A United Nations agency in Afghanistan plans to stop publishing photographs on its website to highlight the plight of Afghan women ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, a UN official said on Sunday.
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The move aims to bring attention to the fear many Afghan women have of the potential consequences of appearing in public or having their photographs published, said Rob Few, chief of communications for the UN Development Program in Kabul.
Photographs already on the UNDP's Afghanistan website would be blacked out starting Sunday, and replaced with the hashtag #WhereAreTheWomen, Few said. Original captions would remain, so visitors to the site know what they are missing, and no new photographs would be posted, he said.
The campaign will last about a week, he added.
In conservative Afghanistan, women are often subject to abuse, forced into arranged marriages, and even traded to settle disputes. Domestic violence is endemic.
High-profile women have been murdered. As a result, few women work outside the home or are active in public life, despite constitutional guarantees of their safety.
Few said the UNDP's decision came after an Afghan woman helped by the agency to escape an abusive forced marriage said she was too afraid to have her photo published alongside a report about her experience.
"Walk down any street, or into any government office, or into any hospital, police station, business or university, and you have to ask yourself, 'Where are the women?' " Few said. "We've come a long way since 2001, but we need to do more to make women safer and to allow them to take part in economic and public life."
As the Afghan government moves toward a dialogue with the Taliban to end the war, now in its 15th year, many women fear that hard-won legal rights will be sacrificed for peace.
The extremist Taliban regime ruled Afghanistan for five years before being toppled by the 2001 U.S. invasion. During that time, women were terrorized — banned from education and work, forced into their homes unless accompanied by a male relative and wearing the all-encompassing burqa.
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The post-2001 constitution protects women from violence and discrimination. But after more than 30 years of conflict, Afghan society has largely retreated into religious conservatism that has seen more women, even in the capital Kabul, wearing the burqa and the niqab full-face veil for fear of a Taliban return.
President Ashraf Ghani has pledged that women's rights will not be eroded in exchange for peace with the Taliban. Face-to-face talks that were expected to take place early this month appear to be in jeopardy after the Taliban issued a statement Saturday saying they would not participate.
The UNDP's decision to question the way women are treated in Afghan society also comes ahead of the first anniversary on March 19 of the public murder of a woman in central Kabul, after she was falsely accused of burning a Qur'an.
Farkhunda Malikzada was set upon by a mob, brutally beaten, driven over by a car, and her body burned. Her killers, identified from mobile phone footage of the incident, had their sentences commuted, and most of her immediate family has left the country for their own safety.
In recent months, a number of women have been publicly stoned in remote parts of Afghanistan for apparent adultery, and one young woman had her nose cut off by an abusive husband.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission published a report this month accusing the judicial system of abusing women's rights by forcing women and girls accused of the "crime" of sex outside marriage to undergo invasive "virginity tests," vaginal and rectal examinations performed against their will by government doctors. New York-based Human Rights Watch said the examinations amount to sexual assault.
Women are also the biggest victims of war, with the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan last month reporting that 10 per cent of total civilian casualties in 2015 were women, up 37 per cent from the year before.