Letter from the Road #47

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Afghanistan: It really is about the Women! (1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the necessity of protecting  Afghan women’s rights in creating a sustainable peace. I discuss what is involved in that process and what can be done to help.  This analysis is based on scores of interviews from two trips I have taken to Kabul  and on-going communication with women’s organizations in Afghanistan.


The realities of every day life for many women in Afghanistan are similar to women living in poor nations in areas of conflict throughout the world.  In other words it is terrible.

According to Maniza, former director of Women for Afghan Women who runs a shelter for runaway girls, when a boy child is sick in Afghanistan parents will walk a long distance to get him medical treatment if  it is available. But if a girl gets sick the parents may say  to themselves “well, lets see how she is tomorrow”.  If there is little food, it will go to the boys in the family. The result is that many infant girls die unnecessarily every year.

High levels of maternal mortality is another common and unnecessary killer of women of Afghanistan.  Afghanistan has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world.  This is caused by a combination of young marriages, malnutrition, infections, home births, few midwifes, many pregnancies, and medical clinics too far away for most villagers.

For girls who survive childhood there are still the routine beatings at home, the fear of honor killings, forced early marriages, and the Pashtun custom of trading daughters , like slaves, to other families in reparation for a crime. The last 30 years of war have added an extra burden on women as they must cope with the premature deaths of husbands, sons and brothers, with many new widows  and orphans ending up on the streets of Kabul.

Dr. Soraya Perlika is the Director of the All Afghan Women’s Union and she is called the mother of the contemporary women’s movement in Afghanistan. She has been imprisoned and tortured for protesting the lack of equality for women. In 1979 at an international conference in Kabul which endorsed women’s rights, she was violently attacked and spent the next 6 months in hospital.  Despite continuing threats from the both Mujahadeen war lords and the Taliban over the past 3 decades she has continued unceasingly in her struggle  for the freedom and empowerment of girls and women.

In a recent meeting with her in Kabul she said told me, “ It is likely that more girls and women  have died from neglect or abuse in Afghanistan, precisely because they are females, than civilians have been killed in the wars of the last 30 years.”

This news can be disheartening and has caused many Westerners to feel hopeless about what can realistically happen for women.  This sense of defeat has spread into the Western peace movement which, in encouraging a rapid pullout of US and NATO troops, treats the women of Afghanistan as collateral damage. What goes unacknowledged is the violence to women and girls, and to Afghan society, that such a rapid pullout would cause.

But the women of Afghanistan are by no means defeated. There is much reason for hope. Despite the obstacles of culture and the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan are doing an extraordinary job of improving the situation of millions of girls and women.

Organizations like Bpeace are helping women become business entrepreneurs, at the other end of the spectrum organizations like Women of Hope are working with  poor village women to earn extra money through embroidery and sewing.  The women gain community respect and over time some have started their own sewing co-ops. The only requirement for the participants?  They can’t marry off their daughter before she is 16! This organization alone  has 1300 village women enrolled and active.

The Afghan Women’s Union is one of a number of organizations that is sending trainers into villages In the North and West of the country to teach about the problems of family violence.  They report that both men and women are surprised to learn that women should not be beaten.  The Asia Foundation and the NOOR Educational Center are educating Imams and Islamic leaders about positive texts about women’s rights in the Koran.  Millions of girls are in school and now 28% of graduate students in Kabul University are women.  In 2005 there were none!

This is the progress the Taliban are determined to stop.  They consistently threaten female students, teachers, doctors and organizers.  Their stated precondition for peace negotiations is that women’s equal rights be removed from the constitution.  This must not happen.

“ Women’s rights are human rights”, Hillary Clinton declared at the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women in 1995. There has never been a greater need to remember these words.  While it is hard to disagree with the generals and politicians who say that a military victory is not possible and a political solution must be found, are the women of Afghanistan going to be asked to pay for this political settlement with their human rights?

In the following weeks I will be exploring what is happening and what can be done to help the women of Afghanistan.

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