Filed under: Afghanistan, G8, aid and development, economic empowerment
It is a pleasure to share space with you again in this Women and the G8 blog.
The G8 represents approximately 65 percent of the world’s economy. The ministerial meetings organized annually in the country of leadership for that year, discuss both global and mutual issues – with topics ranging from health and foreign affairs to justice, terrorism and climate change. Afghanistan should be of priority interest to this forum as all of the governments listed above are involved in its reconstruction in one way or another. Afghan women should be of particular interest since their oppression was cited as one of the overriding reasons why the country was bombed.
As some of you may remember, during the 1325 blog in 2005, I had just gone to Afghanistan to work for the German based non-governmental charity – medica mondiale – a group of women advocating for the human rights of women in conflict and post-conflict scenarios and focusing on sexual violence against women and the attendant psycho-social issues affecting such women. Initially, I was going to be there for 6 months but ended up spending 19 months. I finally left Afghanistan in February this year (2007). In this blog, I want to share with you some of my overriding memories of the country, to give you a flavour of life there and an indication of the situation of women.
Imagine a country with mountains that reach to the sky. I am talking about the Hindu Kush mountains. Imagine a capital city nestles between barren hills, icy and treacherous in the winter. A city that becomes green and fruitful, ripe with pollen, flowers, fruit and a multitude of dust participles in the spring and summer. Afghanistan is a country of extremes – bitterly cold during the long winter months and frighteningly hot and humid during the summer months. Imagine a feudal and tribal society that despite its poverty has a piquant and otherworldly charm and romantic allure that belies the grim reality of women’s unequal status. Afghanistan is a country of many marvels and many riches – the foremost of which are undoubtedly its women.
Women in Afghanistan face significant odds. According to the 2005 annual report of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) headed by its well-known chair Dr Sima Samar, over 90 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Poverty is chronic and is made worse by continuous drought as well as the deleterious effects of over 25 years of conflict. In this country, the feminization of poverty takes a very brutal face. Women were prevented from working during the Taliban regime and were kept inside the house – unable to attend school, seek gainful employment or at times even to take their children to the hospital. The situation has changed for some, but not for others.
While some women – especially in Kabul (the capital city), Mazar-i-Sharif (the large northern city) and in Herat (the intellectual stronghold to the West) on the border with Iran, are able to work and have a degree of unprecedented freedom, others in cities in the South such as in Kandahar and Helmand are often not so fortunate.
Undoubtedly, since the fall of the Taliban and the signing of the Bonn Agreement in 2002, Afghan women have made significant gains. Some of these include the 25 percent inclusion of women in parliament (in both the Upper and Lower houses) – a higher percentage than found in our own parliament in the United Kingdom! Afghan women are also Provincial Governors. For example, Bamyan in the central region is headed by a former woman minister – Dr Soraya Sarabi. Women are organizing their own village and community councils – which in some areas, have the burden of dealing with the high percentage of violence and brutality perpetrated against women. Unfortunately, these gains are not enough and are mitigated by the tribal, cultural and other customs that lead to many of the estimated 50 000 widowed Afghan women becoming beggars. Add to this, Afghanistan’s place among the countries in the world with the highest maternal mortality rate. In fact the remote and largely inaccessible province of Badakshan, on the border with China is reputed to be the worst affected.
My time there enabled me to visit several provinces and to interact with women at different levels of society and from both rural villages as well as within cities – including the three cities named above. The work in which I was involved, leading the political lobby and advocacy work of medica mondiale, enabled me and the Afghan team working with me to support the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and the Ministry for Public Health in many ways – including by conducting issue based research and targeted recommendations for lobby and advocacy work.
One very important research project that was conducted in 2006 was a three-month project on suicide among Afghan women which includes various forms, the most insidious of which is self-burning (self-immolation) and that occurs mainly among Afghan women and girls between the ages of 12 – 45 years. The research highlighted the fact that approximately 80 percent of these women and girls commit self-immolation due to violence and brutality of various types – including widespread forced and early marriages. The research led to a three-day regional conference bringing together participants from Afghan government and society as well as from neighbouring countries including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iraqi Kurdistan.