WASHINGTON — Rep. Betty McCollum and a group of lawmakers sent an open letter the woman of Afghanistan last week, promising to support the human rights gains they’ve made even after the U.S. leaves the country this year.
One staffer in McCollum’s office will have a direct role in making sure that happens.
Simin Wahdat, a policy fellow and Afghanistan native, was deeply involved in women’s rights organizations in her home country before coming to the United States for college. She’s advised McCollum on the challenges Afghan women will face once security forces leave their country and what can be done to help them, both now and in the future.
“We just want to make sure that, despite all this uncertainty right now about this situation, the international community and the U.S. government is committed to support women in Afghanistan,” she said.
From Afghanistan to Washington
Wahdat, 31, and her family fled Afghanistan for neighboring Pakistan in the early 1990s, forced out of their home country by a civil war. In Pakistan, with “the culture and traditions very discriminatory toward woman,” she and her sister couldn’t get a formal education, so they were homeschooled, taught English by her father and computer skills by her brother.
After a stint at the Tearfund relief organization working on women’s rights issues in Pakistan, she teamed up with the International Organization for Migration, teaching Afghan refugees how to participate in their country’s presidential elections in 2004. It was the first year women had the right to vote.
“We were very successful to encourage a big number of women, almost 1.5 million, to participate in the presidential election,” she said. “They had no idea how the election works, so it was lots of work.”
In 2005, Wahdat moved back to Afghanistan and began working for the Afghan Civil Society Fund, travelling around the country to educate women on the year’s parliamentary elections. It was a bit of a crash course in civics for many of them, and it came with a new twist: the country’s newly rewritten constitution guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats to women.
Two years later, after meeting members of an American women’s business association, Wahdat came to the United States to study at Bucknell University, where she got her degree in International Relations and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Today, she’s in a Master’s program at Eastern Mennonite University, part of which is her legislative fellowship in McCollum’s office. She’s advised McCollum, as well as other offices, like the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on women’s rights in Afghanistan, which she says have made great advances since the U.S. occupation began, even as there’s an effort underway to prevent backsliding when American forces leave.
“It’s just because of the history,” Wahdat said. “Women are haunted by the past, that this history has repeated itself. Women think that once the U.S. withdrawal happens in Afghanistan, the U.S. government and the international community will abandon women once again.”
Women’s rights progress still slow
Women in Afghanistan were “absolutely deprived of any basic rights” under the Taliban, Wahdat said, but since its ouster, they’ve seen their situations improve legally, socially and politically.
Women have the right to vote, and mandated seats in parliament, and outgoing president Hamid Karzai instituted a law meant to eliminate violence against women in 2009 (the law bans, among other things, rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage). Wahdat said women have better access to education and medical care, and since gaining the right to vote, they’re more organized and influential in the political process.
But progress has been slow. Officials have applied the violence against women law only sparingly. Only one-fifth of girls under the age of 24 can read, according to McCollum’s office, and the country is ranked 158th in the world in maternal mortality, despite widely-recognized improvements. And the constitutional mandate of 25 percent women in parliament is being knocked down to 20 percent. Earlier this month, the European Union’s ambassador to Afghanistan said the country remains one of the worst places in the world for women.
McCollum and a group of 30 lawmakers wrote an open letter to Afghan woman on Thursday, noting the progress that’s been made, but warning it will take vigilance to make sure it continues once the U.S. leaves.
With a presidential election weeks away and the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops within the year, “we pledge to continue to support policies and programs that empower women and girls,” they wrote. “As you continue to fight for equal opportunity, equal participation and equal protection under the law, we are strongly committed to standing with you.”
McCollum said she’s met with Afghan women’s right advocates who have tried to convince the group of candidates running to replace Karzai to make women’s rights a priority.
They’re “going around engaging the political parties they’re engaging the people who are running for the presidency to sign onto this platform that, you can argue about other things, but one of the things that we’re not going to argue, we’re not going to go back on, is women’s rights, and girls’ rights,” she said.
Hagel: ‘Tremendous progress’ in Afghanistan
The question is whether these burgeoning women’s rights can continue to grow with the U.S. and its allies out of the picture. Wahdat said she’s heard of women leaving the country ahead of its elections fearing a civil war if the results don’t come out right. At a hearing on Thursday, McCollum asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel if he thinks the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces will be able to maintain peace and progress.
“There is an open question on the vulnerabilities they’re going to be dealing with,” he said. “I have confidence in the tremendous progress the Afghan army has made, their institutions. It’s imperfect, I know … but they’ve made great progress.”
McCollum said the U.S. or international community might have a role to play in supporting women’s rights groups even after the troops leave the country. The U.S., she said, played an important role in getting the country to where it is today.
“We believe that all people should have access to opportunity, that’s who we are as Americans, and that includes men as well as women,” she said. “We believe that children deserve to be given an opportunity for an education so that they have opportunities to live a happy, healthy successful life.”
Wahdat will get her degree in May and plans to go back to Afghanistan afterwards, focusing on women’s issues. This next year — with both the elections and the drawdown of U.S. troops — will be an important one for her country, but she said that’s nothing new at this point.
“Every year is a big year for Afghanistan,” Wahdat said. “It’s a critical transition right now, and we are hoping that it takes place successfully without any issues or problems or tension at the local level, and that’s my hope.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry