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FEATURE | September 2003

Afghanistan Update
US policy is shortchanging Afghan women

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One and a half years after the defeat of the Taliban, Afghanistan still lies largely in ruins. Areas beyond the capital are unsafe, and the country's roads and countryside are controlled by warlords. Many women-- some fearful for their safety-- still wear the burqa, the all encompassing shroud that became an international symbol of the Taliban's repression of women. Poverty is widespread, and anger at Afghanistan's U.S. liberators is on the rise.

"Where is the security and reconstruction they boasted about?" asks Sediq Afghan, the organizer of a May demonstration that drew 300 people to the streets of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, to protest mounting security issues and the glacial pace of reconstruction.

The answer is quite simple: lack of international funding. Afghanistan has received perhaps half of the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors, and even that is just under a quarter of the $20 billion that Afghan president Hamid Karzai says he needs to rebuild his country. Although President George W. Bush has compared U.S. support of Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan-- a massive infusion of aid to Europe after World War II-- low levels of U.S. funding to Afghanistan fall short of the mark. The Bush administration ,even failed to include Afghan funding in its 2003 budget, which Congress remedied by pledging $300 million.

Afghan women
Photo by AFP

The funding and security crises have been devastating, particularly for Afghan women. The 5,000 international peacekeeping forces inside Kabul have made it an oasis of relative calm, but areas outside the capital are in the hands of the 200,000 armed men controlled by former warlords-- some of whom issue decrees that rival those of the Taliban for brutality against women. Herat province's Ismail Khan, for example, has assembled crews of teenage boys to report womn's "un-Islamic" behavior. In the northeast, women have been forced into marriage. Throughout the country, "chastity tests" and arrests for the "moral crimes" of adultery or eloping still persist. Hard-line vigilantes have threatened women seeking work out side of the home; in addition, the bombed or set fire to more than dozen girls' schools last fall.

The poor conditions of women a likely to continue as long as peace keeping troops remain confined to Kabul. The national army is in no condition to help: Only 4,000 of the proposed 70,000 Afghan troops have been trained. The new U.S. strategy to develop seven "provincial reconstruction teams" to handle security and reconstruction issues is woefully inadequate-- the three teams currently in place are composed of only 60 to 100 U.S. military and civilian personnel.

"We say we're fighting for democracy, for restoring the country and restoring the rights of women," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms. magazine and which has led campaigns in support of Afghan women since 1997. "But we haven't provided adequate funding or peace keeping troops, or provided the government with the support to run the country-- it's undermining the very government we wanted to set up. You could say we're losing the peace."

Following criticism from women's rights, human-rights and humanitarian groups, and from Congress, the Bush administration has begun to consider making one billion more dollars available for Afghanistan's reconstruction.

Reconstruction efforts are plagued with more problems. Most of the money goes to international nongovernmental organizations and Western contractors, not to the Afghan government and local nonprofits. The funding disparity causes problems because the international groups can pay skyrocketing rents and generous salaries, unlike government and local groups.

"The world cannot expect Afghanistan to be rebuilt or stability to be sustained in this region of the world without substantial resources," said Sima Samar, M.D., chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and former Minister of Women's Affairs, when she received the Perdita Huston Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C., this past June. "The Afghan govern-, ment needs financial resources to demonstrate that peace creates change in the conditions of people's lives."

Major tests lie ahead. In 2004, Afghanistan plans to hold elections, but before that-- sometime this Fall-- Afghanistan's Constitutional Commission will release a draft of a new constitution. It may include women's rights protections, but that's not guaranteed. And as long as violence rules Afghanistan, women will find it difficult to participate meaningfully in the electoral process.

"[The United States] cannot do a haphazard job in Afghanistan," says Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development and an Afghan American feminist. "If we don't root out problems for the Afghan nation, they will come back to haunt us."