- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

Women in Afghanistan and Iraq need more support from the U.S. government to win social and democratic rights, activists said last week.

“What we have is a failed opportunity,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

The situation can be resolved if the United States invests much more, she told a Washington conference on the status of women in Iraq and Afghanistan organized by global women’s rights organizations.

Despite international efforts to promote the rights of Iraqi and Afghan women, the female populations of the two countries still face suppression and mistreatment, speakers at last Tuesday’s conference said.

Sexual violence, maternal and infant mortality and pregnancy-related illness have been increasing in Iraq since March 2003, and one in eight Iraqi children dies before age 5, the women’s organizations said in a report.

The health systems in Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated. In 1990, Iraq had 1,800 primary health care centers. A decade later, it had 929. In Afghanistan, half of all deaths among females ages 15 to 19 are related to pregnancy and childbirth, the report said.

Women’s activists are demanding more money for the health care systems in Afghanistan and Iraq. They said the Bush administration promised nearly $800 million to the Iraqi Ministry of Health this year, but of the $18.4 billion in aid to Iraq allocated by Congress last fall, $474 million went toward health care.

Ms. Smeal also said the United States needs to send more troops to secure Afghanistan. The 20,000 troops now in Afghanistan are trying to secure peace among a population of 25 million.

In Afghanistan, there is “sizable sex trafficking,” an ongoing intimidation by Taliban militia and restrictions on women in public life, she said. Only 35 percent of the registered voters for the Afghan elections scheduled for September are women. In rural areas, the rates are even lower.

“Many women are not allowed to leave their home,” said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Although the electoral staff makes the effort to register Afghan women by visiting them in their homes, it remains doubtful whether they will be able to make it to the polls. Ms. Zeitlin said there was a chance “that the husbands will vote for them.”

Last week, a bomb attack on a bus carrying female election workers killed two women in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. “The reactionary forces want to keep women at home,” Ms. Zeitlin said.

In Iraq, women remain a minority in political decision making, the activists said. “There is no woman in the top five governmental positions and only six in the new government,” Ms. Zeitlin said.

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