Women's lives worse than ever
By Terri Judd
Girls as young as six are being married
into a life of slavery and rape, often by multiple members of
their new relatives. Banned from seeing their own parents or siblings,
they are also prohibited from going to school. With little recognition
of the illegality of the situation or any effective recourse,
many of the victims are driven to self-immolation - burning themselves
to death - or severe self-harm.
Six years after the US and Britain "freed"
Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime, a new report
proves that life is just as bad for most, and worse in some cases.
Projects started in the optimistic days
of 2002 have begun to wane as the UK and its Nato allies fail
to treat women's rights as a priority, workers in the country
The statistics in the report from Womankind,
Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, make shocking reading.
Violent attacks against females, usually domestic, are at epidemic
proportions with 87 per cent of females complaining of such abuse
- half of it sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced.
Despite a new law banning the practice,
57 per cent of brides are under the age of 16. The illiteracy
rate among women is 88 per cent with just 5 per cent of girls
attending secondary school.
Maternal mortality rates - one in nine
women dies in childbirth - are the highest in the world alongside
Sierra Leone. And 30 years of conflict have left more than one
million widows with no enforceable rights, left to beg on the
streets alongside an increasing number of orphans. Afghanistan
is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among
women than men.
Campaigners say these are nationwide figures
but in war-torn provinces, such as Helmand, the British area of
responsibility, oppression is often worse, though the dangers
make it impossible for them to monitor it accurately.
The banned practice of offering money
for a girl is still rampant - along with exchanging her as restitution
for crime, debt or dispute. With the going price for a child bride
at £800 to £2,000 - as much as three years salary
for a labourer - many grooms are forced to take loans or swap
their sisters instead, explained Partawmina Hashemee, the director
of the Afghan Women Resource Centre.
Mrs Hashemee, who has fought for the rights
of her fellow Afghan women, initially for refugees in Pakistan,
for almost 20 years, said: "For me the issue that breaks
my heart is the forced marriages because of poverty - even girls
as young as eight. They don't get to go to school or to go out.
They are told 'you are not allowed to visit your family, we paid,
now you have to work'."
In 2007 a law was passed banning marriage
under 16, but Mrs Hashemee said: "The majority of people
are not even aware of it. Early age marriages are increasing."
The vast majority of international aid
goes directly to the Afghan government rather than non-governmental
organisations. Activists are calling on the British to ring-fence
some of the funding for human rights issues - such as gender-based
projects - and to ensure the money reaches appropriate beneficiaries.
Mrs Hashemee said, in Kabul at least,
there had been greater recognition of women's rights over the
past seven years as well as major civil and political gains since
the fall of the Taliban. But it remains a dangerous environment
and female MPs, activists and journalists still live under constant
threat of death.
Womankind is calling for the implementation
of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which says women in conflict
zones should be offered protection and recognition of their role
in the peace process as well as their human rights. Across Afghanistan
women's organisations, such as Mrs Hashemee's, are now turning
their attention from providing basic needs to empowering females,
teaching them their rights and urging them to vote.
Often illiterate women are instructed
on how Islam views women as equal. Training is offered to young
men in why sexual abuse is wrong. Communities are being "mobilised"
to fight for and monitor women's rights - encouraging mullahs
to promote the equality that the Koran teaches.
But there are no women's rights associations
in Helmand. The closest is one courageous group working in another
southern province, Kandahar. Yet Mrs Hashemee is positive. She
said: "I don't want to be disappointed. We will struggle
on and hopefully the government and international community will
In a report this month the chairman of
the International Development Committee, Malcolm Bruce MP, said:
"There is a dangerous tendency to accept in Afghanistan practices
which would not be countenanced elsewhere, because of 'cultural'
differences and local traditions.
"We believe that the rights of women
should be upheld equally in all countries. The government of Afghanistan
has a vital role to play in this by ensuring that the international
human rights commitments which it has made are fully honoured
and given greater priority."
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