Thursday, February 21, 2008

Women striving for change in Afghanistan

By Beth Hearn , Leadership Council for Human Rights, Washington D.C

“In this century where man has reached Mars, Afghan women are still striving to establish ourselves as human beings,” said Wazhma Frogh, who has a lifelong history of social activism and is currently a gender and development specialist for the Canadian International Development Agency. She and four other female political and social activists painted a harrowing yet hopeful picture of the situation in Afghanistan at an event held by the Independent Women’s Forum on 24th January.
There is little doubt that women are facing severe difficulties in Afghanistan. Orzala Ashraf, founder and senior advisor of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women of Afghanistan, said that this is a country where women’s literacy rates are around fifteen percent, child mortality is at 157 out of every 1000 live births, and less than one percent of police are female.
There is also a significant degree of fear, Ashraf said, about the gains in power and influence made by the Taliban since their fall in 2001.
Yet the women of Afghanistan are not prepared to accept these affronts to their rights: the women also told an incredible story of the strength, drive and sense of purpose that is helping them to push for change.
There have in fact been considerable improvements over the past six years. Girls are going back to school and some are pursuing careers, there has been a twenty-five percent drop in the infant mortality rate, and Shukria Barakzai, who is a Member of Parliament, went so far as to call the period since the fall of the Taliban the “golden years in the history of women in Afghanistan.”
But there is so much further to go. One of the most significant boundaries to progress is corruption and ineffective enforcement of the law: it is a case of having “the wrong people in the right places” said Frogh, referring to the presence of warlords in the government and judiciary.
There is now a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the government of Afghanistan, led by a female cabinet minister. Ironically, however, Frogh asserted that the existence of this ministry actually reduces the accountability of government to women. It is simply not the case that “women’s issues” can be defined as a group: they permeate all other elements of society. The existence of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs provides an excuse for women to be ignored by all other areas of government. There is a real need for far more representation of women across government and the security services. As Halima Karzai, Associate Director of Foreign Policy and International Women’s Issues at the Independent Women’s Forum said, “All issues are women’s issues.”
Aid has been pouring into Afghanistan in recent years but has on the whole been ineffective, Frogh claimed. The first problem is the unsuitable nature of many development and capacity building projects, but more significantly there are social barriers in place preventing aid from having an effect. In the most worrying example of this, Frogh reported that her research has shown that the majority of money from micro-credit schemes ends up in the hands of husbands, who then often use it to procure a second wife.
There is, therefore, a real need for accountability and transparency in this area. Frogh stressed the importance of recognizing that in the current situation women’s lives are dependent on the perception of the men in their family, and planning projects in ways that either include the education of men or prevent the benefit from being lost. She suggested making men, either husbands or fathers, responsible for repayment of money from micro-credit schemes, or the provision of supplies rather than cash.
What was emphasized was the importance of viewing security and development in the widest sense of the word: Barakzai said we must look at health, education, justice, the economy and social protection as essential elements of the secure society.
The panel said that they are regularly asked to what extent Islam itself is a barrier to equality. Frogh replied that Islam has “always been used as a weapon against women” but that this is due to an improper understanding and the politicized nature of the religion. What is needed is for prominent female scholars to challenge the traditional masculine interpretation
The enduring message brought by the women was one of hope. Orzala Ashraf has been involved in running training programs for women and children since 1998 when she was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and she said that she is not alone in what she does: thousands of other women are, she says, actively working towards the recognition of their rights through training, teaching, and helping literacy rates to rise.

“There has been real enthusiasm since 2002 and we keep hoping,” she said, “but we have great fears as well.”