The South Asia Channel

It’s Time to Act for Afghan Women: Pass EVAW

Why Afghanistan needs to pass the Elimination of Violence Against Women bill.

By , an Afghan politician and member of the negotiations team engaged in peace talks with the Taliban.
Afghan university students and independent civil society activists take part in a demonstration in support of passing the Elimination of Violence against Women law in front of Parliament in Kabul on May 27, 2013. The Afghan parliament on May 18 cut short a debate on a bill to protect women from violence after complaints from some traditionalist MPs that it was against Islamic teaching. The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, which was passed by a presidential decree in 2009, is seen as a benchmark piece of legislation marking progress since the fall of the Taliban regime nearly 12 years ago. AFP PHOTO/ SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan women have come a long way since the dark days of the Taliban regime. Yet a key obstacle to this progress continues to be high levels of violence against women. The legal system of Afghanistan has failed to protect women adequately when it comes to some of the most common crimes: rape, domestic violence, and underage and forced marriages.

That is why, in 2009, a number of prominent Afghan women’s rights activists, members of civil society groups, and some lawmakers came together to draft a bill to better protect women through legal channels and to define crimes of violence against women. The bill, known as the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, was decreed into law through an executive order by then Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 20, 2009, when parliament was in recess. During such periods, the Afghan Constitution allows the president to issue decrees for emergency purposes, but the Constitution also requires such decrees to be forwarded to parliament for approval. Some women activists nonetheless suggested that it was not necessary to send the EVAW law to parliament.

Others, including myself, argued that though the executive order on EVAW was a significant step in the battle for elimination of violence against women, the law remained vulnerable to being reversed by a new president. Indeed, presidential elections were just around the corner. As the drawdown of the international troops drew nearer, we feared that the political climate would make it increasingly difficult to get the law anchored in parliament. In addition, we feared that any peace talks with the Taliban could end up sacrificing EVAW in a bid to appease the militants. Securing parliamentary approval for the law would give us much stronger ammunition in protecting it against extremist attacks.

In order to get an agreement on the EVAW law in parliament, we worked hard and tirelessly for months, using three main strategies. We started a lobbying campaign aimed at those who opposed the law — mainly conservatives. We went to visit them in their houses, explaining the law to them article by article to obtain their signature in support of the law. We also organized exchange visits for key conservative MPs to other Muslim countries so they could explore how these countries had been enforcing similar legislation for decades.

Finally, we worked through the joint committee in parliament for more than two years to develop a consensus on the law and defuse the opposition of conservatives. In late 2009, there were only two issues left where conservative MPs did not agree: the law’s punishment of relatives for underage marriage and for polygamy under certain conditions. In addition, women’s rights advocates wanted to insert “honor killings” as a specific crime in the law. However, at this point, MPs became increasingly preoccupied with the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring of 2010, and the process lost momentum.

Unfortunately, after the 2010 parliamentary elections, we ended up with a more conservative parliament. In addition, the contested election results left the new parliament paralyzed for almost a year. As a consequence, discussions about the EVAW law only resumed in mid-2011. At this time the draft was re-sent to the 18 parliamentary commissions. All but one of the commissions agreed with the text of the law or presented constructive suggestions, while the final commission, the legislative (Taqnin) committee — headed by the foremost opponent of the EVAW law — submitted 34 pages of suggested amendments. Yet even some of these suggestions were helpful and were included, such as a proposal to have specialized prosecution units throughout Afghanistan.

As before, we rejected proposals to leave underage marriage and the contraction of invalid polygamous marriages as nonpunishable acts. We similarly rejected a new suggestion to close all women’s shelters and arrange for the victims of violence to stay with relatives instead.

This shows that the opponents to the law were not that numerous — even if they were vocal. What was damaging however was an unhealthy political rivalry that ensued among mostly female parliamentarians and supporters of EVAW. Some progressive women’s rights activists, including some from international organizations, argued that the time was not right for the passage of EVAW and that it should be left as a presidential decree.

As I have explained above, there were good reasons for seeking parliamentary approval. Yet some of my colleagues began accusing me of using the bill to further my own political career and gain support for my assumed ambitions for the 2014 presidential election. And instead of supporting EVAW, many female MPs stood silent during the parliamentary debates on the bill, and some even went as far as to lobby against it. As a result, when the law was presented to the plenary in May 2013, conservative MPs who were already opposed to EVAW became emboldened. The new speaker of the house of parliament did not hold a lot of influence and did not back up the bill.

With the conservatives MPs emboldened in their opposition to EVAW, a weak speaker, and a lack of support from my fellow female MPs, the EVAW bill failed to pass. Those of us who saw the passage of EVAW to be beyond politics and understood its importance for tackling violence against women were left heartbroken.

Now with the international community gradually disengaging from Afghanistan, time for Afghan women is fast running out. We have made important gains since 2001, but we need the force of the law behind us to sustain our achievements. We need to arm ourselves with solid laws like the EVAW law to fight the violence and other ills of our society. The fact that the EVAW law has not been approved by the parliament is a key to its weak implementation rates; many justice officials are questioning the law’s status and therefore do not apply it.

One promising thing on the horizon is that we now have a president and chief executive who both understand the multitude of challenges facing women. I would like to take this opportunity and call on President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to declare their support for the passage of the EVAW bill. I also call on my female colleagues in the parliament and all Afghan women’s rights activists and our international partners to set aside their differences and support the ratification of the bill. As the recent parliamentary approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement shows, when the government and others make something a priority, the conservative MPs can be isolated. Times may be difficult now for Afghanistan, differences may be wide and security challenges may be growing, but failure to back EVAW will be a severe blow to the cause of Afghan women’s rights.

Photo by SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Fawzia Koofi is an Afghan politician and member of the negotiations team engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. Twitter: @FawziaKoofi77