3 min

Nancy Ruth on the role of women in Afghanistan security and development

As chair of the Senate human rights committee, Senator Nancy Ruth headlined a press conference this morning, alongside Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer and Senator Salma Ataullahjan, to discuss the release of their report “Training in Afghanistan: Include Women.”

The report, conducted at the request of Senator Ataullahjan, was designed to examine and report on the role the Canadian government may play in promoting and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan as our forces there transition from combat to training operations, and builds upon the previous report on omen, peace and security regarding UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

“Women have to be at the table, and we would like Canada to do that, and to make sure that our support and aid is conditional upon Canada emphasizing that on the government of [Afghanistan],” Senator Nancy Ruth says. “We have a section on universal values, one where we want women and men working together, one on education, where we would like to strengthen Canada’s role in secondary and post-secondary training – we’ve been doing a lot at the primary level, and we think if you’re going to train people who are going to be doctors, lawyers, civil servants and political leaders, Canada could take some responsibility in pushing that.”

Senator Ataullahjan, who is from northern Pakistan, recalled visiting Kabul in her childhood, before the 1979 Soviet invasion.

“Pre-1979, when we used to go – I’m originally from the city of Peshawar – we’d drive through, stop in Jalalabad and go to Kabul – it was a peaceful country, and some of the best restaurants in Kabul were owned by women. They were in Western clothes at that stage – we were surprised, because we weren’t wearing Western clothes, but the women in Afghanistan, in the cities and Kabul, were in Western clothes. There were beautiful theatres, and there were some of the best restaurants, and women owned them. You’d see women involved in every aspect of life. It wasn’t like how now you see pictures, and you just see men, and you see women in their blue burqas. It wasn’t like that. They were modern, young women who were contributing to society, and that’s the one difference. When I look at pictures of Kabul now, I don’t recognize it. It’s not the same city I knew. It was a city of gardens, it was a city with a beautiful lake, and it had a reasonable nightlife. It was part of what was the hippie trail – people going to Nepal would stop in Kabul like they would stop in Peshawar, and the women were everywhere. We would feel that the women in Afghanistan have got more liberty than we do in Pakistan.”

“To add to that, as a young child in Uganda, we had women teachers from Afghanistan,” Senator Jaffer said. “We had women doctors from Afghanistan. It was not just in Afghanistan, but there were also women doctors in Uganda. It was a different world then.”

“Since 1979, we have seen the women fall way behind,” Senator Ataullahjan said. “As someone who went through some of the refugee camps when they were in Pakistan, I saw that the women were the worst off, and they were often left behind. When the Taliban came into power, you saw what happened to them. There were public executions, public whippings, and women were put aside – they weren’t even considered human beings. To this day, when you look at some parts of Afghanistan, they lack basic human rights. I felt that Canada has such an important role, and now that Canada is withdrawing and we’re going to be training, it would be good to bring women into the focus, and how women need to be involved in all aspects of a society.”

As with the report on Resolution 1325, Senator Jaffer highlighted the need for gender training for our forces before they pass along that training to Afghans, and reiterated the need for women to be at the negotiating table.

“We must ensure that women’s rights are not sacrificed in any peace negotiations with the insurgents,” Jaffer says. She noted that Human Rights Watch told the committee that the Karzai government has shown itself to be willing to trade away women’s rights when it is convenient. Jaffer said that Canada must ensure that does not happen.

Senator Jaffer also noted that currently, there are some 1,100 women among the 107,000 police officers, and about 1,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army. “We believe that there need to be more women trained in both the police force and the armed forces.”

Senator Jaffer noted that women in these forces are better able to investigate issues around rape and domestic violence, and to search houses where only women are present.

“When men and women have to work together, and they’re the same level of officer in a police force, it changes the power balance,” Nancy Ruth said. “It takes a long time, but it does have a huge impact on the integration of the sexes, so that’s important for me in Afghanistan.”
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