from the time of the Taliban. Naturally everyone who feels passionately about the topic of women’s rights would be happy about increased chances for education for Afghan girls and women. What gives the continual quotation of this example an unsavoury aftertaste is the fact that it cannot be considered a fundamentally changed attitude of the Afghan society towards its women.

Barry Salaam, the male representative of the civil society delegation expressed this, when he reacted to the listing of the advancements in Afghanistan with these words: „Every advancement in Afghanistan must look giant after 2001. But, that which has been reached up until now, is not enough.“  If we carry that over to the situation of women, that means that it is wonderful when more girls receive a basic education than was the case in 2011.
But, what does this help the women when physical and emotional violence is still extremely high, when forced or child marriages are still common and women, who live outside of the larger cities, barely have access to health facilities? The freshest example of the misogynistic attitude of the Afghan system, which could not be broken open in the last ten years is the case of the 21-year old Gulnaz, who has been in jail since 2009, because she was raped and will only be set free if she marries the rapist. And, when some of the media portray the story of Gulnaz as a particularly terrible individual fall, they are distorting the Afghan reality in which the case of Gulnau is only one of many.

The time is long overdue that the international community take an honest and open look at their commitment over the last ten years in order to finally see the mistakes along with the many small achievements they have made. One searched for this honest view in the last days of both conferences in vain. Although unity was reached on the idea that the fight against corruption, the development of a justice system and other administrative structures would finally have to be pushed ahead in the future, but that this task was incumbent upon the Afghan government alone. In the case of all primary responsibility of the Afghan president and his colleagues it was clear though: Only a clear confession of the international community to past mistakes and failures, as well as a clear stane and clear goals for future international commitment, beyond financial promises harbour chances for better Afghanistan politics and can give the Afghan people hope for a better future.

The Outcome Document of the Foreign Minister Conference, however, leaves out exactly this clarity and bindingness. The prayerwheel-esque, repeated promises of international politicians cannot belie, after the withdrawal of the military 2014, not to abandon Afghanistan. How the transition within Afghanistan should come to transformation also remained a secret, only making the impression stronger that we were dealing here with merely a well-selected and above all else memorable conference title. With this background, the Afghan women must continue to fight so that the lip service of their government will become reality and – with the words of the EU Foreign Minister – hope, „that the Afghan people one day be able to live the modest wonder of a normal life.“