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iconGENDER/PEACE ISSUES Updated February 3 2010

Section Contents:  Gender Equality and Peace Operations in Afghanistan | Background | The Bonn Agreement | The Afghanistan Compact | ISAF | UNAMA | Continuing Challenges | Canada's role in Afghanistan's Peace Operations

Gender Equality and Peace Operations in Afghanistan

Some key statistics:

There are an estimated 2 million war widows from the civil war, 50,000 of which reside in Kabul alone. There are even more female headed households.

Only 34% of school-age girls are in school. This is a high estimate since the rate in rural areas outside Kabul City can be lower than 15%.

Female illiteracy rate: 85.9%; male illiteracy rate: 58.6%.

57% of girls are married before age 16

Maternal mortality rate: 1,600 per 100, 000 live births (Norway, the top country on the HDI, has a maternal mortality rate of 6)

200 women accounted for 13 per cent of the delegates who participated in the June 2004 presidential elections

10.5 million Afghans registered to vote for the presidential 2003 elections, four million, or 41.3%, were women



Afghanistan's first Human Development Report in 2004 revealed a Human Development Rank of 173 of 178 ranked countries in terms of life expectancy and standard of living for the overall population. The same report reveals a Gender Development Index (GDI) of 143 of 145 ranked countries. The GDI measures and reflects disparity between men and women in terms of standards of living, educational achievements, and life expectancy indicators.

In 2003, Afghanistan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is often described as an international bill of rights for women. However, the Afghan Government has not yet submitted its initial report, due in April 2004, nor has it formulated a national mechanism to ensure effective protection or signed the Optional Protocol to the convention. The Loya Jirga which adopted the country's first post-Taliban constitution on 4 January 2004 recognizes equal rights and responsibilities before the law between men and women and guarantees at least 25 per cent of seats in the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) are to be held by women (article 83). The constitution also clearly states that no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam. The laws of Islam in Afghanistan, however, are open to interpretation by the judiciary thereby weakening the constitution. These advances in legal, civil and constitutional rights for women are challenged and undermined by continuing high levels of violence against women in the forms of physical violence, intimidation and discrimination in the domain of civil and political rights, and the continuing low socio-economic status of girls and women in Afghan society.

The Afghan government, in the Interim Afghan National Development Strategy, identified several serious continuing challenges to the mainstreaming of gender issues: cultural, social and religious sensitivities, obstacles to education for girls and women, consequent limited participation in the economy, lack of equal protection before the law, and lack of women in leadership, supervisory, managerial, policy and decision-making roles.[IANDS Summary Report ]

Over five years after the fall of the Taliban regime widely recognized for perpetuating violence and discrimination against girls and women - overall programming on part of the international community to advance gender equality and the rights of girls and women remains a challenge. Insecurity and poverty dominate the lives of women hindering equal access to basic needs such as clean water, health services, education, livelihood opportunities, and access to justice and legal systems.

Interim Afghan National Development Strategy (IANDS) of the Afghanistan Government and Gender

The IANDS includes gender as a cross-cutting theme, designed to be considered in the implementation of the three development pillars of the IANDS: security, governance, rule of law and human rights, and economic and social development. The government has developed a 10-year National Plan of Action for Women to encourage the mainstreaming of gender in its programs and ministries. Each ministry is to create a unit to monitor its implementation. Other initiatives will include capacity building of government agencies to engage in gender analysis and drafting gender-sensitive policies, undertake a national advocacy campaign to broaden the understanding of the citizenry, improve women's access to health services and education, promote targeted social protection for vulnerable women, encourage women's economic empowerment, and improve women's access to political participation.


International Commitments to Gender Equality in Afghanistan


The Bonn Agreement

The body of the Bonn Agreement on provisional arrangements in Afghanistan pending the re-establishment of permanent government institutions includes three references to gender: 1) one reference to interim arrangement being inter alia gender-sensitive and 2) two references to women's participation in Interim Administration and the Emergency Loya Jirga. Reference to establishing an independent Human Rights Commission does not include specific mention of the rights of girls or women. The Annex on Establishment of an International Security Assistance Force does not include explicit consideration for women's security.


The Afghanistan Compact

The compact focuses on three goals: 1) Security; 2) Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights; and 3) Economic and Social Development. The Principles of Cooperation in the Compact recognizes the importance of building capacities of men and women and the equal rights and responsibilities of men and women.

The section within the Compact on Security which describes the role of ISAF, Operation Enduring Freedom and PRTs does not include reference to protection of civilians in general, nor specifically to girls, boys and women.

The section on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights reaffirms commitment to the promotion and protection of rights recognized in the constitution and to international human rights instruments to which Afghanistan is party. The Annex 1 document to the compact outlining benchmarks and timelines refers to full implementation of the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan by 2010, which includes the goal of female participation in governance institutions.

The section on Economic and Social Development also does not explicitly refer to gender equality or the rights of girls and women, though the Annex 1 document outlining benchmarks and timelines includes specific goals in relation to girls and women. A minimum 60% net enrolment rate of girls in primary education by 2010 is set out as a clear target, the rate for boys is set at 75%. Further a goal of a 50% increase in female teachers is mentioned. The 2010 goal for female university students is 35% (of 100 000). The paragraph on skills development also includes reference to women. The sections on Health and Nutrition make clear goals for reducing maternal mortality by 15% by 2010 and full immunisation for infants under 5. In addition to benchmarks for refugees and IDP rehabilitation (which does not explicitly mention women), the section on Social Protection includes language on vulnerable women, chronically poor female headed households with a goal of reducing the chronic poverty of such women by 20% by 2010, and increasing the employment rates for such women by the same timeline.


Security Council Resolution 1386 (2001) recognizes ³the obligation under international human rights law, including respect for the rights of women² ­ however the operative paragraphs lack reference to gender equality and the rights of girls and women. Of the eight Security Council resolutions authorising ISAF (1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1659, 1707), only SC Resolution 1386 includes minimal consideration for the rights of women, stressing ³all Afghan forces must adhere strictly to their obligations under human rights law, including respect for the rights of women.²

The 8 December SACEUR Operational Plan (revised) referred to three supporting tasks which may implicitly involve specific consideration for girls and women: provision of humanitarian assistance, support of UNHCR, and combating human trafficking. However, consideration for the rights of girls and women in such tasks is not made explicit.


The United Nations Security Council established the UNAMA through resolution 1401 (March 28, 2002) with a mandate to support rebuilding and national reconciliation as outlined in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement. Similarly to ISAF, UNAMA's mandate is renewed yearly by the UNSC. One of UNAMA's tasks is to coordinate and facilitate UN agencies to mainstream gender throughout their activities. UNAMA has been facilitating information and knowledge sharing among gender focal points from 12 UN agencies since 2002. In 2002, the Government of Afghanistan also established an Advisory Group on Gender which is mandated to ensure that gender equality and the advancement of women is integrated into each national priority program. The Advisory Group is made up of representatives from international and national NGOs, women's professional associations, donor communities, and the UN. For more information on the Advisory Group, see Advisory Group on Gender Background Note.

The Security Council Resolutions authorising UNAMA have slightly more consideration for gender equality than the ISAF resolutions. Three out of the five SC Resolutions include operative paragraphs which refer to the rights of women, and Resolution 1536 calls for the inclusion of women and refugees in electoral process (operative paragraph 4).

While all UN agencies are expected to incorporate gender as a cross-cutting issue in their programming, UNIFEM is tasked specifically with improving the situation of girls and women in Afghanistan.

This cursory glance of international commitments in Afghanistan reveals that the area of security regarding protection of civilians, in particular girls and women, is not clearly articulated in SC Resolutions, mandates of ISAF, the Afghanistan Compact, nor the Bonn Agreement. Considering that articles 14, 15 and 17 of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000) call on the Security Council to consider gender and the rights of women, including through consultation with local and international women's groups, and to consider the potential impact on civilian populations, especially girls and women, these resolutions vis-à-vis women's and girl's rights are arguably weak. The aforementioned mandates do mention creating a stable and secure environment but do not go into deeper detail. See Mandates.

Continuing Challenges

Violence against women: warlords, conservative religious leaders, the Taliban and other insurgents continue to use death threats and physical attacks to intimidate women and men and women working in women's organizations. This has resulted in the closure or scaling back of opportunities and services for women. In 2004, Human Rights Watch reported that as a result of fear of retaliation, women have resorted to self-censorship regarding the fundamental rights of girls and women. In September of 2006, the head of the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar was shot and killed, and intimidation and murders of female NGO workers continued through 2006.

Child marriage and forced marriage: According to 2005 U.N. and Afghan government figures, most marriages continue to involve girls below the age of sixteen, many of them forced. Legally, girls should be at least 16 years of age and boys at least 18 years of age for marriage. Early marriage often leads to early pregnancy and motherhood with increased risks of infant and maternal mortality. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world (1600 out of 100,000 in 2005). Womankind International noted that warlords can exercise particular influence over marriages as parents and families will often be too scared to refuse the requests of a warlord if he identifies a girl for marriage.

Honour crimes and domestic violence: In 2005, Womankind International reported that honour crimes were on the rise with 47 documented murders in 2005 and 20 until October 2006. Estimates place unreported cases at 5 000. The same report notes that violence against women is usually perpetrated by direct family member, 10% of the time by female family members.

Education: access to schooling is not universal to all districts, particularly in rural areas schools can be miles away from home making access to education an even greater challenge for girls and boys. Schools have been targeted for attacks, often leading to their closure. Due to the already low number of girls' education facilities the increase in school closures has made the situation of girls' education even worse. Only 10 percent of girls attend secondary school. In five Afghan provinces in the south, at least 90 percent of school-age girls do not attend school.    Only 19% of available schools are designated as girls only, 29% of Afghanistan's 415 educational districts have no girls' school.

Widows and female-headed households: there are very limited opportunities for women to find gainful employment and to be able to support their family. Widows are often denied employment opportunities and have to resort to begging to provide for their families. Women are adversely affected by the deaths of male members of their family due to increased economic burden as they become responsible for their family's security and income, yet with limited economic and educational opportunities. Limited economic opportunities for female-headed households tend to drive women into illegal activities such as prostitution and drug trafficking to support themselves and their families.

IDPs and Refugees: According to UNIFEM research, Afghan women together with children account for approximately 65% of the internally displaced population (IDP) and refugee population, estimated in early 2002 at 1.2 million and 3.6 million respectively.

In August 2009 President Karzai passed a law which further sets back the rights of women in Afghanistan. The law also puts children under the sole guardianship of their fathers and grandfathers. It has been said that the Karzai passed this law in an attempt to court political support before the upcoming presidential elections. Human Rights Watch called on all election candidates to repeal this law which went against the country’s constitution.

Two recent reports by the UN and by Human Rights Watch paint a bleak picture for women’s rights in Afghanistan. The report by UNAMA highlighted the point that the lives of a large number of Afghan women are serious compromised by the levels of violence in the country and by the culture of impunity that exists with regard to the treatment of women. It looked at the violence that exists regarding women’s participation in public life and the prevalence of sexual violence in the context of rape. The report called for action to be taken that goes beyond that of rhetoric.

Human Rights Watch also reflected the UN’s concern that commitments to women’s rights are left to the realm of rhetoric in its report on women in Afghanistan. The report focused on five areas of ongoing areas of women’s rights violations: Attacks on women in public life; violence against women;  child and forced marriages; access to justice; and girl’s access to secondary schools. Due to the presence of social and legal obstacles violation against women are not being addressed.

The London Conference on Afghanistan 2010

At the recently concluded London Conference on January 28th Ms. Arzo Qahni, of the Afghan Women’s Network, read out a statement to the plenary meeting on behalf of all Afghan women. She was also the only woman scheduled to address the meeting. She said that Afghan women were aware of the need for peace and security and often times they paid the heaviest price during the resurgence in violence. Her statement was prepared after extensive consultations with Afghan women leaders and came up with the following key issues:

Women must have a voice in all decision making regarding the future of the country.

Women’s rights and statuses must not be bargained away in efforts to reconcile competing factions.

The military surge must be complimented by an equally robust effort to boost civilian support for recovery and long term reconstruction.

In seeking to enhance the rule of law make sure to protect the rights of women.

Despite the broad based implications of the agreements reached at the London Conference there was no official delegation to represent Afghan women sent to take part in discussions. Ms. Arzo Qahni was the only women representative who spoke as part of the official agenda. However, the Afghan Women’s Network was able to send four Afghan women civil society leaders to London. There they were able to put forward their agenda to official delegates such as the foreign ministers, US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, UN Special Representative Kai Eidi and the Afghan president Hamid Karzai.  The representatives also drew up a list of recommendations to ensure a consideration for women in the areas of security, governance and development, and regional frameworks and international architecture.

The efforts were reflected in the final communiqué. There was a renewed commitment to implement the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. There was also a promise to strengthen the participation of women in all Afghan governance institutions and elected bodies and civil societies. Afghan women leaders welcomed these commitments and called for affirmative action policies to be set up to back their promises. To read the full reaction to the communiqué refer to the UNIFEM website.

Canada's role in Afghanistan's Peace Operations

Since 2002 Afghanistan has been Canada's largest recipient of bilateral aid. Most of this funding has been directed to military efforts though an additional Cdn$1 billion has been allocated to development assistance for the period 2001-2011. As part of its commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, promoting gender equality is an overarching principle in Canada's development policy. CIDA has demonstrated efforts to include gender-sensitive programming in Afghanistan, one such example being a micro-credit programme that has provided small loans to nearly 150,000 women. Official Canadian publications claim that Canada works multi-laterally through the UN General Assembly, the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the UN Commission on the Status of Women to encourage respect for human rights in Afghanistan and in the work of the international community.[Protecting Canadians: Rebuilding Afghanistan "Canada-Afghan Relations."]

For more on Canada's role in Afghanistan, please see:

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Thinking about Canada's Role in Afghanistan, October 2006.

Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, Unfulfilled Promises: Afghan women 5 years after the Taliban, January 2007.


Protecting Canadians: Rebuilding Afghanistan (Government of Canada):

Further Resources:

Womankind International Taking Stock: Afghan women and girls five years on, October, 2006:

UNAMA August 2006 fact sheet:

UNIFEM Portal on Women, War and Peace:

Protecting Canadians: Rebuilding Afghanistan (Government of Canada):

Afghanistan (CIDA):

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Thinking about Canada's Role in Afghanistan, October 2006.

Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, Unfulfilled Promises: Afghan women 5 years after the Taliban, January 2007 (to be published in the Canadian Consortium of Human Security Newsletter).


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