Afghan women at a crossroads

Analysis & Opinion, Women's rights article written on the 27 May 2014

Ms Zulaikha Rafiq. Photo: Martin Wurt/OxfamAUS

By Steph Cousins, Humanitarian Advocacy Lead

As international military forces withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the country prepares for Presidential run-off elections, Afghan women are campaigning to ensure the human rights gains they have fought for since 2001 are not eroded.

Last week Oxfam teamed up with veteran women’s rights defender Zulaikha Rafiq, and one of Afghanistan’s most senior police officers, Colonel Najibullah Samsour, to run a speaking tour on women’s rights. We met with dozens of politicians in Canberra, ran several public and community events in Melbourne and Sydney and held round-tables with key government departments involved in Afghanistan such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police.

Our aim was to urge the Australian Government to ensure the rights of Afghan women and girls are protected as the country stands at a crossroads. I was lucky enough to go along for the ride and spend a week with some incredibly inspiring people.

Unlikely allies

A policeman and a women’s rights defender may sound like unlikely allies, but Samsour and Zulaikha are on the same page when it comes to promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Colonel Samsour has been a police officer for over 30 years, in a country where almost 87 per cent of women have experienced some form of violence. Only 1 per cent of the Afghan police force is female, and Samsour is working hard to change that worrying statistic. In Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society, female police are vital– women are more likely to report crimes and access justice.

Zulaikha is the Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Centre (AWEC) – an amazing organisation that Oxfam has partnered with since 2007. AWEC works to advance women’s and children’s rights through advocacy, education and employment programs. Zulaikha is a wealth of knowledge, having over 20 years of experience working with national and international organisations in Afghanistan.

A compelling message

Zulaikha and Samsour came to Australia with a compelling message; women and girls have made genuine progress in education, health and political representation in Afghanistan over the past decade, but that progress must not be taken for granted.

At the Parliamentary inquiry into the human rights of women and girls in the Indo-Pacific region, Zulaikha said

“Backed by the international community, over the past decade, Afghan women have found their voice, and have become a force that cannot be ignored … A sustained and consistent level of support from the outside world is necessary to ensure there is no slide back in the position of Afghan women in the coming months and years.

The years of investment by the Australian government, both in terms of human lives as well as financial resources have enabled Afghan women to find the confidence to stand up for their rights. Any loss in momentum of their efforts will inevitably undo the hard-earned gains.

As international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, it is important the Australian Government and other international partners remain committed to the pledges of support they made to the cause of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

What should Australia do?

Together Zulaikha and Samsour made a compelling case for Australia to increase its role promoting and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan. We advocated that Australia should allocate at least $160 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next five years, with increased investment in programs supporting women’s rights organisations. We also advocated for Australia to assist the Afghan National Police to improve the recruitment and training of policewomen, given Australia’s experience in this area.

While we were in Canberra the Federal Budget was announced with $130 million allocated to aid programs in Afghanistan. While this is a substantial figure, it pales in comparison to Australia’s previous commitments of increased aid to Afghanistan – which is not surprising given the Abbott Government’s $7.6 billion cuts across the aid program. It is critical that there are no further cuts to the Afghanistan program going forward and that a large chunk of the funds allocated goes towards women’s rights goals and women’s organisations.

Unfortunately the budget also cut all funding for the Australian Federal Police in Afghanistan, which is bitterly disappointing given the work still needed to reform the Afghan National Police so that it better serves and protects Afghan women and girls. Going forward we are urging Australia to consider ways to assist the Afghan police through training programs and providing funding.


Even though the Federal Budget contained some tough news for Afghanistan, “progress” became out little delegation’s catch cry by the end of the trip. Every time we finished up a meeting Colonel Samsour would proclaim “progress” with a grin, and if the meeting went really well he’d bring out the fist-bump.

It really did seem like we were getting through to people. After all, who wouldn’t agree with protecting women’s rights? But will Australia follow through with the long-term investment required to really make a sustainable difference?

Find out more

More blogs on Afghanistan

Take action

Download our petition on Afghan women’s rights. Ask your friends to add their names and then return it to Oxfam Australia, 132 Leicester St, Carlton Victoria 3053 OR scan and email: