Twas the 5th December, and Exeter University campus was full of Christmas cheer, tinsel… and Amnesty demonstrators?
Last Wednesday, a group of keen human rights defenders descended on the Forum to highlight the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Bearing placards of solidarity, members of Exeter Amnesty International society petitioned fellow students, asking the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan to preserve the gains made for women’s rights as the UK withdraws its presence in the country.
For many people, the war in Afghanistan is an emotive and controversial issue. As an organisation, Amnesty International is not attempting to halt the withdrawal process, but it does insist that the hard-fought freedoms reclaimed by the women of Afghanistan should not be abandoned. Prior to the Taliban regime, Afghanistan held a progressive attitude towards women’s rights; women gained the vote in 1919, ten years before the UK, and the 1964 constitution enshrined gender equality in law. Though in practice women still faced discrimination and inequality, they were still able to work freely, including as government ministers, doctors and teachers.
The Taliban’s rise to power swept away such gains. Women faced daily oppression and discrimination: their movements were restricted, their education denied, their right to employment banned and they were often subjected to violence. Ten years after the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has made steady progress in restoring the rights of women. From 2001 to 2009, the number of girls in education has jumped from a handful to over 1 and a half million. After the 2010 election, 27% of parliamentary seats were won by women, more than the current UK parliament, and 40% of those who voted in the election were female. But with UK forces preparing to withdraw, many fear that these freedoms will be lost if women’s rights are not put on the peace process agenda. According to Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, “Afghan women need and deserve a strategy of their own for the protection of their rights in the perilous years ahead.”
With the withdrawal date fast approaching, it is paramount that an effective strategy for preserving women’s rights in Afghanistan is consolidated quickly. The UK government needs to know that the public is behind freedom for the women of Afghanistan. Exeter’s Amnesty members were certainly up for the challenge, and the past two weeks of being briefed on the issue and smearing paint all over ourselves, or ‘banner making’, everyone was raring to go.
Though the Forum was initially quieter than usual, most students were highly supportive of the campaign. As Amnesty member Charlie Mackay told us, “I found people really willing to sign the petition as soon as they understood what it was about. … So many people wanted to get involved as well- it was inspiring to see just how much support is out there for the women in Afghanistan.”
Taking part on the day, I can personally testify that students’ enthusiasm concerning the campaign was incredibly “inspiring”. And this enthusiasm translated into 400 signatures in merely an hour – a fantastic achievement for a supposedly quiet afternoon. Looking at the photographs of the day, I can certainly say that the passion of Amnesty members for Afghan women’s rights must have been a factor. Let’s hope the UK government is as equally willing to stand in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan.
For more information on this campaign, check out Amnesty UK’s website!