In 2009, the United States gave Wazhma Frogh the International Woman of Courage award for her women’s rights activism in Afghanistan. Prominently displayed in Frogh’s office is a picture of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granting her the award as First Lady Michelle Obama smiles, clapping by her side.
Four years later, the United States denied her a visa when she was trying to get away from an Afghan militia commander who she says was persecuting her.
For Ms. Frogh, the experience underlined the state of the women’s rights movement in her country. Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban, billions of dollars have been spent, the West and the Afghan government have offered countless words of support, yet the successes that have been achieved remain vulnerable. Ultimately, women still have nowhere to turn when their battle for equal rights puts them on the firing line, she said.
“They give you an award but they don’t support you when you need them,” she said. “I always thought that if my government didn’t help me I would always be able to turn to the United States. I never thought that they would turn their back on me.”
Gains have been made. Gone are the rules imposed by the Taliban forcing women to wear the all-encompassing burqa and barring girls from school. Now, as many as 4 million girls are in school, and women sit in Afghanistan’s parliament.
But Ms. Frogh and other women’s rights activists said those changes, while important, are superficial. Women’s equality was a priority when the memory of the Taliban was fresh, but over the years the commitment has waned. It became a mantra recited by the Afghan government and non-government organizations to get international funding, and a flag for Western governments to wave as a symbol of success over the Taliban, said Ms. Frogh and Afghan parliamentarian, Fawzia Koofi.
“Women’s rights is the most politicized issue in Afghanistan, before even talks with the Taliban, and I am not happy with it,” said Ms. Koofi, referring to the Afghan government’s attempts to negotiate with Taliban insurgents, raising women activists’ fears authorities will compromise on their rights if necessary to reach a deal.
Ms. Koofi said she is proud and grateful for the successes, but “after 13 years, I am still being forced to ask for my basic rights.”
Many of the victories have major caveats. Girls are back in school, but most are pulled out by their families as they near puberty to ready them for marriage, she said.
A hard-fought Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women was passed. More women are reporting cases of abuse and are aware of their right to speak out, said Georgette Gagnon, director of Human Rights with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
But, she said, few cases make it to court and prosecution is rare. Instead, most end up in mediation, often through jirgas, a traditional council of elders or other community councils, which rarely work in favour of the woman.
“Often this mediation doesn’t fully protect woman’s rights and often leads to more violence against the woman,” said Ms. Gagnon.
The few Afghan businesswomen are paraded as success stories, while women are still having their lips cut off for perceived offenses, as happened recently in northern Afghanistan, said Ms. Frogh.
More than 80 percent of the women in prisons are jailed for so-called “moral crimes,” like leaving an abusive husband. Shelters for abused women have been set up, but most men in conservative Afghanistan, even those in the Ministry of Interior, see those shelters as “immoral,” and women who seek sanctuary there are often banished from their communities, Ms. Frogh said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s first Cabinet featured five female members, the next only two. The quota for women in district councils was 25 percent, but has been reduced to 20 percent. The government set up a Women’s Affairs Ministry but doesn’t give it the money to hire the staff it needs.
Ms. Frogh’s Women Peace and Security Research Institute works with the Interior Ministry to get more women in ministry jobs and holds training sessions with policewomen, many of whom face sexual harassment. Ms. Frogh counsels women on their rights, and her institute compiles statistics and researches abuses against women.
Last year, she tried to go temporarily to the U.S. to gain some distance from a militia commander who she says was terrorizing her after she identified him in a report to NATO as a repetitive rights violator.
The commander had her followed. He drowned her in text messages, warning that he knew her every move. Ms. Frogh said she would be at the airport and a text message would arrive from the commander- “Welcome home.”
Aware of the harassment, the U.S- based Institute of Inclusive Security invited Ms. Frogh to spend six to 12 months as a visiting fellow. Ms. Frogh said she was told the visa was denied because of fears she would overstay. But she said she neither wanted asylum nor to overstay her visa, only a respite from the harassment.
The U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul, Robert B. Hilton, refused to comment, saying the embassy does not discuss visa matters.
“Certainly, we were disappointed when her visa was denied,” Evelyn Thornton, chief executive officer of the institute said. “We have enormous respect for Ms. Frogh’s activism for human rights, peace, and security in Afghanistan. She’s a courageous leader who has made a significant difference in the lives of many.”
Finally, Ms. Frogh’s family turned to a traditional Jirga to mediate with the commander, offering a number of goats and cows in exchange for his forgiveness, the activist says.
“I was forced to apologize to someone who was ruining my life and, on a daily basis, the lives of other people, including women,” Ms. Frogh said. “If I had to apologize to someone who abuses our rights, and I met the wife of the president of the United States, what hope does an Afghan woman in a village have?”
Mary Akrami, head of the Afghan Women Skilled Development Centers, said a long-term approach is needed to women’s rights, one that goes beyond the cycle of waxing and waning interest.
“We want a clear commitment. We want women’s issues separated from political issues,” she said.
Ms. Frogh advocated a “less sexy” approach, one that doesn’t bask in quick fixes and feel-good moments, but does the hard work of finding solutions for women within the family, giving them a voice in the home and protection outside.
“We made a big mistake isolating women and not looking at the woman within the structure of the family, as mother, sister, wife, and involving the whole family,” she said. “So the men are often against the rights of women because they see them as against the family.”