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Visiting the Women of Afghanistan

Has the welfare of women in Afghanistan improved substantially in the five years since the fall of the Taliban?

November 24, 2006

Has the welfare of women in Afghanistan improved substantially in the five years since the fall of the Taliban?

Kabul. Even though the sound of a suicide bomber exploding on the road to the airport has just reverberated through her office, Mazari Shafa — the Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs — is unshaken.

She ticks off the top issues for women in Afghanistan without missing a beat. But progress on all of them is contingent on improving the security situation — something she is near powerless to influence.

Women's economic problems top her list. She acknowledges that the Afghan economy is in better shape now than in wartime, but there are more than two million widows in the country (about 8% of the population) who have no income and no one to support them.

Women also suffer from little or nonexistent health care, especially in rural areas where there are few medical facilities. The situation is compounded by the fact that women may not be examined by male medics.

Mazari rattles off more statistics: Maternal mortality figures are among the worst in the world. Every thirty minutes, an Afghan woman loses her life in childbirth. Women are diagnosed with 70% of tuberculosis cases.

Moreover, violence against women is difficult to discuss in this conservative society. The deputy minister shows heart-rending photos of women who have set themselves on fire as a way out of violent marriages — or who were burned by angry husbands who then claimed the women did it themselves.

Another priority is education. Women have been left behind by the educational system — 95% are undereducated and confront huge obstacles in finding work or participating in society. The hope that a whole new generation of girls would be educated after the fall of the Taliban hasn't quite panned out.

There aren't enough schools or teachers to go around, and secondary education is unheard of. Female teachers are in especially short supply, but you can't have female teachers unless you send them to school as girls — a classic chicken-and-egg problem.

Mindful of these daunting challenges, I visit the Bazaar-e-Zanana, a shopping area for women-run businesses and their female customers. In a seamstress shop, Seema is a widow who has been given an apprenticeship and now has a way to earn an income.

Further along there is a clothing store opened by two sisters who used to work for meager wages in a Pakistan factory and now support their entire family. Nasreen, the apprentice at the beauty shop, has a face disfigured by a rocket attack, but one hardly notices because the atmosphere in the shop is busy and friendly.

Programs like the Bazaar-e-Zanana — ones that teach women skills and put them to work — exist in other cities too, but it is not clear how long they can continue to be funded.

There was a warm, festive atmosphere at the Bazaar, which I visited during Ramadan. Everyone was looking forward to Eid celebrations marking the end of the fast. Even in the holiday season, though, security is on everyone's mind.

While rocket attacks have become rare, improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) are on the rise in Kabul and other cities. Throughout the south, there are regular attacks against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bases and between ISAF forces and insurgents.

Afghanistan has not (yet) slid back into full scale war, but security experts tell me the signs are ominous. The challenges expressed by Deputy Minister Shafa are fully understood by the ISAF commanders, who know that their exit strategy depends on economic development in the country.

They not only want peace, they also want prosperity as a way to consolidate the peace. They immerse themselves in meetings with UN officials, Afghan ministries and foreign embassies. They conclude that development in Afghanistan will be a long-term effort and hope the international community will stay committed long enough to follow through with the plans.

At the end of September, the Director of the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar, Safia Ama Jan, was shot to death in front of her home. Significant threats have been made to all the provincial offices of Women's Affairs.

A planned visit of a delegation of prominent women sponsored by the U.S. State Department was scuttled during my trip because of security concerns.

Such is life in Afghanistan — the women's experts have become targets, the military generals are becoming aid workers (not their core mission), and no one expects peace or quiet for some time yet.