- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

In this precarious time of rebuilding and ongoing upheaval in Afghanistan, women bear the greatest burden. Although U.S. and other foreign aid pours into the country, little is earmarked for women struggling to eke out a survival and raise their children in the poorest and most remote regions. Driven deeper and deeper into poverty, with virtually no opportunities to support themselves, Afghan women are perhaps economically worse off now than they were during the Taliban’s repressive rule.

Mainstream news reports have primarily focused on the Karzai governmental activities and the success of the recent parliamentary elections, but have largely ignored realities on the ground. Afghan nationals and leaders of NGOs describe a rapidly deteriorating situation in which Afghan goodwill toward the United States, so pronounced after the United States first entered the country, has been replaced by bitterness and anger.

President Bush, who even last year was affectionately called “Uncle Bush,” no longer enjoys a familial epithet. Today, the Afghan people are angry that money flowing into the coffers of some large NGOs in Afghanistan isn’t finding its way into the hands of those who need it most. They are angry, too, that almost four years after the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban, access to basic services in many areas outside Kabul still does not exist. Some rural Afghan communities, and especially the women living in them, feel forgotten — rightly so.

Food grown and products manufacturedwithin Afghanistan are being shut out of Afghan marketplaces by Pakistani merchandise, compounding feelings of frustration and stymieing the local economy. Farmers who cannot earn a living have elected to join the Taliban because they see it as an alternative to starvation. Farmers make up nearly three-quarters of the country’s population. Half live in extreme poverty. With this large stream of new rural recruits, the Taliban has regained strength.

The United States has made its commitment to Afghanistan’s renewal clear through billions of dollars of investment or aid, but its approach does not take into account that as a post-conflict nation, Afghanistan needs many micro-enterprise initiatives throughout the country to get it back on its feet. Since the ousting of the Taliban, many public-works projects have been completed, yet there are millions of people in the countryside who still lack electricity, running water or any prospect of employment. An alarming 70 percent of all Afghan people are living on less than $2 a day.

It isn’t too late to salvage the increasingly bleak situation in Afghanistan, but it likely will be soon.

The United States would be best served spending its aid dollars on the backbone of Afghan society: women. The government should set up a wide range of micro-enterprises, specifically ones designed to improve the lives of women. Projects could include small cottage industries, like bakeries, rooftop hothouses or textile shops. Participants would receive training, support from established NGOs on the ground, and small-business grants or loans.

Sufficient money must be allocated directly to such endeavors if they are to succeed. Just throwing money at the problem will not enough to solve it. Training Afghan women is just as crucial to make micro-enterprise initiatives fruitful. Then, once these initial enterprises are off the ground, the women who run them can in turn train the next batch of Afghan entrepreneurs.

In addition to money and professional training, both Afghan women and men would benefit from women’s full participation in civil society to achieve a successful democracy. Women and girls must have equal access to education and health care to have a chance to claim an active role in democracy. Afghan women living in the country’s most isolated regions face a higher risk of dying during childbirth than women in any other place on earth. Without receiving basic medical services as well as schooling, these women can’t expect to live past their 40s, let alone thrive in a rebuilding society.

Although it’s hard to envision women enjoying full rights in Afghanistan — they possessed none from 1996 until 2001, after all — the United States must hold fast to that vision and continue to aggressively pursue equality in partnership with the Afghan government. Leaving women behind in the reconstruction process will hold the whole country back. Instead, we need to recognize women for the vital roles they play within society, and provide them with the resources they need to be contributing citizens.

To truly transform Afghanistan into the thriving democracy the United States wants it to be, it must take robust relief efforts straight to women, who encompass the heart of Afghan life. If women’s urgent needs and rights are forgotten in the fray, Afghanistan will stagnate. It is in everyone’s best interest to prevent that from happening.

Kathryn Cameron Porter is president of the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

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