Debate heats up over how to help Afghan women, ahead of Senate hearing

By Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News November 14, 2010
Burqa clad Afghan women and their daughters walk along a road in Kabul on September 17, 2010.

Burqa clad Afghan women and their daughters walk along a road in Kabul on September 17, 2010.

Photograph by: AFP, Getty

Championing the emancipation of Afghan women is emerging as a possible non-military, post-combat role for Canada as politicians and activists debate the future of the costly mission in Afghanistan.

While the focus has shifted in recent days toward an 11th-hour decision to keep as many as 1,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2014 to train Afghan security forces, there’s been a fractured attempt over the past few weeks and months to explore the issue of women’s rights — which some argue has captivated the Canadian public and kept dwindling support for the mission alive.

Ottawa has yet to unveil its full strategy for Afghanistan once combat troops pull out of restive Kandahar in July 2011 but, on Monday, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights will begin hearing from experts on what role Canada might play in supporting the promotion and protection of women’s rights in the war-torn country.

The hearings come weeks after CARE Canada released a report that calls on the government to make the plight of Afghan women its top priority. It also follows on the heels of a much-anticipated and long-delayed Foreign Affairs action plan released weeks ago on a series of United Nations resolutions aimed at addressing women’s issues in all conflict zones.

Still, political interest in expediting women’s rights initiatives in Afghanistan remains lukewarm and many activists argue the West, including Canada, has failed to live up to its promises to Afghan women. Without a major policy shift, there are some who say Canada should simply call it quits.

“From the very beginning, I think women’s issues in Afghanistan were a way to gain public support for intervention,” said Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, a conflict studies professor at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa.

“It has allowed advocates and activists to then hold the international community and hold leaders accountable for those promises but I don’t think the promises have been fulfilled in the ways and in the extent to which they could have and should have.”

A report last year by Human Rights Watch also suggests the international community has not lived up to its promises as many Afghan women still face violence, forced marriages and those in public life are still subject to threats and intimidation.

It slams the western-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai for failing to bring killers of prominent women to justice, pardoning rapists and supporting laws that violate women’s rights.

Both Afghan and Canadian aid workers and human rights advocates agree Canada has done some good work, but they are not without criticism.

“Everything done for women in Afghanistan has been piecemeal, often overlapping and redundant,” said CARE Canada spokesman Kieran Green, adding that applies to both government and non-governmental organizations’ efforts.

Dr. Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and soon-to-be member of the Order of Canada, said Canada needs to shift its focus to higher education opportunities for girls and must speak up should the Afghan government agree to trade human rights for peace.

Among the most vocal critics of Canadian aid and development initiatives in Afghanistan is Nipa Banerjee, a University of Ottawa professor who ran the Canadian International Development Agency’s Afghan program from 2003-06.

She criticized Canada for taking funding out of national programs in 2008 and shifting it to image-enhancing “signature” projects such as the Dahla Dam and “model villages” Canada has been supporting in Kandahar, where the security situation and development is difficult.

“These are parallel programs with those of (the Afghan) government,” she said. “What we need to do is strengthen the government’s capability rather than do things on our own.”

Canadian funding should also be conditional, based on documented improvements in key areas such as justice, education, health and income, she said, adding she’s been calling for a national program for women based on those pillars for years.

“There is a time when you have to take drastic actions,” she said, adding Canada should be prepared to leave the country if it isn’t willing to do things properly.

“We are using taxpayers’ money.”

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Canada has a real opportunity to effect change but he fears Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent about-face that will see the military mission extended will result in less cash and less attention for humanitarian and development initiatives.

“The hope was that . . . we would have taken the resources that we would have spent on the military mission and put those resources into aid, development and transitional justice to support women, and we don’t seem to be following that path,” he lamented.

Still, Dewar said he’s pleased the government has finally released its UN action plan and remains hopeful it will be implemented along with some of the complementary recommendations contained in a report on Afghanistan from CARE Canada, an aid and development organization.

Canada’s UN action plan on women, peace and security calls for a four-pronged approach focused on preventing violence against girls and women in conflict zones, advocating for the participation of women in any peace process, protecting girls and women from attacks on their physical or mental well-being, economic security or guaranteed rights and ensuring women’s access to humanitarian and development assistance.

“It’s a good plan,” Dewar said. “All it needs is the political support and the resources to go with it.”


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