In this guest blog, Director of Amnesty International UK Kate Allen explains why activists in the UK care about women’s rights in Afghanistan.
If there was ever a doubt about the desire of citizens to influence politics and contribute to change, that doubt would be put soundly to sleep by current global events. From Egypt to Brazil, Turkey to Bulgaria, ordinary people are coming together to demand change and make their voices heard.
That so many people in so many countries are motivated to take action is not surprising to me as Director of a membership organisation like Amnesty International UK. Activism undertaken by inspirational, ordinary people (I say ordinary in the loosest possible sense, because so many of our activists are actually extraordinary) is our bread-and-butter. It’s what we’re all about.
Activism from ordinary people is also what politics should be all about and last week, for us at Amnesty International UK, it was. I had the pleasure of accompanying three of our Youth Advisory Board members, Dhibla, Vie and Vanessa, to a meeting with Senior FCO Minister of State, Rt Hon Baroness Warsi, in order to deliver a joint petition calling for women’s rights in Afghanistan to be protected.
Amnesty International UK and Gender Action for Peace and Security partner organisations collected more than 19,000 signatures for the petition. But, as was eloquently described by Dhibla, Vie and Vanessa in the meeting, they represented not only those 19,000 people who signed the petition, but also the organisations local, youth and student groups and digital activists, who have taken action on this campaign in their thousands through meeting their MPs, organising countless events and developing inspiringly creative materials.
You could ask why so many people here in the UK are interested in the rights of women and girls in a country as far away and as complex as Afghanistan.
I think there are numerous reasons, but for me the key truth is that people here in the UK care because activism has no borders. If action here can contribute to positive human rights change abroad, I know that our activists will campaign tirelessly to make that happen.
Just as Amnesty International UK has prioritised the rights of women in Afghanistan in our campaigning, we know that the UK government already undertakes a range of work in support of women’s rights in Afghanistan. We know for example that Baroness Warsi raises women’s rights in meetings with her Afghan counterparts and has met with leading Afghan women’s rights activists.
This kind of high level diplomatic pressure is exactly what is needed to hold the Government of Afghanistan to account over its commitment to make progress on women’s rights; and to support Afghan women activists to contribute and participate in what can be a very challenging environment.
In fact “challenging environment” is putting it lightly. We know that Afghan women’s rights activists are regularly targeted because of their work – facing threats, violent attacks and even death specifically because they are women and/or are working to promote women’s rights.
Imagine being shot, attacked or (at the least) threatened because you publically support women’s rights. This is inconceivable to us in the UK, thankfully, but it is a reality for many women in Afghanistan, a country in which violence against women and girls (VAWG) is endemic and often committed with complete impunity.
It is this situation that our activists are so passionate about changing. This is why Amnesty International UK welcomed so wholeheartedly the announcement from Department for International Development’s Secretary of State, Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, that tackling VAWG will be a priority for her department from next year.
However for the greatest impact to be achieved the Government of Afghanistan must respond to the calls of Afghan women and improve its own practices. Amnesty International UK is urging the Foreign Office to do all in its power to pressure the Afghan Ministry of Interior to, for example, improve implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law.
For this to be achieved the Ministry should express explicit support for the law and for initiatives which would aid its implementation, thereby demonstrating high-level political will and challenging the current culture of impunity where VAWG is concerned.
Along with high-level advocacy we are urging the Foreign Office to undertake practical and tangible initiatives to improve the experience of women reporting violence to the authorities, for example through supporting the increase of women police officers and strengthening Family Response Units (set up specifically to respond to cases of violence against women).
We were very encouraged to hear Baroness Warsi refer to the importance of both these issues when giving evidence to a parliamentary Committee recently and we look forward to engaging with the Foreign Office on how it will take this forward.
For this is how activism works at its best: “ordinary” people, civil society organisations and governments working towards common goals to achieve positive change. Human rights activists both here and in Afghanistan would undoubtedly celebrate that.
In support of the campaign for women’s rights in Afghanistan, FCO Minister Baroness Warsi has written a guest blog for Amnesty UK. Read Yes Minister… it is a human rights issue on the Amnesty UK blog.