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Silence is Violence

“The progress of a society or a country cannot be measured in terms of its GDP alone. It must be measured in terms of its human development index in which empowerment of women must become the most important yardstick of progress and development.” Shabana Azmi, Indian actress, former parliamentarian and activist made these comments at the launch of a new UN report which paints a devastating picture of the status of women in Afghanistan.

Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi speaks out for the rights of Afghanistan’s women - Fardin Waezi (UNAMA)Azmi is widely respected, not only as an actress but also as an activist who has campaigned for many years against various forms of injustice: she has urged compassion for victims of AIDS, spoken out against religious extremism and advocated for the rights of women. Bollywood movies are very popular in Afghanistan and Azmi’s arrival in Kabul, to help launch a report on a subject close to her heart, caused quite a stir in a country where movie stars are much admired, but rarely seen.

The UN report, issued jointly by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, details increasing violence against women who are active in public life and the widespread incidence of rape and sexual violence throughout the country.

Women participating in virtually all sectors of public life, including “parliamentarians, provincial council members, civil servants, journalists, women working for international organizations… have been targeted by anti-government elements, by local traditional and religious power-holders, by their own families and communities, and in some instances by government authorities,” the report says.

Launching the report in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the Afghan Government to demonstrate leadership by banning harmful practices, educating its population and accepting it has a duty to safeguard the rights of women and girls. “The limited space that opened up for Afghan women following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 is under sustained attack… by a chronic failure at all levels of government to advance the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan,” she says.

Drawing on her own experiences, Shabana Azmi spoke of democracy as being a crucial factor in the empowerment of women. “Our participation in all aspects of political life enables us to bring attention to issues that concern us, be involved in the processes that affect us and challenge laws and policies that restrict us.”

But participation is conditional on security and the report details widespread violence against women who have stepped into the public arena and the growing reluctance of those who remain there to continue with their activities as long as they remain unsupported and unprotected.

“Developments such as these threaten to have a devastating long-term impact on the involvement of women in Afghan society,” says High Commissioner Pillay. “There have been some encouraging incremental advances in the area of girls’ education in recent years, and it is extremely important to have women participating in the country’s political arena, but the Taliban and other conservative forces seem determined to take the country back to the stone age.”

UN Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide warned that violence against women in Afghanistan was not being faced up to within the community and said this was holding Afghanistan back. “The problem isn’t that violence against women is being condoned. It’s not,” said Eide. “The problem is that violence against women is not being challenged or condemned. And that has implications both for countless individual victims and for the country’s future development.”

Azmi called on women across Asia to speak out in support of the women of Afghanistan. “When discrimination against women is endorsed by society or the state, then we all become partners in crime. We cannot remain silent, we must not remain silent.”

Preliminary data in the report suggests that rape in Afghanistan is a widespread occurrence. The report makes it clear this is unlikely to change while local customs make it more probable the victim will be punished than the perpetrator. Additionally, the Afghan Penal Code has no provision explicitly criminalising rape.

Azmi saluted the women activists who are campaigning for legal reforms and championing the rights of victims but she said the mindset needed to change so that women were no longer treated as second class citizens.

She concluded her speech with a verse from the Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Bol ke lab azaad hain tere
Bol Zabaan ab tak teri hain
Bol yeh sutwan jism hai tera
Bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai
Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak ….

Speak: your lips are free
Speak: your tongue is still yours
Speak: this lissome body is yours
Speak: this life is yours
Speak: so that the truth can prevail ….

10 July 2009