Afghan Women: The New Constitution and the Road Ahead
By Nasrine Gross
Presented at: The French Senate Seminar: Afghanistan Reconstruction
March 26, 2004
In January of this year President Karzai signed into law a new constitution that the 502-member loya jirga (grand council) had earlier ratified. This constitution explicitly recognizes equal rights for both men and women as citizens, a great victory for Afghan women and women everywhere, and a requirement for relegitimization of the country (article 22). With this auspicious beginning, the constitution heralds a new and long overdue era for Afghan women. Below I would like to review the explicit and implicit gains in the constitution for women and point out to some concerns as well as some recommendations for implementation.
As far as the inalienable rights, such as the right to education or to work, are concerned, all ten that were part of Negar’s Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, of which I was a part for the last four years, are now included in the constitution (note 1). The draft constitution was missing only one of them, for both men and women, and that was the right to healthcare. But now in the ratified version every Afghan citizen is entitled to free primary healthcare (article 52). In addition, in three articles the constitution recognizes the more desperate aspects of Afghan women’s lives and provides special clauses for improvement. In another two articles it ensures that women share in governance of the country.
These explicit articles, in addition to the one mentioned above, are:
– In article 44, to counter the 90% women’s illiteracy rate, the state provides for more education for them.
– In article 53, to ensure that women without a male guardian have a decent life, the state provides for financial aid for them.
– In article 54, to remedy women’s grave health problems, such as dying in childbirth (one woman every 20 minutes), the state stipulates for special attention to the health of mother and child.
– In the same article 54, to discourage some outdated traditions that play havoc with our society, such as forced marriage and wife selling, the state promises to take required action.
– As regards participation of women in governance, in article 83, the constitution provides for at least two female deputies from each province (which makes for 64 out of a total of 250 seats in the House of Representatives).
– For the Senate, in article 84, fifty percent of the one third of the Senate that is appointed by the President belongs to women (about 16 in my calculation).
There are also articles that do not mention women specifically, but clearly have implications for them:
– In article 7, the constitution says Afghanistan will respect the charter of the United Nations, all international conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Afghanistan is a party. Of course, many of these documents address women’s issues specifically.
– Article 43 in the draft implied that free public education was up to the end of high school, which bode bad for girls because the fear was that many Afghan parents would be more willing to pay tuition for their sons’ education, and so more daughters might be deprived of higher education. Now, this article sets free public education for all citizens to the end of a university bachelor’s degree.
– Article 49 prohibits child labor – – with implications for families and family life.
– Article 53 talks about stipends and free healthcare to families of martyrs and POW’s of the Afghan wars – – good news for widows and their children. The same article talks about services to the handicapped and the crippled – – that of course also include women.
– Article 55 states that defense of the country is the duty of all citizens and all Afghans have to pass military service. This implies that women can also enrol in the national army.
– Finally, in several articles the Human Rights Commission is bolstered to process complaints of violations.
Unfortunately, the constitution is silent on women participating specifically in the judiciary and in the executive, including provincial administration. Right now, according to the constitution, if the President does not appoint any females to top positions of these two branches, the President is not doing anything against the law. To me not having assurances for women in these areas is an oversight that will have negative consequences in the long run. We need to try to alleviate it from the get go by more precedent setting actions. At the loya jirga, it was apparent that women were accepted as players in the national scene. We need to utilize this momentum to advantage in this regard.
The concern over the lack of assurances in the executive and judiciary notwithstanding, the constitution generally sets a good road map, a program of action in many areas of national reconstruction. The articles pertaining to women, whether explicit or implicit, are a good example of how the constitution should drive reconstruction priorities and programs: Not only each one of the ten inalienable rights articles suggests specific programs to be set up, the other articles of interest to women also lead to special programmatic emphasis. Take for example, education for women. This means paying utmost attention to the literacy program of Afghanistan. Not all women can go to a regular school. We must devise ways that would accommodate women’s other responsibilities at home. Looking at it another way, of the 10.5 million eligible voters, it may be that there are 5.2 million women. With a 10% literacy rate for women, we may have around 4.7 million non-literate women as voters who are also decision-makers in their families and our communities for the foreseeable future. Their vote will decide who will be our leaders. Educating them fast then becomes a major priority.
Or, another example would be free primary healthcare for all Afghans, which would require the government to provide for clinics, doctors and medication in the smallest districts and villages. This in turn has implications for what is taught in the medical and pharmacy schools of Afghanistan, but also requires development of a program for providing nurses, orderlies, buildings and equipment for all these healthcare facilities (mobile or otherwise). Perhaps these programs would entail the creation of a national medical/education corps to utilize, in the remotest areas for say two years at a time, medical school graduates as healthcare providers (or high school and university graduates as literacy teachers). And in all of these areas we must also fulfil the articles of the constitution that talk about women’s health. In short, now that we have a constitution, we must use its articles to map out our platform for reconstructing a viable future for Afghanistan including its women. The immediate road ahead must include the following:
1. We must explain the constitution to as many Afghans as possible. It is said that one weakness of the 1964 constitution was that it had only one year of transition and the government could not reach many areas. We must give ourselves time to explain to all our citizens what this constitution means to them; how it will improve their lives and what their responsibility is in bringing it to practice.
2. We must finish an honest census and find out our numbers. Without a census, district apportionments will not be just and representative.
3. We must encourage women to run for office. It is good that here is already a woman candidate for president. But that is not enough. We must have female candidates in every province for every level of governance including mayors – – even if they don’t always win (local councils in fact are easier as women have traditionally been part of these councils and are called white-haired ones or picha safidan).
4. We must devise specific and rigorous plans to get women to come and register as eligible voters and THEN COME BACK TO VOTE. Given the fact that most women don’t have a birth certificate or an identity card, for most women this will be the first time outside their marriage certificate that their identity will be acknowledged officially. For a large number of them, this will also be the first time they have left their immediate surroundings. All new events for both the women themselves and their men folk. The effect on men-women relations must be recognized. Educating registrants that they must come to vote is very important because in our patriarchal/traditional society we think our father, husband and/or brother speak for us and carry our voice. Teaching them that this time around (and from now on) it is one-registrant one-vote is essential.
5. The executive and judiciary must appoint more women in high-visibility offices to offset the constitutional shortcoming mentioned earlier, assuage women’s fears that they may not have a part in national decision-making, and get all Afghans used to this coeducational mode of rebuilding our society. Otherwise, the situation might look more like window-dressing and tokenism (note2).
The judiciary now should have at least one female supreme-court justice (out of a total of nine members). The government should appoint more women in major positions at the Executive Office of the President and at least one female ambassador representing Afghanistan abroad.
Furthermore, for provincial administration, I see no reason why Afghanistan should not have a female governor. At the very least, we can begin by circulating some female names. The government should also see to it that the number of women employees in provincial offices increases.
I cannot emphasize enough the fact that we must create assurances for women’s participation in society by setting such precedence with the ten percent of women who are literate and educated. We must demonstrate to all segments of Afghan society, be it men and women, clergy and elders, urban and rural, educated and non-literate what it means to be partners in progress for our families, our communities and our country. After all, this is taqwa of the best kind (note 3)!
6. If we are really serious about progress we must use the constitution to create a national road map of reconstruction and development to include women as real statistics. I don’t mean statistics just of how many school children are girls or how many office workers, teachers and doctors are women. I mean we must also include the other 90% of non-literate and mostly rural women in this reconstruction. These women have skills that can be utilized right here, right now. They must contribute creatively not only to the workforce, industry and trade as well as other reconstruction efforts that don’t require literacy (such as say food stuff preparation or manufacturing solar energy cooking pans). Their earnings including from agricultural activity must also be measurable statistics for the economy (65% of Afghan agricultural workers are women).
In conclusion, democracy and development are the next two major agendas facing Afghanistan. There is no question that without Afghan women’s equal and full participation in both, Afghanistan will be neither democratic nor developed. This is the experience of other countries – – and so tragically also our own – – and we must learn from it. Failure is not an option, not now, not again. The new constitution and the immediate road ahead provide a very good opportunity to make women part of this national undertaking. The requisite ingredient in all of this, however, is the attention of our international friends, as Afghanistan is still too fragile to go it alone. Working inside Afghanistan the last two and a half years, I know that together we can make the case of Afghan women a trailblazer of success in the twenty-first century! Let’s make it happen – – for Afghanistan and for the world beyond!
Note 1: To review the full text of the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women, visit http://kabultec.org.
For an article-by-article comparison of the Declaration and the new constitution refer to my article ‘Afghan Women: The New Draft Constituhttp://www.kabultec.org/declarat.htmltion’ in the same website.
Note 2: For the number of women in the government agencies as of February 2003 refer to my article, ‘Afghan Women Today’ in the same website.
Note 3: Islamic word used in the Koran, meaning the act of good deeds, by which God Almighty will judge on judgment day all Muslims, men and women alike. Nasrine Gross is an Afghan writer and women’s rights activist. She was a guest at both the emergency and the constitutional loya jirgas. She currently teaches at Kabul University and works at the University’s National Center for Policy Research. Her email address firstname.lastname@example.org and her website is http://kabultec.org/.