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Afghan women fight for future

by Razeshta Sethna, 9 July 2012

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Dawn, 9 July 2012

AT Kabul University, female students mingle with male colleagues near beige-shaded faculty blocks; the perfume of roses wafting through the air. They take pride in their education, not wanting to live under a brutal Taliban regime yet again.

But, although the Afghan constitution maintains equality for both men and women, it appears that women’s short-lived gains are sliding back. With women jailed for running away from forced marriages, pressured to compromise by religious leaders, with no recourse to legal protection, it appears that women’s voices are being muffled.

If women’s concerns are ignored at international conferences where billions of dollars are pledged for security and their rights unrepresented at discussions with Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, will women become collateral damage in post-war talks with the Taliban?

As Nato forces prepare to hand over security to Afghans, a rising insurgency has destabilised a fragmented government preparing for a 2014 election. It is in this powerful, patriarchal space dominated by politicians — former warlords, communist leaders and the Taliban — with blanket amnesty from war crimes that women parliamentarians push their agendas and make alliances.

The Single Transferable Vote System favouring factionalism, party fragmentation and individualism does not support female candidates. An independent candidate within this system requires resources and support networks for a successful campaign, something women lack.

Forming a consistent voting bloc with loyalties is difficult but necessary for legislative policymaking. Making alliances with conservative male parliamentarians is pragmatic for mobilising votes on women’s political issues and decreasing gender-based discrimination. In a highly polarised parliament, outwardly adversarial towards women’s rights, female parliamentarians have united to lobby for gender units in key ministries.

“It’s important to have women within parliament because they raise certain issues that men may not be able to, like the gender budget, one of the policies based on the Afghan National Development Strategy. It took 10 years to plan for women’s advocacy, empowerment and education. In such an underdeveloped country, it was difficult to convince the government, but after four years we succeeded,” parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai explained.

Out of the 249 seats, 68 are guaranteed for women in the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of parliament) Security conditions prevent women parliamentarians from travelling to lobby their constituents. Most received votes based on their support for girls’ education — often without financial resources and with opposition from warlords and religious leaders.

A former parliamentarian from Farah province, Malalai Joya wears a burka to disguise her identity having survived six assassination attempts. She lives in a series of safe-houses knowing the Taliban want to kill her.

Thrown out of parliament in 2005 after comparing it to a stable of warlords and drug barons, Joya said: “I am ready to die but I won’t compromise with them. Hundreds of women and children have been killed by the Taliban and now they invite them to talk. We don’t even have a caricature of democracy.”

Joya is outspoken but like other women parliamentarians has been offered no government protection after raising controversial issues. “I don’t value this mafia parliament of lawbreakers; warlords responsible for our country’s situation. They are the most anti-women people in this society who brought our country to this state. They intend to do the same again. I have said that parliament is worse than a zoo for which I was suspended. Some even threatened to rape me.”

As the country’s former chairwoman of the defence committee, Barakzai won her seat from Kabul province; over 100 women candidates registered. “Even my husband, whom I supported, was a candidate from Kabul running an election campaign worth thousands of dollars, but he lost. I worked on my street campaign, not expecting to win. It’s your support that gets you the vote and not your money,” said the former journalist and underground teacher who organised girls’ schools during Taliban rule.

Even with 35 per cent of women politicians in the Lower House; a law on ending violence against women; and 2.4 million girls back in school, progress for women remains precarious.

According to the Gender Development Index, Afghan women have some of the lowest indicators in the world. The average life expectancy for a woman is 44 years, and in rural provinces between 30 to 90 per cent have no access to healthcare.

The Taliban have attacked schools in the conservative south and east, and are alleged to have poisoned children. In May, the Afghan Ministry of Education said that 550 schools in 11 provinces with Taliban support were closed down.

Saima Azizi Sadat elected twice from Parwan province as an “education campaigner”, survived an assassination attempt in 2007. As director of education in a province, with more than 200 schools, that is “40 per cent Taliban and where girls’ education was hardly a priority”, Sadat has opponents.

“We don’t support the Taliban coming back with their old policies even if they join the government. They will need to follow the constitution. But they might negotiate peace and then go back to their old ways.” Sadat has had to make compromises with the Taliban. In 1999, she was struck unconscious by the Taliban when running French-assisted secret schools for more than 600 girls.

For Afghan women, peace is a process and should not be a deal. According to Barakzai, “We need women to give legitimacy to the government. Nations find their own way. We need to build procedure, and elections are the only way for women to participate. No matter who the next president is, good or bad … we need to continue the democratic process. The Taliban will never come back as a regime. No way. No chance.”

The writer Razeshta Sethna is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.

P.S.

The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.