by Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Bush administration has failed to realize the hopes and dreams of women and girls in much of post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to several human and women’s rights groups who warned Wednesday that the time to redress the situation is fast running out.
Washington has largely failed so far to take women’s roles into account in relief and reconstruction projects, to provide remotely adequate funding for women’s groups, and above all, to secure most of the country against the violence and misrule of warlords and armed groups, according to the groups, which include Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), Save the Children, and the Policy Council on Afghan Women.
“If there is no safety and security, there is no success,” said Ritu Sharma, executive director of the Women’s Edge Coalition, an alliance of some 40 U.S. development and rights groups. “Afghanistan is really hanging in the balance. We’ve almost lost our opportunity, but it’s still not too late.”
The urgency of the situation derives from the resurgence of the Taliban and other groups allied with it in the predominantly Pashtun areas in the south and southeast and from the imminence of next month’s presidential elections. The interim president, Hamid Karzai, is favored to win.
Despite the fact that women comprise some 60 percent of Afghanistan’s adult population, they make up only 43 percent of the new voting rolls. Recent surveys suggest that many Afghan women’s votes will likely be determined by their husbands or by local faction leaders.
Largely deprived of education, particularly during the years that the Taliban ruled the country, the large majority of women are illiterate, according to Malaly Volpi of the Policy Council which has pressed the administration to provide more voter-education programs for women.
“Ninety percent of Afghan women are illiterate,” she said. “How will they know who to vote for?”
Health care is also lacking, according to Kathryn Bolles, a child survival specialist at Save the Children. In most rural areas outside of Kabul, women in particular have little or no access to basic health services, and one out of every four children born in the country still dies before his or her fifth birthday.
A recent survey by her agency found that only four percent of children in the rural northern part of the country had been vaccinated against the five most common childhood illnesses.
The groups concede that there have been some major advances for girls and women since the U.S.-led military campaign ousted the Taliban almost three years ago.
An estimated 50 percent of girls, for example, are now attending school which was denied them under the Taliban, while women in Kabul, in particular, have rejoined the work force.
All 19 candidates for president in the Oct. 9 elections have given at least some lip service to women’s rights, noted Volpi, who has worked directly with Afghan women’s groups. “Both women and men are showing awareness for women’s challenges.”
But the lack of security outside the capital has made going to work or even to school “life threatening” for many Afghan women and girls, according to Sharma.
“We’ve seen a surge in sexual violence against Afghan women,” including rapes, beatings kidnappings and other forms of intimidation, according to Sharma.
“An expansion of security forces is desperately needed outside of Kabul, but there is a total lack of political will on the part of the administration and the international community to expand peacekeeping forces beyond the capital. Everyone — from human rights groups, religious leaders, women’s organizations, and even Karzai himself — has been begging for more forces, but these pleas are falling on deaf ears.”
“In making the case for the Afghan war, President Bush promised to make women a centerpiece of U.S. actions in the country after the ouster of the Taliban,” she added, noting that he had pledged to get girls into schools and restore rights and dignity to Afghan women.
“Now, three years later, the President is touting the great strides of Afghan women and girls,” she noted. “While we have seen some gains, Afghan women are not doing as well as many want to believe.”
T. Kumar, Advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific at AIUSA, was even harsher about the administration’s performance.
“They have failed, misguided, and betrayed Afghan women by giving them false hope,” he said, noting that, as sympathetic as Karzai has been to women’s rights, “the entire legal system is (stacked) against women. It’s time to take the issue of Afghan women’s rights more seriously,” he said.
In addition to the prevailing insecurity, Washington’s biggest failure, according to the groups, has been the “paltry” aid it has provided to programs and organizations designed specifically to promote the status of women in Afghanistan.
Of the US$2.5 billion Congress has appropriated for Afghanistan since 2002, a mere $72.5 million — or less than three percent — has been earmarked for women’s programs. Of that total, $65 million was earmarked for this year, largely at the behest of Democratic lawmakers who charged that the administration had ignored the special needs of women and girls in its aid programs for 2002 and 2003.
Out of a total of $650 million actually spent in aid by the administration in 2002, only $112,500 went to women’s organizations, and, in 2003, that amount was actually reduced to just $90,000, according to Sharma.
“These are the groups that are best equipped to bring about the changes Afghan women want,” she said.
Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for forwarding this article. –BL