Outlook bleak for Afghan women

Nation's female population terrified of the future as the exodus of the international community gains momentum.

Most girls don't stay on at school after fifth grade and nine out of 10 15-year-olds are illiterate. Photo / AP
Most girls don't stay on at school after fifth grade and nine out of 10 15-year-olds are illiterate. Photo / AP

Nine out of 10 Afghan women surveyed last year believe the lives of women and girls, already disadvantaged, will deteriorate significantly once the foreigners leave.

by Tracy McVeigh Pre-dawn in Kabul. In each dark street a short line of giant lightbulbs switch on, red, green and white, marking bakeries where warm slabs of golden flatbread are handed through open shop-front windows to sleepy little boys in white tunics and to men with blankets around their shoulders, picking up their lunch for work.

"This is man's bread," says Hamil Fareed, a young baker. "Women's bread," he explains, is different, the dough kneaded at home by mothers and cooked at the back in the clay ovens and returned to the family.

The segregation of Kabul's daily bread is not a cultural tradition, but started under the Taleban in the 1990s. Faced with a half-starved city of war widows barred from working, studying or leaving their homes, someone began a clandestine communal fire pit where women could bake flatbread for their children and earn a few coins by selling them.

The United Nations, impotent in quelling the vicious war, encouraged more such schemes and, when Taleban soldiers seemed to tolerate figures in burqas creeping out to little backstreet bakeries, heralded it as a "step forward" in women's rights.

The international community said the fall of the Taleban in 2001 would bring in an era of rights. Women and girls would be returned to schools and workplaces and freed from the fierce restrictions on their lives.

It was a key political justification used by the British and Americans for their continued presence. Now, with the withdrawal of international forces and their caravan of international agencies, consultants and contractors coming up next year, there is evidence that Afghan women have seen very few of the promised changes and are terrified of the future.

The outside world has used Afghanistan as a pawn in its geopolitical "great games" since the 19th century and ensnared it in a labyrinth of strategic and economic interests.

Since 2001 it has received about £60 billion ($114.5 billion) of aid; there have been tangible improvements in education, maternal mortality, employment, and the representation of women in governance. There are signs that those gains are too fragile to survive the foreigners' departure.

A survey of women across Afghanistan by the charity ActionAid found that nine out of 10 feared the departure of the foreigners, believing their lives will significantly deteriorate. And violence against women has never been higher: 87 per cent of women report domestic abuse.

The return of 2.2 million girls to school after 2001 was considered the international community's great triumph, but in the past few years schools have been closing behind the departing backs of foreign forces. There have been reports of schoolgirls poisoned and beaten, teachers assassinated and classrooms firebombed.

Most girls don't stay on after fifth grade and nine out of 10 15-year-old girls are illiterate. The British and other forces have built dozens of rural schools which the Afghan Government cannot afford to keep open after next year, and the same is true of the health clinics. Of the 5.8 million without access to healthcare in Afghanistan, 4.4 million are women.

There is rhetoric. And there is reality. Last year Britain's international development committee found "little evidence" to back up British government claims of commitment to promoting the rights of Afghan women.

The Elimination of Violence Against Women Act was brought into law in 2009, but it is widely ignored by courts, religious leaders have declared it un-Islamic, and last year the US-backed Government of President Hamid Karzai upheld the right of a husband to beat his wife.

Half the female prison population are convicted of "moral crimes" - which include running away from violent husbands, fathers or in-laws. Federal law is ignored in the local courts, where nearly 90 per cent of all criminal and civil legal disputes are settled, and where girls are bartered to settle family disputes and a man who kills his wife can expect a fine.

In April 2011 the Afghan Government sought to reintroduce public morality laws, regulation was drafted to impose wedding codes to ensure that brides were modestly dressed, to ban music at weddings and to prevent male and female guests mixing. Shops were to be fined for selling inappropriate wedding clothes.

That caused consternation among owners of Kabul's kitsch wedding halls. But Afghan's wealthy are unlikely to be around much longer. The boom is over, the exodus has started, and property prices are dropping as houses empty of foreign agencies and wealthier Afghans.

Outside Kabul, in Balkh Province where the Taleban is gaining strength, signs of its influence are everywhere.

Few women in Mazar-i-Sharif travel without a burqa - last year the religious council of the Blue Mosque, one of the few places where women are able to socialise in public, banned women from its weekly meetings.

Next year will bring elections and a powerful network of conservative men; Taleban and warlords are edging into the gap the international community will leave.

The businesswoman

A large desk puts space between Zarghona Walizada and her visitors. Beneath her chair are two large stones, her second line of defence. "I keep them close to my hands," she says. Her office in a suburb of Kabul - where she runs her own freight firm - is no longer a safe place.

"They came in cars with windows blacked out," she says. "My assistant tried to lock the doors, but these men with scarves around their faces came up the stairs with guns and broke down the door. I sat here behind my desk and stayed calm. I offered them tea, but I had my stones ready.

"They threatened me and demanded why I was not at home ... I thought they might shoot me, but finally they left. They'll be back."

On the wall is a newspaper cutting, a report of a speech by a UN official citing Walizada as an example of how women are forging ahead in Afghanistan. But Walizada is the exception. "Women are encouraged by the US and the UN and the UK to make handicrafts, not to make business.

"The US army has contracts but gives them only to the corrupt politicians." A widow, she trusts only "my driver, my brother and my sister".

The doctor

Dr Qumar Frahmand, 40, is the head of a busy public clinic for women and children in Balkh Province. She sees 35 to 40 patients a day. "The situation has been getting better all the time because of the international NGOs coming in, and access to family planning, and vaccination for children has improved. But we still have a big problem with malnutrition because of poverty and ignorance.

"In the past 10 years, women have started to come out of their houses and see that having fewer children could mean a better life. Before, if a woman didn't have a boy she would keep having babies until she did.

"But will it all slip back? There is so much uncertainty, insecurity and rising unemployment, and the big thing I'm seeing is a rise in domestic violence. We worry where we will find the money to keep the clinic going when the troops leave, and I cannot think what will happen if these clinic doors have to close."

The MP

A mother of two teenage daughters, Fawzia Koofi, 36, has been MP for Badakhshan Province for seven years, and recently announced her intention to stand as a presidential candidate next year. Her husband died in a Taleban prison. Her father was killed by mujahaideen during the civil war. The seventh daughter, as a newborn she was left out in the sun to die before her parents relented.

If it hadn't been for the Taleban, Koofi would be a doctor now. "I was studying medicine when the Taleban came in 1996. That was my last day as a student. All of a sudden I was at home. You can see everything from your window, but you can't taste it, you can't touch it. I felt like a dead body." Today she fears for the security of women in the public eye. '

"The reality has not been what we were promised. There is lip service paid by the Afghan and US governments - gender projects created - but we can't access budgets.

"A few in this nation have come to the understanding that stopping girls' education halts a family's progress. I'm hopeful we will not go back to scratch. But I also know we will suffer - the main victims of the political games will be women and children."

But for women activists, "day by day it becomes more difficult. How many women really make their voices heard? ... There are 18 committees in our Parliament, and I'm the only woman chair."

The family

Medical student Maryam Farid, 20, lost her voice after being caught up in a bomb blast aged 6 and still has a speech impediment. Her father, a university professor, is liberal in allowing his seven daughters to be educated - their mother ran a girls' school in their tiny flat during the Taleban rule - but he has chosen her future specialisation, gynaecology, so she will only work among females.

"Is it what I want to do?" asks Farid. "Maybe not. But there is no choice, and I have accepted that."

Farid studies hard and looks tired. She shares a laptop with her sisters, but internet access is prohibitively expensive for most young Afghans and the computer is mostly used to play educational CDs.

"The boys my age are the worst - they think we should not be studying," she says. "When I go to classes, only half of my energy is spent on my studies because the other 50 per cent is spent in dealing with harassment from the male students."

Farid's mother, Shahla, is a former judge and teaches in the faculty of law and political science at Kabul University. She says that when the foreigners go, Afghan men will fight again. "Our Government doesn't think about women. If I had known this would happen I would have taken another path and not have been an activist. So I'm angry. I am afraid for my daughters, who might be kidnapped or punished for my advocacy work. I've a daughter who begs us every day to leave, but my husband will not. He says we must all love our country."

The engineer

Raihana Karimi is an engineer, like her husband. "But in this country it is shameful for a man to know a colleague's wife's name, so he could not have me working with him. He is happy now that I work among women." In 2008 she joined a programme that trained women as paralegals. Now she runs a safe house for women, directly funded by the US embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"It's usually girls escaping forced marriage or violence - if they run away they can be arrested and go straight to jail. I burned my burqa when the Taleban left; I don't want a new one. I beg the US and the UK, do not leave us. Please stay. We are very vulnerable, we are very afraid."

The teacher

A 28-year-old teacher in a boys' high school in Mazar-i-Sharif, Shekiba Azizi also has three children of her own. She feels uncertainty is allowing a creeping conservatism to dominate women's lives again in Afghanistan.

"Most of the other teachers now wear a burqa. But I hate it. I cannot see out and it's very claustrophobic. To walk to the bus stop I have to pass some warlords' houses, and they have armed guards who shout at me and harass me, so now I have to take a taxi to work, which is expensive.

"The international community has spent a lot of money in Afghanistan, they say, but I have seen no effect on poor people. Now that they are going, we have the right to know our own future. They have to be clear about what is going to happen to us." Observer

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