- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Afghan women have much to celebrate on International Women’s Day. Yet their precarious situation still warrants international attention and support. Although Afghan women have now regained most of the freedoms that they lost under the Taliban’s gender apartheid, they still constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan. Worsening security and violence threaten the freedoms Afghan women have fought for over the past seven years. The Taliban have been able to regroup and expand their presence in the countryside where women are prime victims of attacks against soft targets. Taliban fighters have killed female teachers and burned down hundreds of schools, depriving more than 300,000 girls of education in the south and east of Afghanistan.

Insecurity in Afghanistan is also due to a lack of international financial assistance, a problem that has resulted in weak state institutions. For example, of the overall $35 billion in international pledged assistance, $14.5 billion has been actually disbursed—out of which only $4.2 billion has been channeled through the Afghan government with the rest delivered via donor-related NGOs and private contractors. Therefore, without capacity and resources, most of Afghanistan’s state institutions — including those focused on women — are unable to enforce the adopted legal framework, provide basic public services and generate employment for the people.

The justice sector, for instance, remains severely under-reformed and lacks capacity to provide legal protection for women under Afghanistan’s progressive laws. In Afghanistan, a country of roughly 25 million people where more than half of citizens are women and children, there are only 60 female judges, 35 female prosecutors, 70 female attorneys, and no female defense attorneys. Less than half of these women hold a four-year degree, which may not be in a legal field. And those women who do show up to work lack a physical office with proper equipment. In the Western province of Herat, for example, female attorneys take great personal risk to work out of grocery stores to help provide legal protection and services to women.

The challenge facing Afghan women is further compounded by elements of Afghan culture that preserve conservative male domination. Although women’s equal human rights are guaranteed under the Afghan constitution, it will take generations for a fundamental change in Afghan societal norms and perceptions. In the battle for women’s rights, education will be our most effective weapon.

Women are the pillars of communities and cultures across the globe, and Afghanistan is no exception. No nation has ever rebuilt or fully developed without the participation of women. Afghan women have made notable progress since the end of the Taliban’s unforgiving gender apartheid seven years ago. But their painful gains could easily be lost unless the international community doubles and effectively coordinates their efforts to improve security and governance across Afghanistan in three key ways.

First, the international community must help extend the reach of the Afghan government beyond provincial centers by providing its local-level governance and security institutions with capacity and the necessary resources to protect people against criminality and terrorism. Second, NATO member states participating in the International Security Assistance Force must bolster their troop levels by additional forces, while expanding their limited mandate to include effective counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. Finally, security will be unlikely to improve in Afghanistan unless the command and control of the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership and their terrorist operational infrastructure in Pakistan are completely dismantled.

With the Afghan people firmly on the side of the international community and their forces, victory against a desperate enemy — who has not been able to articulate anything resembling a national vision in seven years — is only a matter of strong international unity, resolve, and recommitment. It is only in the enabling environment of security, rule of law, and prosperity that the hopes and dreams of Afghan women can grow.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.

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