WOMEN AND THE FUTURE OF AFGHANISTAN

Nancy Catchpole, Member, on 15 February 2002.

At the outset the speaker affirmed that she is no expert on the topic, but that she wanted it discussed because various organisations with which she is involved are very concerned about the developing situation in Afghanistan. Since the Taleban take-over of 1996 such concerns have been brought to the attention of both our government and the UN. Now, progress may be possible.

Statistics of the Afghan population and its dispersal's appear indicative rather than accurate, mainly because lengthy warfare has radically affected monitoring possibilities. Nevertheless, some broad indicators are available. At the end of the 1970s one population estimate was 16 millions, but a more recent estimate was 24 millions. Of the total just under half are Pashtuns and the remainder comprise Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

After 1880 the country was ruled by a dynasty following its founder Amir Abdur Rohman, until its overthrow in 1973, when disputing warlords then created civic chaos.

However, after the mid-60s some modernisation had been achieved, offering votes for all, healthcare and education for some. There was a university in Kabul and educated women from wealthy families had professional careers. Prior to 1996 over 70% of teachers, 50% of civil servants and 40% of Kabul doctors were women. Yet little is known about rural areas then and it is likely that only 5% of Afghan women overall were literate, while mortality figures for infants and children were very high.

The Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979, after which about 6 million Afghanis fled. By 1992 between 1 and 2 millions had been killed. In that year Mujahedin guerrillas, supported by Americans, expelled the Russians, but the Taleban then took over, confining the guerrillas to a part of the north, as the Northern Alliance. Between 1992 and 1996 the civil war brought 40,000 civilian deaths and 1.2 millions displaced, while Iran hosted 1.4 million refugees and Pakistan took 1.2 millions.

Three-quarters of all refugees are women and children. A WHO report (1) of 1996 gave maternal mortality rates of 100 per 10,000 live births. The Jama Report (2) of 1998, based on a survey of women in Kabul and in Pakistan refugee camps, yielded infant mortality figures of 165 per 1000 and child mortality figures of 257 per 1000. Only 39% of the population then had access to clean drinking water and diarrhoea was endemic. Since then there have been years of drought.

From 1996 the Taleban restored order by imposing a strict puritanical regime, which forbade music, dancing and public games, for example. Women were the most affected in fact. Upon pain of beatings, imprisonment and even death, they were required to become publicly `invisible'. They could not be employed, receive education or health care initially. A slight relaxation eventually permitted a few women doctors to treat women only. Outside their homes women were compelled to wear `burquas', which covered face, hands and feet. Socks and shoes were not to be white and shoes must not make a noise. Male relatives had to accompany women outdoors. Windows of women's houses had to be obscured on the road side. These and other strictures resulted in a generation of uneducated women, who suffered ill-health (often tuberculosis), malnutrition, over-frequent pregnancies, forced marriages and prostitution, and mental problems.

A minority of educated women resisted in various ways. Some in exile set up schools in refugee camps - in Pakistan in particular. Others attempted to run private schools and offer counselling in secret. Some supported propaganda groups, such as the RAWA (3) groups set up initially by communists in 1977, and others worked outside Afghanistan to bring the plight of its women to the notice of the world.

The speaker then considered what might be done to restore rights to Afghan women. She noted that two women delegates had attended the recent Bonn conference, which set up an interim government. That includes two women ministers - for Public Health and Women's Affairs. In December 2001 exiles from around the world met, to adopt the `Brussels Proclamation', which lists demands for women's rights in Afghanistan. Those demands relate to votes, pay, employment, health, education, legal participation and protection, etc. The Proclamation insists that allocations of international funds must be conditional upon the participation of women in that process. Activists in Britain have founded the `U.K. Link with Afghan Women', which proposes that such funds are channelled through women's non-governmental organisations and in consultation with local women.

There are some encouraging developments. Schools are re-opening. The UN Secretary-General has selected women who are to be invited to join the `Loya Jirga' which is to meet shortly to draw up a new Constitution and create a new government.

Much will now depend on the transition period between interim and established government. Women are still fearful of shedding burquas and the return of traditional oppression and there is a danger of more warlord activities. There are 10 million landmines still active in the country and between 50,000 and 60,000 widows in Kabul alone. Economic recovery will take decades, as will provision of basic state services. An American commentator has suggested that the new central government should be a `national mediation committee' essentially, primarily to represent and mediate between local interests, which are still likely to dominate public affairs. In effect he suggests a medieval solution for a medieval situation. Whatever structures emerge, the speaker concluded that women must be allowed both to contribute and to benefit from an internationally supported period of reconstruction.

In discussion, the speaker agreed that entrenched practices and attitudes may be restrictive, but they can be accommodated. A Moslem participant pointed out that Islam actually requires education for both sexes and that its founder's wife was herself a worker - the Taleban regime was not representative of Islam. He argued that interference by foreign powers for their own purposes was a prime cause of Afghan distress and that short-term policy by the US is detrimental. The speaker noted that some `early-day motions' and some ministerial activity in the U.K. had accompanied representations in the European Parliament and Commission on the issues discussed. Outcomes are uncertain. The strategic situation of Afghanistan made it prey to outside interests, but its recovery and the future of its women will greatly depend upon the internal arrangements that will emerge.

Nancy Catchpole

(1) World Health Organisation

(2) Journal of the American Medical Association

(3) Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan