CEDAW ratification would be a triumph for Afghan women

The story of Afghan women is a story of survival. We survived the Taliban era of vastly more draconian control over women. Most of us vanished into our homes, leaving our jobs and education; others lived in poverty as refugees in neighboring countries. Emerging from those dark days, we have fought hard to win our basic rights. Essential to that struggle has been the international women's treaty known as CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The rights we yearn for in my country are taken for granted by most American women and girls, and for them, CEDAW is perhaps an abstract thing. But the U.S. Senate is about to consider whether to ratify CEDAW, and I would like to assure you that U.S. ratification of this treaty would be an enormous help and a great triumph for the women of Afghanistan. Let me tell you why.

CEDAW has been a banner, a torch we've held high, as we've made our journey towards basic rights. In 2004, we strategized around CEDAW as the world's consensus of what women's equality looks like in law and policy. We used its terms to lobby for Article 22, which states that Afghan women and men are equal before the law. Since the country had no significant history for such an argument to be accepted by the Grand Assembly of elders and conservative elements, CEDAW was our main basis for advocacy.

We also worked with religious scholars using CEDAW to promote women's rights. I developed and led a campaign called "Media and Mullah" that worked in 300 mosques in five provinces to create public education forums through Friday prayers. We compared the rights CEDAW outlined with Islamic rights, trying to prove that no conflict existed between religious rights and women's human rights in Afghanistan.

A major success of our Afghan Women's Network was in using CEDAW terms to develop and lobby for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. In a country where violence and discrimination against women are an everyday reality, enactment was not easy. The law made rape a crime in Afghanistan for the first time, and nullified forced marriages and early marriages without consent of the girl, punishing the perpetrators with imprisonment. Such an arrangement was taken from CEDAW Article 16, which makes the state responsible for eliminating discrimination around issues of marriage and family matters.

While the right to inheritance is an Islamic right for any woman, women in Afghanistan are still deprived of the right to ownership, particularly of land and assets. But EVAW is changing that. An example is Hamida, whose husband was killed in a 2004 suicide attack. Her in-laws then threw her out of the family home, along with her eight children. Our network gave Hamida shelter and then learned that she owned her husband's house as part of her informal marriage contract. (In Afghanistan, we don't have formal marriage contracts.) Our lawyers used the EVAW law to help Hamida lodge a court complaint against her in-laws, and after six months of struggle, she now lives with her children in her own house. Ten years ago, I could not have imagined that we could ever use Afghan laws to help women.

In 2009 we used Afghanistan's international obligations, particularly CEDAW, to make history against the discriminatory articles of the Shia Personal Status Law. This law denied women's custody rights and required us to seek permission from our husbands to leave the house. In a country where people are killed in the name of religion, we went into the streets to protest this law. Our opposition was the most conservative elements of our society. They used religious arguments against us, but we stayed firm in arguing the universal jurisdiction of international human rights laws, including CEDAW. We were able to make the government change the most discriminatory articles in this important legislation.

These are only a few of Afghan women's many achievements using CEDAW. We believe they have created a foundation and a base for women's rights that we have never had before. More than 48 other countries are involved in Afghanistan politics, with obvious and hidden political motives, so only an international instrument with a universal common agenda for women's rights could work, and that was CEDAW for us. We argued that the women's rights enshrined in CEDAW are universal, and should be defended for all women around the world. Therefore we always expected that the United States as a bastion of freedom would ratify CEDAW as a demonstration of its commitment to women's rights.

The U.S. failure to ratify CEDAW is of huge international significance. Even in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away, conservative elements use this to attack women's rights defenders. They say that if United States believes in women's rights as a universal right, why haven't they signed on to CEDAW?

Today, we don't have an answer. Perhaps one day soon, if the Senate ratifies CEDAW, we can answer back.

Wazhma Frogh is an Afghanistan activist and a post graduate fellow at the University of Warwick, U.K. This article was adapted from her recent testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on CEDAW ratification.