April 2023: Shabnam Salehi testifies in Canada's Parliament in support of bill C-41, a legislation enabling humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Shabnam placed emphasis on specific aid to prioritize women's empowerment and equal access (Photo: Shabnam Salehi)

Breaking Silence: Transnational Advocacy and Gender Based Violence in Afghanistan

Shabnam Salehi is a fellow and researcher at the University of Ottawa a former professor at Kabul University, and a women’s rights commissioner with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. A dedicated scholar and activist, her research concentrates on human rights, gender equality, and law. Since 2012, she has lectured extensively on public policy and law, centering on these pivotal areas. Shabnam’s commitment extends beyond academia, encompassing practical reform initiatives. During her tenure as the Commissioner and Head of the Women’s Rights Promotion and Protection Unit at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, she spearheaded restructuring efforts that significantly advanced interventions for women’s rights. Her initiatives encompass legislative reforms and the empowerment of women’s involvement across public and private spheres. While working abroad, Shabnam remains steadfast in her support and monitoring of ongoing endeavors aimed at uplifting women’s rights in Afghanistan. Her dedication transcends borders, ensuring ongoing advocacy and support for this critical cause.

The Looming Gender Apartheid

As a researcher and human rights defender entrenched in the realm of law, human rights, and women’s rights, the echoes of Afghanistan’s challenges reverberate through my work. The story I bring forth is not just academic; it’s personal. It’s a narrative of women who, in the face of adversity, exemplify unwavering determination to break free from the chains of oppression.

In the tapestry of human rights, the thread representing Afghan women has woven a story of resilience, facing a backdrop of discrimination and violence that spans decades. The canvas, already stained with the struggles of generations, took a darker turn with the Taliban’s resurgence in August 2021, casting a shadow over the hard-fought gains in women’s rights.

The closure of girls’ schools, restrictions on employment, and a sweeping curtailment of fundamental rights for women and girls have painted a dire picture in Afghanistan. Scholars, grappling with the severity of the situation, have termed the Taliban’s actions as an institutionalized framework of gender apartheid, a term usually reserved for systematic segregation based on gender through legal and policy mechanisms.

In the aftermath of the government’s collapse, many, including myself, found themselves fleeing the country. However, physical distance did not dilute our commitment. If anything, it intensified our resolve to advance women’s rights and empower Afghan women.

Advocacy in Exile

Exile, while providing a sanctuary from persecution, introduces its own set of challenges. The cultural dislocation, language barriers, and the profound loss of the familiar become daunting obstacles. Yet, it is precisely within these challenges that Afghan women defenders find the wellspring of their strength. The narrative transforms from one of victimhood to empowerment, as personal adversity becomes the driving force for broader societal transformation.

The resilience of Afghan women, whether within the borders of their homeland or in the diaspora, is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. It’s a story of turning adversity into opportunity, of using the scars of displacement as a canvas for change.

– Shabnam Salehi
August 2023: Shabnam Salehi advocates for the rights of Afghan refugees in Mexico (Photo: Shabnam Salehi)

Transnational Advocacy: A Lifeline Across Borders

In this complex tapestry of struggle, the role of international organizations and transnational advocacy emerges as a lifeline. It is a beacon of solidarity, a platform that amplifies the voices of Afghan women defenders and activists on the global stage. The interconnectedness it fosters becomes a formidable force in the fight for equal rights.

The urgency for transnational advocacy becomes more evident when we delve into the intricate layers of the Afghan crisis. The Taliban’s blatant disregard for women’s rights and its imposition of gender apartheid demands a response that transcends borders. It necessitates a united front that not only raises awareness but actively works to address the multifaceted challenges faced by Afghan women.

July 2022: Salehi speak about gender based violence and the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban regime at the UN Human Rights Council (Photo: Shabnam Salehi)

Beyond the headlines, transnational advocacy provides a crucial platform to expose the hidden stories—the silenced narratives of women facing persecution, discrimination, and violence. It serves as a channel to bring these stories to the forefront, demanding attention, and action from the global community.

At the heart of transnational advocacy lies the imperative to address gender-based violence in Afghanistan. Codifying gender apartheid in international law is not merely a legal necessity; it is a moral obligation. This would mandate states to take effective steps to end the violations, providing the international community with a robust tool to mobilize against such regimes. The proposed codification of gender apartheid in the Rome statute under the Crimes Against Humanity is therefore not just a legal instrument; it’s a step toward rectifying past omissions of women’s experiences from international criminal law.

Transnational advocacy, therefore, becomes a multifaceted force for change. It raises awareness, not just through academic channels but by permeating the collective consciousness of the public and policymakers. It serves as a catalyst for policy changes at national and international levels, making the fight for women’s rights a shared global responsibility. Organizations and initiatives often at the forefront of the struggle, require stable funding, technical assistance, and unwavering support to navigate the complexities of their work. Transnational advocacy can provide tangible support to gender justice and human rights organizations and grass roots initiatives.

Beyond these efforts, transnational advocacy has the power to build global alliances. The entire international community—governments, human rights groups, activists—must unite to eradicate systems of gender-based violence and oppression. It necessitates a coordinated effort to raise awareness, provide support, and advocate for legal and policy changes.

Shabnam Salehi (Photo: Shabnam Salehi)

The fight for women’s rights and gender equality is indeed long and arduous. However, transnational advocacy stands as a potent force for change. As we break the silence surrounding the plight of Afghan women, transnational advocacy becomes an indispensable ally in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. The symphony of change, orchestrated by the collective efforts of individuals, organizations, and nations, can bring about a transformative melody of empowerment.

On Allyship

In a world where borders fade in the face of shared humanity, where the struggle of one becomes the struggle of all, we must ask ourselves: What role can each of us play in this global movement for change? How can we amplify the voices of those silenced by oppression and build a future where gendered oppression is but a dark chapter in history? The answers lie not just in policy changes but in the collective consciousness of a global community united for a common cause—equality for all.