Afghanistan: Focus on women's status in third post-conflict year

Afghan journalist Shukria Dawi Barekzai is optimistic that 2004 will prove to be a turning point for women in her country.
But like many others she admits that there is a long way to go before the women's rights enshrined in Afghanistan's new constitution become a reality.
"This year's (International) Women's Day should be a unique and significant event. This time we have a new constitution which grants us equal rights that every other citizen of this country enjoys," the editor of the weekly Women's Mirror told a conference of women gathered on Thursday, as part of the run up to International Women's Day in the Afghan capital, Kabul on Monday.

Barekzai told IRIN in Kabul that Afghan women had played an active role in both political and social developments since the collapse in 2001 of the hardline Taliban regime, which prevented women from working or studying and did not allow them to leave the house without a male escort. "We have proved to men that they cannot make progress without women's participation," she said.

A Constitutional Miracle

The new post-conflict Afghan constitution was adopted by the 500-member grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, in early January. Under Article 22, it states that every Afghan citizen, whether male or female, has equal rights and responsibilities before the law. Many women have called it no less than a miracle in a country dominated by conservative leaders and traditions.

For Barekzai it is the first and most crucial step in gaining women's rights in the long term." Achieving this article was the result of women's effective and tireless struggle during the constitutional Loya Jirga. While it is only on paper now, it still requires a lot of work and joint struggle by Afghan women to exercise this on the ground," she said.

She cites economic hardship, lack of security, domestic violence, illiteracy and maternal mortality as issues still affecting women in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. The 32-year-old editor also urged more poorly educated Afghan women to engage in a more coordinated and united campaign against the continuing suffering of women, particularly in rural areas.

"Unfortunately, we have not unified our individual efforts. This will not help unless this limited number of active women are coordinated and united to make a stronger voice for millions of deprived women at home," she said.

Prejudice and Domestic Violence Against Women

While sketching a view of her village, Fauzia Bibi, a 26-year-old artist and poet from the southeastern province of Khost, continues to draw giant dark clouds overshadowing vulnerable women in the war trodden village.

"Unfortunately, neither my feeling nor the situation changes," Bibi, who is also in her last year of medical faculty at Khost university, told IRIN, noting that prejudice and domestic violence continued as a normal exercise against women in rural areas.

"With regret, since I have grown up, I have seen and continue to see women sold like property and beaten to death. I cannot do anything for them but to depict this unbearable situation in my poems and paintings," she said, adding that traditional values and complexities were becoming entrenched in the south and southeastern parts of the country, with women deprived of their most basic rights.

"As a doctor, I hear cases of women not taken to hospital just because they are women. It is believed to be shameful to have a women examined by a male doctor. While we are claiming development towards democracy with progress in a few women's lives, millions continue to be deprived of their right as a human being," she said.

One reflection of women's plight is the continuing instances of self-immolation. In western Afghanistan, government authorities have reported over 50 cases of women who have killed themselves in recent months. Officials say poverty, forced marriages and lack of access to education are the main reasons for suicide among women in the western city of Herat.

An employee at the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA), who declined to be named, told IRIN that family restriction on women's movements, physical and psychological violence, plus intimidation often caused them commit suicide.

"This [suicide problem] is not only in Herat, it may be exercised in other types of unreported cases in other rural areas, I am afraid this news may even give a hint to many other repressed and suppressed women in the country," she said.

In addition to domestic violence and traditional practices, security remains another serious challenge and a high risk for many like Bibi who try to struggle on behalf of their fellow women.

Bibi, whose poems are well-known in the local monthly Rana magazine, is unknown to most of her fans. It is unusual and risky to publish a woman's name in a publication in any part of the southeast, she said. "The editors do not dare to put my name with my stories and poems, saying it is risky for them, for me and for my whole family," she said, adding that due to a lack of security, families did not allow their educated women to work in Khost public institutions.

Meanwhile a local journalist in the southern Ghazni province, who declined to be named, told IRIN she had to stop presenting news on local TV when she received written death threats at her home. "I would continue [to appear on TV] if they had only threatened me, but for my children's safety I had to leave," she said. She added that without security and strengthening the rule of law in the provinces, women's status may not change. "We need a neutral national trained police for protection and prevention of violence against women."

Women's Participation in Social and Political Development

But others highlight more positive developments in the capital. From her well-furnished office in Kabul, 36-year-old Najiba Maram heads the country's leading state-run international press centre. "I think women's status has developed in the capital as security is good here, but it can only go beyond Kabul if the national army, national police or ISAF [NATO led 600-strong International Security Assistance Force] is deployed outside Kabul," the journalist told IRIN.

She said women have made progress in the capital even if they still suffer from economic and other hardships. "We have women as ministers, as heads of bigger organisations like Afghan independent human rights commission and many others running radio stations and newspapers. This is unique in the first years of a post-conflict male-dominated country," she said.

Maram said women had more achievements in the field of media as there were over 10 women's radio stations across the country with a plethora of magazines, newspapers and periodicals run by women for women. "Today the most critical question is often asked by a woman journalist of a minister or a warlord," she noted, adding that despite cultural and security restrictions, women journalists across the country had been able to create a network with quarterly visits in the capital Kabul. "This is another development, gathering women journalists from across the country and exchanging experience is something unique in Afghan media history," she said.

Government With More Serious Approach

Doctor Habiba Sarabi, Afghan Women's Affairs Minister, said this year's International Women's Day witnessed a historical revolution in Afghan women's life, with the new constitution granting them equal rights and responsibilities.

"This year's women's day in Afghanistan is titled 'the rule of law and women's life' because the new Afghan law has awakened women in the region," she told IRIN, ahead of the International Women's Day celebrations.

"Women's status has considerably changed over the last three years," Sarabi said, maintaining that women's mobility had developed in some parts of the country. However, she conceded that domestic violence and discrimination against women were still challenging with difficult problems for her ministry to address.

"In the first post-Taliban women's day, there were no women without a veil in the celebration hall in Kabul, while last year, of over 1,500 women from the provinces, I noticed none of them had the Burqa [all enveloping veil]" she said.

The Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs was established in early 2002 by the Afghan interim administration, with smaller offices in most of the provinces. However, like other state institutions, MOWA still has a long way to go in building the capacity it needs before it can implement women's development projects on the ground.

Sarabi said her ministry was planning to establish family courts and marriage centres across the country as one of the measures to address violence against women. "We hope these courts could be a source of peaceful resolution of family disputes and with the marriage registration centres the issue of forced marriages, which is unfortunately resulting in tens of women committing self-immolation and other types of suicide, would be addressed," she described.

Sarabi underlined many issues that still needed a more coordinated national and international effort to be tackled, including ignorance, discriminatory traditions, economic hardship, forced marriage, childhood engagement and lack of security. The minister highlighted that 34 percent of over 4 million enrolled students this year were girls, which she said gave great hope for the future with female illiteracy in Afghanistan recently estimated at 85 percent.

"Also despite our limited possibilities we could attract over 7,000 rural women in literacy courses across the country," she said, adding that providing education and literacy opportunities was the only solution for a sustainable change in Afghan women's lives.

MOWA has identified four priority areas of health, education, legal protection and economic empowerment for its work in the country. Sarabi said her ministry had appealed for $49 million to implement its prioritised plans in the next three years.

While domestic violence and discriminatory traditions continue as major problems for Afghan women, the United Nations, which is supporting Afghan women's development and promoting their human rights, believes that some of the situations faced by women in Afghanistan are not just the result of lack of legislation or lack of state institutions to protect their rights.

"What is very complex is when you have forms of behavior that have been in conservative societies for ages and that takes time to address. This is the kind of thing that you cannot force down people's throats, nor do you want things to happen in that kind of way," Manoel de Almieda e Silva, a spokesperson for the United Nations Assistant Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told IRIN.

The UN spokesperson said a vital element was to educate men and women to understand and maintain women's rights. "You are not going to see sustainable changes that really mean something to people from one day to another. You need girls to be educated and very importantly you need boys and men to be educated to understand what the rights of women are."