Wenny Kusuma: Calls for change are met with violence and intimidation

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan has been called the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a woman. The violence meted out to female demonstrators in Kabul yesterday and the weekend murder of Sitara Achakzai, an elected politician and women's human rights advocate, merely serve to secure the country's claim to this unwanted title.

Those prepared to speak out against the Shia Family Law are being intimidated and threatened. Like those who have spoken out before, they are labelled as "infidels" and "un-Islamic" by those claiming to protect their nation and its honour, who see controlling women's thoughts, movements and lives as part of that effort. It is this corruption of honourable intention that makes Afghanistan so dangerous.

The politicisation of women's rights is not unique to Afghanistan. However, it is especially acute, with women's rights and women's virtue forming the tipping point for escalated violent conflict – within personal relationships and across international borders – for decades. Ismail Khan led the first violent uprising against the Soviet Union in March 1979 in response to a Soviet-led decree granting all girls universal and free education. The 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan has been internationally justified under the rhetoric of freeing Afghan women from Taliban rule.

In this highly charged environment, women calling for change and equality – calling for their enshrined human rights – are increasingly targets of violence and intimidation. Before Mrs Achakzai was gunned down outside her house last Sunday, we had already seen the assassination of the country's most senior female police officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, and Safia Amajan, the head of Kandahar's women's affairs department. These deaths bear witness to a growing public acceptance of violence against women and do not bode well as an indicator of the status of women's human rights in Afghanistan.

Violence replaces debate and dialogue, and silences a powerful majority of the country through fear. Mrs Achakzai symbolised what Afghan women leaders pose nationally – a vocal minority, asking for change, asking questions about the role of women in Afghanistan, and demanding inclusion in the reconstruction and development of their homeland. They believe that human rights are not a Western imposition, but central to their understanding of Islam, and to their beliefs and cultures.

The remaining few people who continue to bravely speak out in defence of human rights are crucial to the future of Afghanistan. Attacks like those on Mrs Achakzai, Mrs Kakar and Mrs Amajan is an attack on all freedoms in Afghanistan. Brave women and men willing to stand up must be supported and protected. Violence with impunity must not be allowed to continue, and the Afghan government and the international community must join in holding the nation accountable to this standard.

Wenny Kusuma is the Afghanistan Country Director for the UN Development Fund for Women