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Aid Helping Women Find Their Place in Afghan Society

(Washington, DC--November 3, 2005) With help from the international community, Afghans are only beginning to apply the values enshrined in their new constitution to everyday life, according to ministers of the Afghan government. Afghanistan's Minister of Women's Affairs Dr. Masuda Jalal and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Abdullah Abdullah told a recent RFE/RL audience that international aid programs are making a difference to the status of women in their country.

Jalal noted the "international community has led the way" in rebuilding Afghanistan's society, which was "broken down" by years of foreign occupation and civil war. The participation of women in the Loya Jirga and in the drafting of the new constitution was very important, Jalal said, and affirmative action programs are helping to eliminate "negative attitudes" towards women. Jalal said that over 500 women now own businesses in Afghanistan, and "hundreds of NGOs" are led by Afghan women. In the recent parliamentary elections, Jalal said, 40 percent of the registered voters and 560 candidates for parliament were women; many of the female candidates were elected to seats directly, irregardless of the 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for women.

At the same time, Jalal noted that Afghan society is burdened by tremendous challenges. Even though "hundreds of thousands of girls are back in school," Jalal said, "60 percent of girls aged 7-13 aren't in school, because of a lack of schools and teachers." The maternal death rate in Afghanistan is "very high," Jalal said, "and 80 percent of these are preventable cases, and 17 percent of Afghans live in extreme poverty, most of whom are women." Jalal is also concerned about the high level of violence against women in Afghanistan, which finds expression in "forced marriages, domestic violence, exchanged marriages, and cases of self-immolation," as well as the "serious problem" of a lack of enforcement of inheritance rights for women.

"With the help of the international community," Jalal said, "17 of Afghanistan's provinces are about to open Women's Resource Centers, where women will be able to develop skills and receive training" Jalal expressed her hope that further assistance would be given "to build these centers in the other 17 provinces of Afghanistan in the near future." The centers will help to fulfill a pledge in the Bonn Agreement, Jalal said, that women must "participate equally in the political, social and economic life of the country."

Abdullah, who, as foreign minister, serves as a co-chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, a bi-national council created by President George Bush and President Hamid Karzai to ensure that women in Afghanistan gain the skills and education to participate in all sectors of society, said that "no country can develop without half of its population lacking political rights." According to Minister Abdullah -- who was in Washington with Minister Jalal to attend the seventh meeting of the council on October 17-18 -- "the idea of the council is to help women through official channels." With both prominent American and Afghan women on the council, he said, it has already launched projects to market handicrafts in the U.S. and worldwide made by Afghan women, designed maternal health programs for clinics in the provinces, and focused on "building capacity at the women's ministry."