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Advocacy Groups Say Afghan Women Need Education, Security  - 2004-09-24


In Afghanistan next month, women will be able to vote in presidential elections for the first time, illustrating the new rights and freedoms women have gained since the hard-line Taleban were ousted three years ago. But a coalition of human rights and women's groups says more needs to be done, particularly regarding education and security, before Afghanistan's women can achieve full emancipation and equal rights.

An organization of more than 40 advocacy groups, called the Women's Edge Coalition, says the international perception of how Afghan women's lives have changed, may be overly optimistic. Executive Director Ritu Sharma says progress is not coming fast enough. "And while we have seen some gains, particularly in the capital, Kabul, Afghan women are really not doing as well as many want to believe."

Ms. Sharma says lack of funding for education and security initiatives prevent women from making real strides. She cites a human right's group report that shows enrollment in Afghan schools is the highest it's ever been, with about half the children between the ages of seven and 13 attending classes. Yet, the same report says, in some Afghan provinces, only one percent of girls are in school.

Ms. Sharma says her group has received reports of intimidation and violence against women, which prevent them from going to work or school, or carrying on with their daily lives.

Director of the Policy Council on Afghan Women, Malaly Volpi, says the lack of education and security puts women at a disadvantage when it comes time to vote. Ms. Volpi says candidates do not campaign in unsafe regions, so many women do not know the candidates' positions. She also says rampant illiteracy prevents women from educating themselves about the issues, leading them to rely on men for direction.

"The ballots will have pictures and signs of the candidates, but how will they know who is who," she asked. "What's going to end up is, basically, they are either going to vote for (interim) President (Hamid) Karzai, because they're going recognize his picture, or they're just going to vote for whoever their husband or the militia leader tells them."

Although women account for more than 40 percent of registered voters, the figure may be misleading. The U.S. State Department says cultural customs may keep women away from the polls.

A recent study by the Asia Foundation shows the vast majority of Afghans interviewed (87 percent) said married women would need their husbands' permission to vote. And about one-third of women said they are not sure if their husbands or male elders would give them such permission.

Three out of four Afghans polled said men should advise women about their voting choices.

Amnesty International is a member of the Women's Edge Coalition. The organization's advocacy director for Asia and Pacific, Mr. T. Kumar, says women's expectations for a post-Taleban Afghanistan have not been realized. "After the fall of the Taleban, we all expected, more than us, the women of Afghanistan dreamt, that they will at last rise up and gain the rights that's deserved to them," he says. "After three years, our research shows that they are still dreaming, and it may be a pipe dream, until the international community takes a firm stand."

Coalition director Sharma criticized the United States for not doing more to fund security and programs that support women. She is calling for additional funding for women's programs, saying women can only make real progress if fundamental security and education issues are addressed.

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