Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Afghanistan backsliding into violence, repression

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Is this what Canadian troops fought for in Afghanistan?

So President Hamid Karzai's government could reduce the clout Afghan women have in the country's provincial councils? So some benighted lawmakers could muse about bringing back the barbaric practice of stoning people for adultery? And so authorities could turn a blind eye to violence against women?

While Afghan women have chalked up major achievements in the 12 years since the Taliban's dark five-year reign was toppled, their precious gains in schooling, politics, jobs and legal rights are fragile and are under ugly pressure as the country nears a critical turning point.

That's something that should concern Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, given the sacrifices our troops have made and the $2 billion in aid we have provided. Our current contribution, $227 million between 2014 and 2017, aims specifically to help empower women and girls in the areas of education, human rights and humanitarian assistance.

Yet conservative pressures in Afghanistan are gathering strength as the country heads into a turbulent political year. In elections scheduled for April 5, Karzai will be replaced as president. He has served two terms and cannot run again. Provincial councils will be elected at the same time.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is pressing Karzai to sign a security deal that would see 12,000 to 14,000 mostly American troops stay in the country for a decade, while Canadian and other foreign troops pull out.

And the Afghan government is hoping to receive at least $10 billion annually in continuing American and other foreign aid -- money that is critical to establishing a functioning state.

Yet obtaining that aid won't be a given if the Afghan government's shaky commitment to women's rights unravels. Canada and other major donors can't be expected to underwrite conservative efforts to revictimize women. And that's just what appears to be happening.

Earlier this year, Karzai approved a new electoral law that cut from 25 per cent to 20 the number of seats reserved for women on 34 provincial councils, in what Human Rights Watch warned was part of a "broad-based attack on women's rights."

Meanwhile, some Afghan lawmakers drawing up a new law code reportedly favour bringing back the appalling Taliban-era practice of public stoning for adultery, although the government says no such proposal has been formally put forward.

At the same time, the number of women and girls jailed for "moral crimes" has doubled in the past year, Human Rights Watch reports. Many so-called "criminals" are in fact victims of domestic violence and forced marriages.

And the United Nations has just pointed out Afghan efforts are stalling in bringing to justice men who abuse women. While official reports by police and prosecutors on violence against women -- including rape, child marriage and physical abuse -- jumped by 28 per cent this past year, prosecutions rose just two per cent. That doesn't encourage women to assert their rights by reporting crimes.

This is an ominous spate of backsliding as Afghanistan prepares at long last to take its political destiny, and its security, into its own hands. The Canadian government and its allies should remind Afghanistan's power brokers, forcefully, that rolling back women's gains will only embolden the Taliban, discourage foreign donors and drag the country back to darker days.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2013 A8

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