Despite reports of progress, Afghan women still struggle

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The numbers tell an upbeat story about efforts to empower and protect women in Afghanistan:

The country now has around 5.7 million children in school, of whom 35 percent are girls. There are 8,000 schools, including several hundred just for girls. Under the Taliban's rule, there were none. Women now have access to health care and hold a full 25 percent of the nation's parliament.

However, the reality for women is much grimmer.

The bulk of the girls' schools actually operate in the capital, Kabul. Women's access to health care, especially reproductive health care, is hampered by untrained midwives and a lack of access to doctors. Although women have representation in parliament, they don't have a real voice in the government.

"For many years . . . the United States and other international players have not given human rights, including the rights of women and girls, enough weight in their discussions with the Afghan government," said Caroline Wadhams, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington research group.

"They have allowed for unsavory characters to return to power, who have been responsible for abuses and who are no friends to Afghan women and girls."

Efforts to help pull Afghan women and girls out of circle of poverty and neglect are clashing with powerful, conservative leaders and repressive traditions in some Afghan communities.

Women not only continue to lack access to healthcare and education, but they also lack legal protections. They continue to confront pervasive violence and early marriages. After nine years and $300 billion, U.S. reconstruction efforts have largely bypassed women and girls.

"Recognize the women in Afghanistan — that we exist," Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul, told a joint hearing of Senate Foreign Relations subcommittees recently. "The lack of mention and recognition by the United States and the international community of women's rights allow Afghan men in (a) different state institution to continue to ignore women's rights."

Officially, the central Uruzgan province in Afghanistan has 220 schools, but only 21 of them function. Of that, only one is a girls' school, in the provincial capital.

Of the hundreds of girls who go to school, "only 4 percent of secondary school age girls reach grade 10," said Rachel Reid, a researcher in Kabul for Human Rights Watch.

While a large number of children are listed as going to school, many attend classes irregularly. For some girls, schools are too far away. Most say education isn't given much importance in their communities and girls feel pressured into early marriage, a report from Samar's organization said.

There are other roadblocks, too.

For instance, in the northwestern province of Faryab, two shopkeepers who are brothers are listed as the principal and the teacher of a school. However, they draw the salaries of seven teachers between themselves, Samar said.

Last year, the U.S. provided $153 million to programs on women and girls and has earmarked $175 million for this year.

While economic and social reconstruction efforts that include education get almost a third of U.S. funds, efforts to ensure human rights get the least amount of money, according to a Government Accountability Report published last year.

Early last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's overture to the Taliban and former warlords as part of reconciliation efforts drew mixed reactions from NATO and allies.

"We want to see a reformed Taliban but we must be practical and be cautious about insurgency," said Melanne Verveer, an ambassador-at-large for global women's issues at the State Department, during the Senate hearing.

Women's rights activists say there can be no "moderate" Taliban or "good" Taliban.

"In the whole process of reconciliation, there was no consultation with women," Samar said.

Women's rights activists are alarmed that there is no mention of crimes against humanity and war criminals during the reconciliation process.

"They can't just come and get another position in the government," she said, referring to the Taliban.

While the U.S. hopes that Karzai will push a bill in parliament on the elimination of violence against women, rights activists said they doubt the president's commitment.

A new law that requires a woman to ask permission to leave the house except on urgent business, to "dress up" for her husband when demanded, and to not refuse sex when her husband wants it, as well as the government's continued alliance with warlords and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, create a hostile environment for women in Afghanistan.

"The United States can play such a vital role in the process as to how much power we give to the former terrorists," said Reid, of Human Rights Watch.

While the rights activists would like to see war criminals weeded out from the political process, it would be harder to do so.

After years of neglect from the international community, including the U.S., on building a system in place to penalize war criminals, Samar fears the same people will run for future elections.

The crimes against humanity, committed during the lengthy war in the early 1990s, include sexual violence against women, the illegal shelling and rocketing of civilian areas, the abduction and murder of civilians, and the pillage of civilian areas.

The issue of access to basic health services is another area where the gap between the intentions and impact of policies is evident.

According to U.S. officials, around 85 percent of Afghans have basic health services, compared with 8 percent during the Taliban era.

U.S. Agency for International Development funds have trained hundreds of midwives.

"But we still face the same problems," Samar said. "In many parts of Afghanistan, women have not seen a medical doctor in their entire lives."

While the number of rural clinics has increased, including 680 clinics built with U.S. funds, James Bever, the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force for USAID, acknowledged that the clinics have rudimentary services and the staff has minimal training.

Afghan women also have no access to birth control, Samar said.

As a token gesture, 25 percent seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women.

"These women are not independent of most of the powerful men in the parliament," Samar said.

"While there have been some improvements since the Taliban for women and girls, some of these trends now may be going in the opposite direction because of the growing insecurity and increasing power of conservative elements within the Afghan political system," Wadhams said.

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