Lives on the line: Stories of women human rights defenders in Afghanistan

By Jackie Hansen, Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner

Afghanistan is a dangerous place. It’s particularly dangerous for women, who all too often experience threats and violence simply because of their gender. Women in the public sphere, whether they are doctors, engineers, police officers, or politicians, are seen as stepping outside of social, cultural, and religious norms and are at particular risk. And the courageous women and men who take a stand to defend women’s human rights are at perhaps the greatest risk. The story of women human rights defenders in Afghanistan is a story of hope, courage, and resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

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While overall civilian casualties in Afghanistan are decreasing, women casualties have gone up dramatically. Despite strong laws and policies protecting women from violence and discrimination, they remain largely unimplemented.

Women are under threat from the Taliban and other insurgents, from government authorities, powerful commanders and warlords and even their own families.

And in this climate of fear and violence, women continue to put their lives on the line to work in the public sphere and to defend human rights. They receive death threats, face assassination attempts, and worse. And still they continue their work.

This the story of Senator Rohgul Khairkhwah, one of the many courageous women in Afghanistan who bravely forges on despite the risks. Her story and the stories of other women human rights defenders in Afghanistan are profiled in “On their own: Women human rights defenders at risk in Afghanistan,” a new report published by Amnesty International. 

Senator Rohgul Khairkhwah

“Anti-government groups are targeting prominent and outspoken women’s rights advocates [in order to] spread fear among other women’s rights activists [and] stop their activities.” – Senator Rohgul Khairkhwah

Rohgul Khairkhwah is the Senator for Nimroz province in southern Afghanistan. On August 4, 2013, two days before the Muslim festival of Eid, as she was driving through Ghazni province on her way home, the Taliban attacked the vehicle she was travelling in. With her in the car were her husband and their three children, her brother and his three children. The Senator’s seven-year old daughter and brother were killed in the attack. Her other daughter, who was 11 at the time, became paralyzed as a result of her injuries. The Senator was shot nine times, with wounds to her liver and lung, and in one leg. She also lost a finger, and three others are now paralyzed. She spent the next two months in hospital recuperating from her injuries.
Despite her ordeal, Senator Khairkhwah returned to work after she was discharged. Given what she has suffered, people did not expect her to resume her position in the Senate, but as she told Amnesty International: “I want to motivate other women to continue their work.”

Senator Khairkhwah continues to represent the people of Nimroz despite the threatening phone calls and texts she receives. After the attempt on her life, the Senator had both her telephone number and handset changed but a few months after that the threats resumed. She estimates that she has received more than 100 threats since 2010.

Since the threats first began, Senator Khairkhwah has kept Afghanistan’s intelligence service and other government agencies informed of the threats against her, but the official response has been negligible. When the threats first began, she was told that that they were merely “designed to create a climate of fear” because of the peace consultations at which she was a delegate. Two years later, Senator Khairkhwah still has no answer as to who is responsible for the murder of her daughter and brother.

A different reality

While Senator Kharikhwah’s story may be all too familiar in Afghanistan, it is almost unimaginable in Canada. If you had been shot because of your work, if you had received death threats, if family members had lost their lives because of your work, what would you do? Would you continue to speak out? Would you go into hiding? Would you try to leave the country? 

Join Amnesty International and Act Now to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t turn its back on women human rights defenders.

Read Amnesty International’s report, “On Their Own: Women Human Rights Defenders At Risk in Afghanistan.”

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